How to Write in a World Where Beloved Has Already Been Written

A couple of days ago, when I was almost done reading Beloved, I made the following post to Facebook and Twitter: “The problem with being a writer is that I live in a world where books like Beloved have already been written. Earth-2 or bust!”

A Facebook friend of mine replied: “I hear ya. You think, why should I even bother?”

My reply to my friend: “Exactly. Yet for some reason, I bother.”

One day in the not-too-distant future I will write a longish blog post about why I write, i.e., what drives me to it, what the motivations are, what the reasons are. I’ve finally figured all that out. It was a question that bedeviled me for many years. I had a hard time answering it because I was using my writing to serve a number of different ends, some of which I was unaware of; some of which contradicted each other; and some of which represented goals that writing cannot accomplish. But today I want to talk about how I can even bring myself to write in a world where Beloved has already been written.

Beloved, in case you didn’t know, is a novel by American author Toni Morrison. It won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and deservedly so, in my opinion. It’s set in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1873, and it’s all about how slavery deformed people in this country — the enslaved and the enslavers. I just finished the book and I feel very full with it. I’ll be digesting this one for days, like a python that has devoured a dog. It wasn’t a perfect book, but that’s true of every novel. Some famous writer, I can’t remember who, once defined the word “novel” as “a narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it.” Amen to that. Still, I feel so enriched by this book — enlarged by it.

I also feel intimidated by it. As a writer, I have to ask myself: Is my novel on this level? The answer, of course, is Certainly not. So then I have to wonder, well, why am I even writing? We’ve already got books that are far better than the one I’m writing. Why should I continue? As my friend said, why should I even bother?

It helps to remember that when Toni Morrison sat down to write Beloved, she had to do so in a world where For Whom the Bell Tolls had already been written. And when Hemingway sat down to write that one, he had to do it in a world where Absalom, Absalom! had already been written. And when Faulkner sat down to write that one, he had to do it in a world where The Great Gatsby had already been written. And Fitzgerald worked in the shadow of Henry James, and Henry James worked in the shadow of Jane Austen, and all the novelists have worked in the shadow of Cervantes. Cervantes himself worked in the shadow of Shakespeare. The regression keeps going backward as far as you want to look.

All great novels — and all the mediocre ones, and all the shitty ones — have been written in worlds where masterpieces already existed. Thank goodness Cervantes didn’t let the fact of Macbeth stop him from making his own run at the prize. And thank goodness that Morrison didn’t let the fact of For Whom the Bell Tolls stop her from giving us Beloved.

If you want to write, the proper response to greatness isn’t to say, Why bother? The proper response to greatness is described in the sage advice of author Richard Bausch, in his “Letter to a Young Writer”:

Say to yourself, “I accept failure as the condition of this life, this work. I freely accept it as my destiny.” Then go on and do the work. Never ask yourself anything beyond “Did I work today?” If the answer to that question is “yes,” then no other question is allowed.

My novel is no Beloved, but fortunately, it doesn’t have to be. Did I work today? Yes.

2 thoughts on “How to Write in a World Where Beloved Has Already Been Written

  1. When I was a kid I’d wonder, “Why be a baseball player if you aren’t going to be an All-Star?” Of course, you can’t have leagues where everybody is an All-Star because, by definition, All-Stars distinguish themselves from the pack. Only six-year-olds play in leagues where everybody gets a trophy.

    But I think the other reason–the one that can relate to writing–is that every player gives his best every day. And sometimes that leads to some of them becoming All-Stars. They not only work, they strive to work at a level of excellence. When I write, I am trying to move beyond the first words that come to mind. I’m trying to express myself in a way that will make it worth my writing, and your reading.

  2. This is fantastic, Brent. I’m almost to the halfway point of a two-year project to read all of Vladimir Nabokov’s fiction (one book per month), and I occasionally get that impression that you mention, of: why bother? And I just have to remind myself that I’m not in competition with Nabokov, that all I can do is write the best fiction that I can.

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