Unhappy Accidents: Why Writers Hate Their Own Work

Books in Trash Pic

Photo Credit: Book trash, taken 7 October 2017 by Paul Sableman: Meisam/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

“[S]ome authors grow to dislike, disown, resent, or regret their books after publication—whether because of an unexpected critical or popular response, changes in their own views, or simple aging.” (Temple, par. 1)

The idea that an author might hate a book or story he or she has written might seem like an oxymoron. After all, authors often times think of their books as their babies and you would never hate one of your babies (hopefully!). But Emily Temple’s article “13 Writers Who Grew To Hate Their Own Books” proves that the idea of hating your own work isn’t all that uncommon among writers (and probably other artists too). Hating your own work once in a while is, to me, a healthy response. It shows the writer has humility and the ability to stand back from his or her creative work and look at it with a critical eye and admit that he or she might not have put out the best writing they could have for whatever reason. Any writer who says that he or she has never regretted anything they ever published should be viewed with suspicion. It stands to reason that the writer is either a liar or a narcissist but, in either case, should probably be avoided at all costs.

There are many reasons why a writer can come to hate a particular story or book he or she has written. For one, the reasons the book was written may, for the author, have been the wrong ones. A while back I wrote about some of the reasons writers write. You’ll note that money is not on the list. But many writers do write for money and Temple cites a few writers who grew to regret the works they wrote for money. British science fiction writer J. G. Ballard was one of these. In an interview, he admitted “to writing his first novel, The Wind from Nowhere, entirely out of clichés, for much-needed money, and as a conscious attempt to break into the paperback market” (Temple, par. 5). Another British writer, Jeannette Winterson made a similar confession about her second novel, Boating for Beginners, though she doesn’t see any shame in writing for money occasionally. As she stated in an interview, “‘I never write my real books for money, but I have no problem writing anything else with the bung in mind…’” (as quoted in Temple, par. 22). I think the point here is not whether it’s cheap or even unethical to write a book for money (which is a hotly debated issue in the writing community) but that authors who normally do not consider money as a motivation to write a book did so and now consider these works not their best.

Not every book, even if it’s by a well-known author, becomes the darling of the critics and when it doesn’t, that can easily sway a writer to reject the work. Ian Fleming and Anthony Burgess fall into this category. James Bond creator Fleming actually rejected one of his Bond books, The Spy Who Loved Me, because the critics panned it: “Fleming did like this novel, at least at first. Then he heard what the reviewers had to say, and he was so upset that he wanted to more or less disown it” (Temple, par. 8). Similarly, one of Burgess’ most famous works, the dystopian satire A Clockwork Orange, did not make it on his list of favorite books. Critics reacted badly to the message he was trying to convey, which he explains, along with why he dislikes the book, in the introduction to its 1986 American edition:

“‘[T]he book does also have a moral lesson, and it is the weary traditional one of the fundamental importance of moral choice. It is because this lesson sticks out like a sore thumb that I tend to disparage A Clockwork Orange as a work too didactic to be artistic.’” (as quoted in Temple, par. 20)

Another objection that Burgess had was that the film version of A Clockwork Orange didn’t seem to get this moral message and instead provided an interpretation of the film that was more or less anarchistic where violence and sex ruled. He is not the only author to come to hate his work because of a misreading or misinterpretation from the film industry or from readers or critics. Annie Proulx also came to loath her short story “Brokeback Mountain” that began with the film adaptation of the story. She explains, “‘They [the filmmakers and some readers] [couldn’t] understand that the story [wasn’t] about Jack and Ennis. [It was] about homophobia; [it was] about a social situation; [it was] about a place and a particular mindset and morality’” (as quoted in Temple, par. 25). Proulx’s main problem (from what I gather in my research – I haven’t read the story or seen the film) was that the story does not end as happily as many readers would have wished or as it was rewritten in the film.

Anarchist Cookbook Cover

Photo Credit: Digital capture (photo/scan) of the cover of William Powell’s The Anarchist Cookbook: File Upload Bot (Magnus Manske)/Wikimedia Commons/PD ineligible (books)

Another reason why an author might grow to hate a book or story is because it represents a belief or opinion that he or she had when the book was published but those beliefs and opinions changed over time. Author William Powell wrote the 1960’s counterculture satire The Anarchist Cookbook and later denounced it:

“‘The book was a misguided product of my adolescent anger at the prospect of being drafted and sent to Vietnam to fight in a war that I did not believe in. The central idea was that violence is an acceptable means to bring about political change. I no longer agree with this.’” (as quoted in Temple, par. 30)

In a similar vein, sometimes writers put out a book that has unforeseen consequences. Stephen King was horrified when word got out that his second book, Rage, which is about a school shooting, was found in lockers belonging to school shooters in the 1980’s. While King made clear he did not believe there was necessarily a cause-and-effect relationship between similar tragedies at the time and his book, he did have enough concerns to get the book removed from the shelves:

“‘My book did not break [the shooters] or turn them into killers; they found something in my book that spoke to them because they were already broken. Yet I did see Rage as a possible accelerant, which is why I pulled it from sale’” (as quoted in Temple, par. 34).

Jaws Book Cover

Photo Credit: Cover of the first paperback edition of Peter Benchley’s Jaws, 1975, designer Roger Kastel, Prosfilaes/Wikimedia Commons/PD US defective notice

On another note, the famous Jaws, written by Robert Benchley, created a huge sharkphobia that disturbed Benchley so much that “he became a shark conservationist and sought to educate people about the animals and their very slim threat to humans” (Temple, par. 46).

To Temple’s reasons for authors disliking their own work, I add my own. Sometimes, a piece of writing might simply not speak to the writer, not while he or she was writing it nor after its publication. This happened to me with the short story “Broken Bows” which appeared last year in my short story collection, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories. I think the story didn’t speak to me partly because it focused on a male character who I later realized was too old for the kind of character portrayed in the story and partly because there was a reference to the Holocaust that, in the original version of the story, was much stronger than in the final version and, even when I revised the story so that the reference was much dimmer, I haven’t stopped feeling uncomfortable with that. Being Jewish, the Holocaust has always been a very complex and very grave issue fraught with tragedy and controversy. I didn’t feel like I gave it the respect that it deserved in the story and it could have easily been removed and should have been (but that’s for future editions of the collection…).

Another reason an author might dislike a book or story is because it forced the writer go into dark places that he or she found painful. While it can be very fulfilling to write a story that explores the darker aspects of the author’s own psychological reality, it’s also very difficult emotionally and psychologically to do this and it’s understandable that the author might view the work with loathing once it’s finished. I’ve explained in other blog posts how the story of Gena and Helen’s relationship in my current work-in-progress, The Claustrophobic Heart, which is the second book of my Waxwood series mirrors some of the messier and more painful aspects of my relationship with my mother. For this reason, I struggle with the book and I imagine it will be the least favorite of mine of the three books in the series once they are all published.

It’s ironic sometimes of the way writers perceive their own work as opposed to how readers do. Some of the books I mentioned above are very well-known (like A Clockwork Orange and Jaws), beloved by readers, and yet their authors grew to hate them. One of my favorite classic psychological fiction writers, Henry James, loathed his novella Washington Square, calling it “ ‘poorish’” and “dismissing it as one of his ‘unhappy accidents’” (Temple, par. 47). But it’s one of my favorite books and I even wrote here about my experience teaching it to a bunch of wary, disinterested college freshmen one year. Similarly, although “Broken Bows” didn’t speak to me, I have had several readers tell me that it’s their favorite story in the collection. So clearly, writers see their work through different eyes than do readers and critics.

Works Cited

Temple, Emily. “13 Writers Who Grew To Hate Their Own Books.” Literary Hub. LitHub. 29 January 2018. Web. 7 February 2018.

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