When a writer goes from writing nonfiction to writing fiction, it’s called a leap. When she goes from writing fiction to writing nonfiction, it’s not called anything. A diversion, perhaps, or an excursion, maybe an extra paycheck. Everyone knows the novelists will go back to their real writing soon enough. It comes as no surprise when established novelists (Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, Amy Tan) publish books of erudite criticism or essays between fiction releases. In the past few months, I have been asked about my “switch,” my “leap,” and my “graduation” to fiction. The truth is, I’m pleased to be asked, pleased that the difference between writing essays and novels is being acknowledged. And I now know what many have known before me, writing a novel is harder. It’s harder in almost every way except for the typing (same set of keys, still no spikes on them). The analogy I’ve been using these days is that publishing nonfiction feels like reading poetry on stage and publishing fiction feels like doing it naked while playing the piano. Still, I feel protective on behalf of my essays and so I’m hesitant to slough them off as “stepping stones” of the past.
All this talk of ascension is vaguely familiar to me. Five years ago, I left a career in book publishing to write The Clasp. Though it wasn’t The Clasp then. It was disparate character sketches and some vague notes on Normandy. I didn’t know how my characters would interact, what they wanted, how they would or wouldn’t get it. I only knew that my longtime dream was to publish fiction as well as nonfiction. So I quit my job to do it. No one ever seemed to think I hated my job when I had it, but once I left, no one believed that I genuinely missed pitching books and labeling jiffy envelopes.
“How much are you loving it?” friends would ask, presenting me with an implicit scale of affection that started high.
I do love it . . . now. But not so much then. The Clasp features an unemployed character who, when we meet him, is spending too much time in his apartment, going to bed early and sleeping in. He only knows it’s rained that morning because his mail is wet. Of all the imaginative leaps I took while writing this thing, that was not one of them.
Just like I appreciated my job more when I left it, I appreciated writing nonfiction more once I started writing a novel. For one thing, it’s easier to brace for critique when you’re not reading poetry on stage, naked and shivering in the middle of the fall, picking out a tune on the piano. Though I guess that depends on just how good you are at the piano. Then there’s the novel-writing process itself. With essays, even the humorous ones designed to entertain, there’s the challenge to stay true to events while still making the story work. The truth is not the default mode we’d like it to be; the opposite of creativity is not unbridled honesty. Whole television networks have been founded on this principle. And, frankly, hewing to the facts can be a pain. But once I began writing a novel, those nonfiction parameters felt like luxuries. With the novel, I made these people and I was responsible for every facet of their lives, for every cube of ice in their whiskey. This was more rewarding than I could have imagined—but I could no longer seek shelter in “Because I wasn’t there” or “I don’t know, I was nine.”
Ultimately, to be known for any kind of writing at all is a wonderful thing. And perhaps being identified as a certain kind of writer is less of a philosophical issue and more of a numbers game. I was fortunate enough to interview Joan Didion after the release of Blue Nights and asked her why, despite writing five novels, so many readers labeled her firmly as a nonfiction writer.
“Because the nonfiction sells better,” she said.
When I think of writers like Didion who began their careers with fiction but are now known primarily for their nonfiction (Susan Sontag comes to mind, or, more recently, Leslie Jamison), I realize I am guilty of a double standard. I hardly think of them as “tackling” nonfiction. This is a testament to the strength of their work but it’s also because I’m not trained to think of nonfiction writing as a leap. As for me, chances are I won’t return to my career in book publicity, but I will certainly return to essays. And when I do so, I will try to set all these external semantics aside. Because if writing a novel has taught me anything, it’s that what matters is how one identifies oneself after the lights go out, when one has done enough battles with the blinking curser for one day, when the mail is drying out on the other side of the wall.
Sloane Crosley is the author of the New York Times bestsellers I Was Told There’d Be Cake (a Thurber Prize finalist) and How Did You Get This Number. A frequent contributor to The New York Times, she lives in Manhattan.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:
Read an excerpt from Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void
On Lucia Berlin: The World in Perpetual Motion
Jonathan Franzen’s First Words on Purity
Clancy Martin in conversation with Amie Barrodale