I’m very happy to see that Lionel Shriver’s new book, The Post-Birthday World, is now on bookshelves and and receiving rave reviews.
But the literary life hasn’t always been this smooth for Shriver — after a long 20 years and no fewer than six novels, she told the BBC she was about to give up on writing when she won the 2005 Orange Prize for her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of those books I always recommend to anyone who will listen — for its language, story, and the fearless way Shriver tackles our society’s biggest taboos. But I also recommend it to writers for inspiration. The manuscript was rejected first by Shriver’s own agent, then by 20 more — and after that was rejected by 30 publishers. But Shriver persisted (in an interview with the BBC, she talks about the unpopular subject matter of the book), and the book was eventually published by Counterpoint in 2003. “One of the things that is salutary about the publishing history of this book is that it’s a real word-of-mouth book,” Shriver told the BBC. “It was readers who got me here. Single, individual readers who bought the book and told their friends.”
Writers often ask me whether they should write for an audience or for themselves. My answer has always been that they should write for themselves first, and consider audience later. But perhaps writers shouldn’t concern themselves with audience at all, and stay focused on their stories, their characters, and their messages instead. Lionel Shriver has proven that sometimes it’s the audience that needs to catch up with the writer — and that it’s well worth the wait.