Congratulations to Ben Fountain, whose novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk won the National Book Critics Circle Award last week (in addition to being a National Book Award finalist). In light of his successes, Fountain’s journey is especially illuminating and inspiring; he reminds us in the following short reflection, which he was kind enough to write for Bloom in the midst of this busy awards season, that the process has not been easy.
Is the novel dead? I don’t know about the novel, but I have two dead ones sitting on the shelf in my office closet, representing, between them, more years of work than I’m willing to admit. It’s a cliché, but one of those true clichés, that your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness. Over the course of my writing life I’ve discovered that I am, for better or worse, insanely stubborn—I’ll keep going back to a piece over and over until I think I’ve gotten it right, and this hardheadedness helped me bust through a lot of the inevitable obstacles that confront anyone who attempts this kind of work. I wouldn’t have had anything like a writing career if I hadn’t been so stubborn, but that same stubbornness kept me going on those two novels for years after I should have set them aside. With the first novel, there’s probably no way I could have known better. I’d been writing only a year or two when I began it, and to abandon it in mid-course might have been a fatal blow to whatever little bit of confidence and faith in myself that I’d managed to scrape together by that point. Then again, I spent the better part of five years on it; a smarter writer, one more attuned to the larger lessons, might have realized along the way that, hey, one of the things he was supposed to be learning by writing this novel was when to quit.
For that second dead novel, there is no excuse. I should have known better, and did know better even as I was breaking my bones on it, yet something like pathology—fear, let’s call it—wouldn’t let me step away. After having invested years in the book, I kept thinking that four more months of work, or six or eight or ten, would get me over the hump, and all the years I’d already sunk into the project wouldn’t be wasted. It was a chump move, chasing that rabbit; I was too scared, or, alternately, too prideful, to cut my losses, and it took a smart, brave editor to tell me at last, you have to let this one go.
Am I any smarter now? I dread the prospect of finding out, though at some point I’ll probably have to; that kind of risk is part of the deal any time we undertake a long piece of work. Second question: Were those years wasted? My sense is, yes and no. No, because that was the work I had to do in order to get to the point where I might write something that was worthwhile. Yes, because it shouldn’t have taken me so many years to write those failures. I was an inefficient failure; that’s the part I regret, and maybe therein lies the potential benefit in taking classes, getting an MFA, having some sort of guide or mentor when we’re doing the heavy lifting of learning how to write. There’s someone around to tell you when you’re being an idiot.
Click here to read Tricia Khleif’s feature on Ben Fountain.