A Book is Never Finished, Only Abandoned

“Graham Greene [said] “The writer is doomed to live in an atmosphere of perpetual failure.” There it is … every writer writes with the knowledge that nothing he writes is as good as it could be. Paul Valery said, “A poem’s never finished, only abandoned.” The same thing with a novel. It’s never finished, only abandoned. I’ve had any number of novels where I’ve just at some point said to myself, well, unless you’re going to make the career out of this book – spend the rest of your goddamn life chewing on it – you might as well just package it up and send it on to New York. Go on to something else. Because between conception and execution there is a void, an abyss, that inevitably fucks up the conception. The conception never gets translated to the page. It just doesn’t. I don’t think it ever does.”

 – Harry Crews

I’ve printed this rather long quote in full because I think it’s a fascinating point. A written work is never finished, only abandoned. (Of course, I say “written work” but this could equally apply to a painting or a song or a movie.) If we take this to be the case, then perhaps we should merely accept this. Maybe we shouldn’t care what’s not finished or what’s not quite right yet. Maybe we should just leave it there and move on. We can belabour the point and spend too much time thinking about the one thing and you’re never going to get it right.

Theodor W. Adorno, a German philosopher, once said, “The finished work is, in our times and climate of anguish, a lie.” And this ties in with something I’ve talked about quite a bit lately – the idea that everything is fragmentary. Our society is fragmentary, the works we write are fragmentary, and perhaps that’s why we feel that a work is never truly finished. Because, unlike the modernists, who believed that everything – both in life and in fiction –had some overarching narrative, we realize we’re living in these fragmented times. There is no overarching narrative to our lives, only a series of fragmented and sometimes contradictory events. And this is reflected in our writing and our other forms of art.

The Modernist’s “overarching narrative arcs” meant they were secure in their view of the world and their place in it. That is no longer the case. We live in an age of information overload. As soon as we make up our minds about one piece of information, another view comes along to challenge it. Nothing can ever be tied up in a neat bow. And neither can our writing.

(Image: Click on pic for credits)

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11 thoughts on “A Book is Never Finished, Only Abandoned

  1. Definitely an interesting point, Derek! I know I find it hard to let my books go on the final draft, and if I didn’t have a publisher’s deadline, I’d probably keep tinkering around with it forever. There is always something you think you could have done better.
    Regarding ‘abandoning’ work – a different take on this is when we write something e.g. a character that doesn’t fit or a scene that’s not quite right, and we take those ideas out of the current work. If I think the idea is too good to lose, I often save it in a file, and sometimes the ‘abandoned’ piece re-emerged in another work later.

    1. I’m with you there, Geraldine. I do the same thing. I think it’s great actually when you can find a place in a different piece for something that didn’t work in another.

  2. Funnily enough, I was thinking about this just this evening. I’m on the final edit of my first novel before trying to get it published, and I’ve just been realising that I’m always going to find things to alter and at some point I am going to have to call time. I already have a strong suspicion that some of changes I’m making this time round are reverting the ones I made last time.

  3. Excellent post, Derek. Indeed, it’s never done, we could go on gnawing at it every day for the rest of the time we have on this Earth. I do agree with Ciara, though, that taking this as an excuse to say, “oh well, it’s never going to be perfect anyway,” and sending a less-than-polished MS out into the world is a mistake. *Huge* mistake. Perhaps the key is “polished”. There really is such a thing as too much polishing: smoothing the rough edges, rubbing that silver coat until it sparkles, that’s all fine. But when the silver starts flaking away… Maybe it’s time to abandon it. More rubbing won’t turn it to gold or platinum 🙂

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