Writers, especially we who write fiction, not only do it in private but when the book is published—even if it turns out well, and even if it's well received—it's not apparent from the finished product that we actually know how to do anything. Well, we can tell stories, but everybody tells stories. Everybody's grandmother tells stories. I was recently approached by a friend of a friend who told me he had a great story, and wondered if I'd like to work with him on it—he'd provide the plot and I'd do what he called the "fancy stuff," by which he meant characters, dialogue, settings, etc. He was not the first to make a suggestion like that.
This is exactly the sort of thing that turns writers into whiners. A surprising number of people—I'd put the number as high as 50 percent of the American population—believe they could write a good novel if they just had the time. The figures are surely lower when we move to whatever cohort of the population thinks they could, and quite possibly will, become neurosurgeons or firefighters once things quiet down a bit, and the kids are in college.
The widespread conviction that anyone can write a novel is, naturally, cranky-making to those of us who actually write them, but I admit that I can understand its source. A good writer strives to conceal the effort that went into producing a short story or novel. A fireman or a doctor, visibly saving lives, does and should inspire in us an appreciation of the courage and training required. A work of fiction, if it's any good, has precisely the opposite effect. It should seem effortless. It should so infiltrate the reader's consciousness that by its end it should seem not like the long, heroic effort of another person but like an unusually vivid dream the reader has had.
For all those reasons, and more, we who write seldom if ever talk in public about the joy of writing. Too much attention to that subject could undermine our campaign for wider appreciation, and might even make us seem a little...insipid, mightn't it? Who'd want to be known as that happy chap who hums ABBA to himself while trying to come up with the next sentence?
All artists, not just writers, are expected to be dark and tormented spirits. There's justification for that. With the possible exceptions of S.J. Perelman and James Thurber, I'm hard-pressed to think of a writer I love who isn't (or wasn't) clearly acquainted with the dark side. This is why expressions like "delighted as DeLillo" or "merry as Morrison" never caught on. If writers like DeLillo and Morrison weren't intimately acquainted with the murkier aspects of human life, we wouldn't love them so; or at any rate we wouldn't trust them as we do. We need, as readers, to feel matched at the very least in our knowledge of human life, and we know from experience how hard it can be simply to live, in the flesh, on the earth. Anyone who doesn't know that probably doesn't need to read novels at all.