Reasons for books

It occurs to me (in such a way that I may write a future essai about it, or then again I moutn’t) that there are four major, common, and abiding reasons why particular books get written, and that one can rank them by how likely they are to produce books that stand the test of time. From least to most likely:

1. Books written solely for money – often in a genre for which the author had no particular liking or affinity. (Such books are usually unpublishable. There is an art to being a successful hack, which the would-be get-rich-quick artist can seldom master.)

2. Books written chiefly to please the author’s fans. (This is a good and worthy motivation. The trouble is that so many fans want the same book again and again under different titles. Such work is seldom good to reread; and it is rereadable books that most often endure.)

3. Books written because the author had an itch to tell a certain story, and the itch would not go away. (Often these are the books that win large number of fans, who then clamour for more and give rise to category-2 sequels.)

4. Books written because the author very much wanted there to be a certain kind of book, and could not find it. Sometimes there is a book-shaped hole in human literature, and someone sets out to write a book to fill that hole.

(Note that a single writer’s oeuvre may span all four categories. Robert Silverberg has written seminal books of science fiction, and he also used to write quickie porn novels to pay the rent.)

The Inklings had an uncanny knack for finding book-shaped holes and filling them; which largely accounts for their enduring fame. Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction fills what was then a massive gap in literary theory. C. S. Lewis frankly admitted that he wrote his works of Christian apologetics only because none of the clergy (who he considered ought to have written them) were doing the job. And of course there is Tolkien, who found an entire genre-shaped hole and, not being immortal or infinitely productive, only got as far as to lay the book-shaped cornerstone of the wall that has since filled the gap.

I myself get all kinds of ideas for books, but they don’t stick with me unless I can at least delude myself that they fall into category #4. Nothing else seems worth my extremely limited working time and energy. (I have never even been tempted with #1 or #2: nobody has offered to buy my soul with money, fame, or even fan-letters. Whether I could resist such temptations is anybody’s guess.)

But then I feel ashamed for my presumption. If there is a book-shaped hole in literature, surely it is because better writers than I have tried and failed to fill it. Who am I to try what the real experts could not do?

Looking at things in this manner, I am morosely convinced that this dissonance or antinomy accounts for a good deal of the writer’s block with which I am so often afflicted.


In other news, I have been tired and unwell yesterday and today. No new writing of any account, alas. I think I shall try to get some extra sleep and see if that helps.


  1. Sorry you are unwell – hope additional sleep helps. This has not been a good season so far – 19 days of coughing is, well, just not fun.

    I am content to work on a #3 type book. I have my reasons – the world is very harsh and critical to anyone with a disability: they should sty in their place and not aspire to anything ‘normal’ people should have reserved for them.

    I have been writing it for 15 years. Aargh! A few years ago, I got over the mental flogging of personal and writery unworthiness. I call myself a writer – and I’m not even published yet. I have not your literary depth – and yet I dare.

    Since you can write nothing else, why worry that what you CAN write is inadequate? It won’t stop you from writing to feel the way you do, but it does slow you down considerably to second-guess yourself.

    It is wasted angst that doesn’t improve the product. Just because august writers from other generations sometimes make a big deal of their dependence on drugs, alcohol, whatever, doesn’t mean they were write. Only noisy.

    You write well. Just write. Let others do the judging. They will. Ad infinitum.

    Get out of the gatekeeper world – their aim is to keep people down. It is a model of scarcity, no longer valid. Your supporters tell you the truth: you can write. Stop questioning the gift you have received from God, source of all good things, and use it.

    (Excuse me for stepping into troubled waters.)

    • I not only excuse you, Ma’am, I thank you. It is always good to be heard and understood, but in this business (and this life), we do not always get it.

  2. ‘Stay’ in their places. ‘Sty’ is just too funny to leave with no comment. Stupid fingers.

    • Funny – and very, very appropriate. Their whole business model is to build the sty around us so we can never escape from the mud.

      • I can’t believe I let ‘they were write’ get out of my fingers! It goes along with the brain not cooperating today, so I’m going for another nap, and will try again.

        The brain likes its little Freudian slips.

  3. If there is a book-shaped hole in literature, surely it is because better writers than I have tried and failed to fill it. Who am I to try what the real experts could not do?

    Better on what scale? They obviously can’t be “better” in the meaning that they are going to fill the hole, because it’s still there. Maybe they were busy writing Type 1 or Type 2

    A lot of being good enough is just showing up.

  4. If there is a book-shaped hole in literature, surely it is because better writers than I have tried and failed to fill it. Who am I to try what the real experts could not do?

    This is like the joke about the economist stepping over a hundred dollar bill because if it was worth picking up, someone else would have already done it.

    Actually, there is an enormous number of book-shaped holes, and no one can be an expert in finding all of them. The novel had to be invented, and people had been writing for a long time before there were novels. The mystery story had to be invented.

    As noted about Tolkien, the world-building fantasy had to be invented.

    It’s tempting to think that people with great achievements had some magic about them, but they look magic *after* they’ve made their achievements. Before that, they looked like people struggling with unwieldy projects.

    • As noted about Tolkien, the world-building fantasy had to be invented.

      Ooh, there’s another point– Tolkien wasn’t trying to create an entire genera, he just loved mythology and wanted to make one that fit his country.

    • This is like the joke about the economist stepping over a hundred dollar bill because if it was worth picking up, someone else would have already done it.

      Ooh, good one! I’m going to use that, especially on Truman and other warped little creatures that want to persuade me that I, by definition, cannot be any good.

    • luckymarty says

      I don’t know if it helps or hurts to remember, too, that sometimes a book-shaped hole is first filled by an author who isn’t a world-class genius. SF adventure is one of my favorite genres, but The Skylark of Space isn’t really very good. According to C.S. Lewis, the very first poetic allegory was a forgettable piece that no one remembers (and I’d have to go look up the name), but the genre eventually produced arguably the greatest single work of literature.

      • Psychomachia by Prudentius

        • Suburbanbanshee says

          The “Psychomachia” is awesome! One of the most fun poems ever! There’s a reason it was a favorite of medieval schoolboys, and I don’t mean “hot chicks representing Virtue and Vice, doing battle against each other.” (Although that helps.)

          My local SCA did a mini-tourney fight once on the ever-popular medieval theme of Vices vs. Virtues. People actually ginned up suitable tourney costumes instead of just regular fighting outfits. Lots of fun for the Heralds announcing the fights, too.

  5. That there is a book shaped hole in literature is a symptom of the human condition. But if holes can have holes, there is a Tom Simon shaped hole within the book shaped hole.

  6. I can think of a fifth reason, namely writing a story because you thought an existing one that you liked was flawed, and you wanted to fix it. I did that at least twice; one attempt came out mediocre, but the other one is among my best. TVTropes even has a name for it, “Fix Fic”. And while it may seem like a poor reason to write, I say it’s the result that matters ultimately. Come to think of it, isn’t “writing more of the same good stuff” a sixth reason? That’s how fan fiction comes about, and it’s not unusual for fan fiction to be at least as good as the original, or even to spawn new franchises.

    As for writer’s block, that’s another story. Worth discussing on it’s own as a matter of fact.

    • And… I just wrote “it’s” instead of “its”. On a literary blog. *facepalms* Deepest apologies, my brain must not be in gear today.

    • I think that’s a hole. “They just wasted that marvelous idea” is one of my muse’s favorite beginnings, but it’s that there’s a hole for that idea, done right.

    • Your fifth reason is quite good and probably should be added to the list. ‘Writing more of the same good stuff’ probably counts as a hybrid of #2 and #3, with the author himself being the fan who is clamouring for more.

  7. May I ask about the Tom Simon book-shaped hole? Were the stunningly erudite Writing Down the Dragon and engagingly funny Lord Talon’s Revenge begun to these fill holes? I want to know, especially, about the one of which you don’t speak. The current #4. There is one?

    • You are much too kind. One of my other readers described Writing Down the Dragon as ‘middlebrow’, which, I believe, was exactly right. I have not the learning to be stunningly erudite, and if I had, I’m afraid I wouldn’t much care for the company it put me in. I do thank you for calling Lord Talon engagingly funny, however. That’s sort of the effect I was hoping for.

      However, neither one was intended as a category-4 book. Dragon was a collection of pieces I had already (mostly) written for my blog, for various occasions and reasons. Talon was a pure #3, which I abandoned for several years after writing it, and then decided to use as a guinea pig for my first ebook release. I figured that as a standalone, it was a good book to make all my rookie mistakes with.

      The Eye of the Maker was originally a #3, but has got rather above itself since I began it many years ago, and has broken out with the #4 pox. I conceived the idea of Where Angels Die purely because I wanted to try my hand at a serial, but it took all of five minutes before it began having similar delusions of grandeur.

  8. “There is an art to being a successful hack…”

    • The sad part is when an author’s hackwork is more popular than his books written for reasons 3 and 4. Like Sherlock Holmes.

      • Suburbanbanshee says

        Doyle didn’t understand his own masteries, and he didn’t trust the way Holmes and Watson had gotten out of hand. He only understood his literary ambitions, which were considerable. (And no shame in that.) But what he thought was his good stuff was very giftedly mediocre, and vice versa. Personally, I like Regency times and boxing stories, but I couldn’t get through his Regency boxing historical.

        Still, any author would be proud and happy to have a career as broad as Doyle’s, and to have gotten at least three classic series out of it. (Holmes, The White Company, and the Professor Challenger books.)

  9. Jay Allman says

    Since C. S. Lewis was quoted earlier, what of this, from “A Preface to Paradise Lost”: “It is the smaller poets who invent forms, in so far as forms are invented.” (From p. 3, viewable on Amazon’s “Look Inside” of the book.) That does not sound like an endorsement of formal originality; rather the opposite.

    Writing so that one may identify and fill a “hole” does not strike me as a very noble endeavor. It hardly seems better than writing so that one may become famous or rich, and may be rather worse. A writer who wants to make money off his books is no worse than a farmer who wants to make money off his crops; and a desire for fame may be no worse than a desire to reach and give pleasure to a great number of people. But a writer who desires to discover a new literary continent seems to be after fame of the “talked much about” sort, and wants to be famous with literary critics and historians. These are a very small group, and one can be famous with them without being good, or indeed without being much liked. Cf. Matthew “Monk” Lewis.

    Yes, I am being harsh, but I do not mean it personally. I think I am offering another diagnosis. I would say that—leaving aside its potential contributions to the household economy—a story should be told for its own sake and for no other. To work it as a means toward other ends is to become ensnared in temptations and self-deceptions that distract from the already forbidding challenges of composition.

    • I don’t think Lewis was saying there was something wrong with inventing new forms, but just observing a historical fact. It’s unlikely that a person would simultaneously invent a form and be excellent at using it, and the form may need to be invented so that better artists can use it. (I’m reminded of the animals from Perelandra, where the singing species (?) is fostered by non-singers.)

      I’m concerned about a standard of telling stories for their own sake– this may make some writers too scrupulous about their motives.

      • Suburbanbanshee says

        As long as the story is written, I don’t really care why. It’s not my business, is it?

        If Jane Austen wrote Persuasion as part of a clever plan of world domination, that’s between her and the Good Lord. It’s not my business to peer into anybody’s soul, and especially not in English class.

        The invention of form and genre is something which seldom goes recognized. For example, some people fight actively against the idea that there were tons of mystery stories between Poe and Doyle, or that women sleuths came along very early, or that the extended version of the Book of Daniel included both a courtroom drama and an ancient forensics mystery, or that Chinese opera includes tons of famous detectives (with distinctive facepaint and songs, among whom some have been promoted to godhood). OTOH, some people are interested in remembering the bards of old.

        But the crucial point is that, if there’s a kind of book you want to read and it doesn’t exist yet, it would be foolish and self-defeating not to try to bring it into existence. If a poem presents itself to you, you should write it.

        • Jay Allman says

          To be clear, I am not arguing against the creation of new forms and genres. I am arguing that merit and originality are not correlated in the way that the example of Tolkien might imply. Tolkien and “Monk” Lewis are both remembered as pioneers of new genres; but one is esteemed and the other is not; and the difference seems to be in the merit of the pioneering work. If you wish to write something estimable and long-lasting, it is not necessarily wise to win the attempt by tantalizing yourself with the “newness” of it while letting the quality take care of itself.

          Nor am I trying to make windows into anyone’s soul. As a reader of a book I pay no attention to the author’s motives for writing the book, even when I can guess them. But he introduces the subject himself when an author offers an opinion about the kind of motives an author can have, and it is surely possible to discuss such motives in general without making windows into the souls of particular writers or particular works.

          I am not urging any author to be scrupulous about his or her motives. I am suggesting that when writing it is best to forget your motives entirely—especially when they tempt you with false riches—lest they come between you and your productivity.

          Of course if you imagine a kind of book that you’d badly like to read, and find that no one else has written a book of that kind, then you should try to write it. But that is to imagine a particular kind of book that is new; it is not the ambition to write any kind of book so long as it is new. It is to say to yourself “I want to read (and therefore I shall write) THIS kind of book”; it is not to say “I want to read (and therefore I shall write) something—anything!—that has not been done before.” A hankering for originality has nothing to do with the first kind of ambition; it is, rather, the unintended and perhaps unwanted consequence of not being able to find what you desire already on the bookshelf. If you have the first kind of desire, then your desire to write the book you imagine should survive the suspicion or discovery that your imagined form is not as original as you’d suspected—though, of course, it may obviate the need for you to write it, and you might (to your relief, not your chagrin) give up working on your own contribution.

          If you find yourself afflicted by the fear that your book is not authentically “new”, then I wonder if you are actually trying to write a book. You may only be trying to invent a new genre, which is a different kind of activity, and one that may more properly be executed by editors, agents, television producers, and other “Big Idea” types.

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