Why I Write

After a 15-year period, during much of which I have been disconnected from great literature and art, I found myself been listening to Shakespeare. Not reading, but listening to a few of his monologues, thanks to You Tube. And I am awed by the greatness of such speeches as "There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow." Or: "Now is the winter of our discontent . . ." and poems such as "The Love Song of Alfred Prufrock."

Shakespeare, Dickens, Joyce, Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eliot--so much greatness, such beauty--one sometimes wonders, is there any point in writing? Has it not all been written before?

The answer: I write because I must. It may have been written before, but it is not my inner voice, and it's not the way I would write it, or have written it. Everything I have written has my personal stamp on it. It has my DNA all over it (which is why I don't think I am ever likely to be accused of plagiarism). Because, even though my writing, being more an act of self-expression than aimed at any specific "market" (most of it is thus--and all of it would be, if I had the financial freedom to write with zero compulsion to earn some money at it), has failed to contribute towards more than a fraction of my livelihood, that has not stopped me.

It would be nice to be fully funded by my royalties, of course, and I am compelled to devote an increasingly larger portion of my time to "hack work" (so long as I recognize it for what it is, and know I am going to stop the moment I have enough for rent and food, it is something that one must do--as Henry Miller did, writing pornography for a private client, or Wallace Stevens did, working for a bank--it's okay). But I continue to be inspired by the passion of a William Faulkner quote in a "Paris Review: Writers at Work" interview:

“The writer's only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of old ladies.”
― William Faulkner

Not exactly in the spirit of The Ten Commandments, but an indication of the passion and commitment that must possess a writer if he is to bring out his best. A passion, ultimately, that is irrational, because the very best writers have been subjected to criticisms such as these:

4. Mark Twain on Jane Austen (1898)
“I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
3. Virginia Woolf on James Joyce
“[Ulysses is] the work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.”
2. William Faulkner on Mark Twain (1922)
“A hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven sure fire literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.”
1. D.H. Lawrence on James Joyce (1928)
“My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is! Nothing but old fags and cabbage stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest stewed in the juice of deliberate, journalistic dirty-mindedness.”

And this from Philip Roth: "Writing for me was a feat of self-preservation. If I did not do it, I would die. So I did it."

I feel the same. And also this: If I hadn't written The Revised Kama Sutra and The Killing of an Author, there would be no books like them in existence. Nearly 20 years after the former, and six years after the latter, no one has even tried to imitate these books (to my knowledge). Seventeen years later, HarperCollins India republished The Revised Kama Sutra as a "classic," but sales have been anemic, possibly because it received little publicity in the right places this time around. However, one reader wrote to me a few weeks back saying that "your book changed my life." The pleasure of having created something original, that moves someone, or that is beautiful to just one person (and that could be the writer himself): only an artist can understand it.


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