Would you rather be a mediocre plumber or a mediocre novelist?

Milan Kundera poses this question in his 2007 book, The Curtain (reviewed here by Michael Dirda):

Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produced books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional — thus non-useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious — is contemptible. This is the novelist’s curse: his honesty is bound to the vile stake of his megalomania.

Anyone who has worked in book publishing will see immediately that Kundera can only be referring to a tiny sliver of the industry’s annual output, and that he is rather dismissive of a whole sub-set of professional writers who have the ability to keep producing books that people keep buying. That’s business. It doesn’t have to be art. The revenue demands of publishers must necessarily be satisfied by writers who can churn out books as regularly as new wine. Charles Dickens, whose serialised novels appeared weekly in London newspapers, is one bright exception to the rule of dismissing as “contemptible” every author who can “write on demand”. Perhaps Kundera’s form of passion is unsustainable. I enjoy a fast-paced thriller now and again, even though my own projects tend towards the esoteric. But I don’t think Kundera’s challenge is limited to the writers of fiction. I’m just getting started on another project (towards which I have recently received the unexpected and generous support of the Literature Board of the Australia Council), which, though not a novel, sets challenges for myself that will make myself nervous of a comparison to a plumber’s usefulness for some time to come.

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