The Dewey Decimal System of Insecurity

Worried man in library looking at open bookI was browsing through the new fiction releases when my stomach plummeted through the carpet, hurtling down to the ground floor of the library. It was Saturday 19 November 2011. I had been writing for five hours, sitting by a tall window that looked out into the branches of two plane trees in full foliage. It was a hot, blue-sky day, but I could enjoy the sunlight dancing on the leaves without suffering the heat, protected as I was in the air-conditioned calm of the local library. It had been a good day up until that moment.

I had packed up my things to leave and wandered over to the new releases on display. My eye was drawn to a cover that promised, with its dark, lamp-lit street scene, the kind of historical fiction that I like to read. I opened the book to read the blurb on the inside jacket. And that was when my stomach began its violent descent. My heart joined in, kicking out in protest. This new novel wasn’t just the kind I like to read. It was horribly similar to the one I am trying to write, outside the confines of my weekday job. It wasn’t just the era, the setting or the themes. It also included two historical figures who feature in my work-in-progress.

Why had I decided to browse the display stand? How had I even noticed this book amongst so many others? It seemed to have been placed there to be found by me, for my personal torment. It may as well have been called Why Your Novel is Redundant and Will Never Be Published. My baby novel, still in gestation, would be stillborn.

In If on a winter’s night a traveller, Italo Calvino writes about all the categories of books you have to get past in a shop to reach the one you’re seeking: Books You Haven’t Read; Books You Needn’t Read; Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered; Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered; Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too; The Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages; and so on.

Staring at Why Your Novel is Redundant and Will Never Be Published, it occurred to me that I could add more categories to Calvino’s list:

  • Books That You Will Not Read Because The Author Says No Woman Writer In History Could Match Him, Not Even Jane Austen
  • Books You Don’t Want To Read Because They’re Just Ghost-Written Merchandise To Promote A Celebrity’s Other Projects
  • Books You Cannot Read Because The Author Is Disgustingly Privileged/Young/Handsome/Rich/Multi-talented, Or Worse Still, All Of The Above
  • Books That Have Been The Subject Of So Much Hype They Could Not Possibly Live Up To Expectations
  • Books You Can’t Be Seen With Now Because You Don’t Want Anyone To Think You Liked That Terrible Film Adaptation
  • Books You Can’t Read Now In Case They Influence The Novel You’re Writing

and

  • Books You Can’t Read Because They May Make The One You’ve Been Slogging Away At Seem Redundant.

So there I was in the library, holding Why Your Novel is Redundant and Will Never Be Published. I turned the pages to find the opening paragraph and found instead an epigraph, featuring a quote from another historical figure, one who will be an important character in my novel. With shaking hands, I closed the book. I didn’t want my fictional portrayal of these historical figures to be influenced by someone else’s.

I turned the book over and read the critics’ adulation on the back. My stomach lurched back from the ground floor and soared towards my throat. If I ever finished my novel and if I found a publisher and if anyone deigned to review it, they would say that my book was an inferior version of a brilliant, critically lauded novel released in 2011. They would assume that I had read it. I now wished that the book in my hands was destined for remaindering, but I knew it was unlikely that a highly praised novel by an established author would fail commercially and be pulped. To add to my humiliation, the biography inside the back of the jacket explained that the author is an award winner with many books to his name, shaming me, the ignoramus, for not having heard of him before.

I thought with sympathy of David Lodge, who discovered that while he had been labouring away at a historical novel about Henry James, so too had Colm Tóibín. Lodge soon discovered that others had been writing about James. It was, as Lodge later titled one of his books about literary life, The Year of Henry James. As Tóibín started collecting prize nominations for his Henry James novel, David Lodge felt that his own —Author, Author— had been buried by the publicity surrounding Tóibín’s. But what do I have in common with David Lodge? He is an acclaimed and successful author; I have yet to finish a novel.

I hesitated about putting the book back on the shelf. I would probably enjoy it as a reader. Why should I miss out on a great reading experience because of my own fears? But if I read it, how could I not be influenced? I put the book back and promised that I would permit myself to read it only once I had finished a final draft of my own.

Afterwards, I tried all sort of rationalisations. Anything that is worth saying has already been said. There’s no such thing as an original story. All stories are based on seven basic plots that are recycled through the ages. I’m not even aiming for an original story. Much of my novel will be based on documented events. My aim is to flesh out the gaps between the facts, to imagine my way into the private thoughts and feelings that went unrecorded, to draw attention to neglected people who were overshadowed by others.

On a typical day, it’s not being overshadowed by the greatness of others that frightens me. It’s the fear that I might not have any ability at all, that I’m delusional, not even capable of achieving mediocrity. When I come home late from a day at the office, I fear that I won’t be able to make enough time to finish what I’ve started, and then I fear that ‘not enough time’ is just the excuse of the talentless. What right do I have, anyway, to put words into the mouths of real people whose grandchildren and great-grandchildren are still living? How can I possibly pull off the trick of getting into the minds of men who lived on the other side of the world more than a hundred years ago?

I could go on. I have more neuroses than a Woody Allen character. I wonder if other writers, even established ones, are insecure. I console myself with the memory of Charlie Kaufman’s fictional portrayal of himself in Adaptation (as performed by Nicholas Cage), staring at the blank piece of paper in his typewriter, berating himself and wondering if inspiration will come if he gets a coffee and a muffin. And then I remember that this is Charlie Kaufman having fun with the idea of the tortured artist. He probably wrote Adaptation in a week, without the aid of magical muffins.

It seems to me that for the sanity of writers, librarians need to add another category to Dewey’s Decimal System. In the interests of public safety, dangerous books that trigger insecurity should be shelved under a category of their own, so that they can be avoided by the neurotic. And so I’m assigning That Book a Dewey Decimal System of Insecurity number of 823.NOT TO BE READ YET. I wish it well and hope that I’ll be able to read it someday. Until then, please shelve it.

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