Young writers write two or three books that are not only brilliant, and mature, and then they are done for. But that is not what enriches the literature of a country. For that you must have writers who can produce not just two or three books, but a great body of work. Of course it will be uneven, because so many fortunate circumstances must go together to produce a masterpiece, but a masterpiece is more likely to come as the culminating point of a laborious career then as the lucky fluke of untaught genius.
P.h.d. students famously despair that the academic dissertation, as a literary genre, is inherently boring to the point of unreadable, while joking that the difficulty of writing one is enough to drive a person insane.
Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing.
I made the decision very early on in my career to put everyone out of my mind when I write. Relatives, editors, Hollywood, critics. I have no reader in mind. I think it's death to a writer to consider how anyone will view their work. One writes for oneself in much the same way one daydreams for oneself.
Setting is as important as character. Go to the bookstore, open up a bunch of books and read the first line. You'll find that the majority of opening sentences have something to do with setting and evoking an emotion with the reader.
The idea that readers could know an author's intentions better than she does herself is, of course, deeply destabilizing to our usual ways of thinking about literature. If a text can mean anything the reader wants it to mean, then why read it in the first place? Isn't literature supposed to help us achieve contact with other minds, rather than trapping us in a hall of mirrors, in which we can see only our own distorted reflections? Surely there must be limits to a text's interpretability.
The literature of war is by its very nature political. If a writer's sentences are personal--what else, really can they be?--and a writer has trained his lens on a bloody battleground, in reading him we will come to know where he stands, where his passions lie. When it comes to fiction, this passion can often result in rhetoric-spouting characters whose sole purpose is to serve the author's ideas.
There is an art to book reviewing. Or a craft, I should say--because if the reviewer tries to be artistic, if he once abandons the secondary zone of creation, he's sunk. The point of the review, after all, is not him: It's the book. The book that somebody else wrote. So good reviewing demands a certain transparency of language, and an absence of prancing and posturing.
A remarkable thing about the novel is that it can incorporate almost anything--essays, short stories, mock memoirs, screenplays, emails--and remain a novel. The elasticity is also a sign that unlike, say, the epic or the ode, the novel is a living, evolving form. But if its outer limits are virtually nonexistent, the minimum requirement is generally that there be a narrative telling us something. In this way, any manner of book can find a way to justify calling itself a novel. But the label should not be worn lightly, since it invites scrutiny of the highest and most exacting kind.
A writer should not respond to his or her critics. A writer should rise above, in radiant aloofness. Sometimes that's not possible, of course. I was drinking with a friend in London when he spotted, on the other side of the bar, a man who days before had reviewed him cruelly in a national newspaper. My friend grew agitated. "I'll punch in in the face!" he said. "No, wait. I'll buy him a drink!" He paused. "What shall I do?" He had no idea and neither did I. Aggression, under the circumstances, seemed quite as promising/futile as magnanimity. I don't even remember what he did in the end. The point is: you can't win.
Anthony Burgess recounted how, diagnosed with a deadly brain tumor, he rapidly dashed off four novels in succession to support his family. Upon learning he'd been misdiagnosed, he claimed he was "vaguely disappointed. All that hard work for nothing." John Cheever on drinking while writing: "I can detect a sip of sherry in a paragraph." Vidal Gore on Truman Capote's death: "A brilliant career move."
I simply don't want to do any more work for Hollywood. There is nothing in it but grief and exhaustion and discontent. In no real sense is it writing at all. It carries with it none of the satisfactions of writing. None of the sense of power over your medium. None of the freedom, even to fail.