Why every novelist is holding out for a hero by Robert McCrum

Only by creating an enduring character can a writer entertain thoughts of a literary career

Despite the received wisdom of the book trade, writers don't have careers in the conventional sense. Each book emerges from a private imaginative landscape. But that's not a career, more a succession of leaps in the dark.

And yet authorship has become so professionalised that the language of the HR department now describes the writer's life. This is misplaced and inappropriate. Ideally, the writer works only for him, or herself, on their own terms. They have no boss.

All the writer can do is put one book in front of the last, and go back to the empty page or vacant screen. At best, the life of the writer, properly understood, is a quest for clarity and understanding in which every fresh start feels like an outrageous gamble against impossible odds.

Everything about the transition, from the solitude of the creative process to the raucous traffic of the marketplace, is chancy and provisional. This is as true now as it was in Samuel Johnson's day, though the explosion of new outlets has given the determined wannabe a greater range of options.

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Robert McCrum