When I first began writing seriously in the early 1990s, I took to reading literary biographies as a way of defining myself as a writer. I was thrilled to find how quickly I recognized my own struggles in the lives of famous authors. I also saw the shared personality traits that prompt certain kinds of people to explore the possibilities of living the artist’s life. Nothing strengthens and focusses an emerging identity more than the chance to identify thoroughly with others who are already there and have blazed the trail, so to speak.
H. G. Wells makes a good role model for the commercially inclined genre writer. (Photo: public domain)
While of limited use to dedicated literary writers, any would-be author who aspires to sell well and achieve wide popularity and respect can profit from studying the life of H. G. Wells. If you wrestle with the common conflict over whether to go literary or commercial with your writing, Wells will prove especially interesting as he wrote, with varying degrees of success, across a number of genres including sci-fi thrillers, novels of ideas, and serious literary novels. The commercial and literary options seemed mutually exclusive to me and trying to decide which way to go affected my writing for years with first one side and then the other gaining ascendancy. In the end, I borrowed a page from Wells’ book. I now wrestle with novels of ideas finding such works to be a satisfying blend of entertaining story and worthwhile philosophical musing.
Lovat Dickson, one of H. G. Wells’ biographers, claimed the literary world does not see Wells as a great writer, adding that the opinion-makers overlook the famous author because he did not write about morals. Dickson’s observation highlights the strong bias among literary critics that works dealing with moral issues are the most worthy of praise. As a result, only works of this kind are long-lived. Some have argued the absence of longevity for other works has more to do with lack of critical promotion and support than a dearth of literary merit. This may well be true, but in real life, human beings are always concerned with the morality of actions, events, and situations so it seems entirely reasonable, inevitable even, that the same concern should apply to fictional portrayals of life and the world.
Moral novels attract wider critical attention and are more likely to achieve longevity. (Image: public domain)
Many famous writers have used the people in their lives as grist for the authorial mill. The spicy roman à clef has long been a frequent visitor to bookshop shelves. Even more common are realistic novels based on the lives of actual people, but where no deliberate effort is made to link with the objects of inspiration. In other words, the real people are convenient sources of material, yet too obscure to be of interest to the reading public. The writer’s own life may also end up on the page. If his own experiences predominate, a struggle with illness, say, we call these works autobiographical novels, but in many cases, the lives of people around the writer are also included and the situation becomes less clear-cut.
D. H. Lawrence was notorious for using lovers, friends, and acquaintances as thinly disguised characters in his sexually explicit novels. (Photo: public domain)
Opinions vary as to the merits of drawing on real people for inspiration. The competing view is that characters are better created from imagination especially for the job of telling a particular story, highlighting some aspect of human nature, or revealing the human condition. The latter being that rather nebulous concept which “includes concerns such as the meaning of life, the search for gratification, the sense of curiosity, the inevitability of isolation, or awareness regarding the inescapability of death” (Wikipedia). A third position, which I am inclined to share, claims pure imagining is impossible.
I have been in psychotherapy for a very long time and have acquired a philosophical interest in some of the ideas behind the various psychological schools of thought. Inherent in them all is the concept of “liberating” the patient or client. I am sure no professional would ever put it this way, but psychologists are like the Allies storming ashore in Normandy to liberate Europe from the tyrant’s grip and restore democracy.
Psychotherapy seeks to liberate the sufferer from emotional pain thus restoring greater freedom of action. (Photo: Wikipedia)
No matter how one conceptualizes it, liberation implies some kind of oppressive situation from which the sufferer would like to be freed. Right away, we have a two-part scenario: the source of the oppression and the subject who suffers yet is not able (either from ignorance or incapacity) to do anything about the painful situation.
Finding out roughly what kind of person you truly are is the starting point of self-understanding. Many years ago, I discovered that troubled writers are the people who most resemble me – or whom I most resemble. I may also be like other kinds of disturbed people, but they remain largely invisible while published writers leave behind a readable and illuminating record of their emotional and psychological struggles. My discovery, and the fact that I too wrestle with writing books and stories, prompted over two decades of reading literary biographies.
Lowry suffered from acute anxiety and had his most productive periods in a secluded squatters camp in Dollarton, British Columbia. (Photo: public domain)
My friend Lucinda Elliot has nominated me for the Loyal Reader Award, a singular blessing bestowed for being a good boy and showing up to read her blog posts on a regular basis. I should have asked for Air Miles! 🙂
This is the award where other bloggers get to lay their claim on you!
Seriously, I enjoy the Sophie de Courcy blog very much, and recommend it to enthusiasts of either Gothic or romance novels. A big thank you for the nomination, Lucinda. You are ever a good friend and always worth reading.