I’m close to finishing ‘How to be well-read: a guide to 500 great novels and a handful of literary curiosities‘ by John Sutherland. It’s a book I bought on a whim after a recommendation from blogger/economist Tyler Cowen. It’s full of useful bite-sized articles on novels I’m sure I’ll never get around to reading (how many of us read more than 500 novels in an entire life-time?).
What I’ve found most useful is getting an overview of the literary canon (or at least Sutherland’s sometimes curious vision of it). What are the ingredients and ideas behind good literature? Following the general trends – adultery, murder, suicide, war, alcoholism and abuse are common themes. Happy marriages either don’t exist for writers or they don’t make good material. At several times I’ve thought: how come I and apparently many of my friends are in extremely happy marriages when for novelists fictional marriages always fail? Writers frequently have lives that follow many of these themes, and it’s clear that many fiction writers are simply transforming their own non-fictional experiences (which also explains why writers frequently write about writers). Many of the best literary works seem to have faced a rough ride getting into print, or never to have been applauded in their day. Many writers die penniless – and even unpublished – in their own life time.
So if you want to be a writer and have a boringly happy life, you might struggle. And even if you write the best novel in the world, there’s a good chance publishers will turn their noses up at it, and even if you publish a masterpiece, you may be long gone by the time your genius is recognised.