22 Apr 2009

Six Writers Who Accidentally Crapped Out Masterpieces

The original article is on Cracked.com, so don't expect any deep literary analysis but rather an amusing stroll through half a dozen accidental masterpieces.

6. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thomson

I suspect "cracked out" would be more appropriate in this case, as Fear and Loathing erupted onto the public as the incoherent ramblings of a bored Thomson recording all the things that didn't happen at the motorbike race he was supposed to be covering.

5. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

This surreal tale of twisted logic spun into a children's book would have remained a family heirloom had Carroll not been badgered into publishing it. Yes, Carroll is a strange character in his own right but in an age when suffering from epilepsy was liable to lead to a stretch in bedlam it was better to be weird and free.

4. Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Burgess himself considered it one of his weakest works, writing that it was, "... knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die." I know, success is hard to take when all your other books get trashed.

3. Franz Kafka

Literary genius doesn't always come with a bloated ego and in Kafka's case any sense of self-worth had been erased as an extension of his insurance day-job. Luckily, his executor ignored Kafka's wishes to have everything burnt and promptly published it all. Kafka wrote for himself, something to bear in mind when screaming at the world for some success.

2. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley was just 19 when she penned this now classic gothic horror story, trumping her more illustrious literati friends Byron and Shelley. All a product of being holed up in the Alps with no satellite TV and with two guys who couldn't keep their pens out of the ink-well.

1. William Shakespeare

He did it for the money, the adulation and having a neat lifestyle at a time when most jobs would either be the death of you or would get you in someone else's line of fire. He didn't even bother publishing his plays as that meant other theatre companies could copy them. Shakespeare wrote popular plays as otherwise an empty theatre would mean getting a real job. Sometimes, the fear of poverty can be a creative spur.

So is there anything we can learn from this? One thing that has gone unnoticed is how fast all of these works were written. When you know what you need to write, just do it - and do it quickly! Revising your revisions is a recipe for a patched quilt, not a bestselling novel.

The other mantra that is often chanted is "think about your readers". Frankly, apart from Shakespeare, who wrote plays and therefore needed an audience, the best writers write for themselves. The readership is an abstraction consisting of solitary individuals - your readership is one person, one at a time. Write for yourself - if you can't stomach it then chances are that nobody else will. Actually, even when you think you've written a masterpiece chances are that it isn't. The point, however, is that unless you write for yourself, the chances of it being above mediocre are vanishingly small.

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