7 Books About the Struggle of Being a Writer
If you're a tortured creative, these novels will speak to your soul
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
What do writers love writing about more than the dissolution of fifteen year marriages and nubile young co-eds lusting after boring middle-aged men? Themselves! And their feelings! The agonies and the ecstasies of the mysterious “writing process.” The torture of knowing you have pledged your soul to the noble pursuit of art. No one knows just how hard it is in these times to be An Artist™ quite like a fellow writer.
The books on this list know that a writer’s life is not an enviable, romantic existence made up of sepia tones and sipping overpriced coffee in hipster coffee shops. Instead, they talk about the uncomfortable realities, both internal and external, that can at times make writing an actual #struggle. From writing in an all-powerful surveillance state, writing under the conditions of late-stage capitalism—a thread secretly woven through most of them, because capitalism seeps into all of our lives—or writing to connect to others across literal time and space, these books offer a window into the real challenges of being a writer.
Static Flux by Natasha Young
Calla is a self-aware and self-satirizing millennial struggling to make ends meet as a writer in post-Great Recession New York. She finds her writerly ambitions derailed by extreme wealth disparity, imposter syndrome, and a worsening personality disorder. Seeking to escape her disappointing life, she takes off to Los Angeles to crash with her privileged best friend Alix and to self-medicate with psychedelics. Follow Calla from the heart of despair in Brooklyn to the hazy, uber-rich hills of Los Angeles.
Garments Against Women by Anne Boyer
Anne Boyer writes in a blend of lyric prose, poetry, and memoir about the conditions that make writing nearly impossible—whether it’s eking out a living in a Kansas City apartment complex or parenting a child as a single woman alienated from the means of production. There are no easy answers to the questions Boyer asks of the political economy of literature and of life. How does one make art in moments where you have been poor and ill, have attempted to write and actively not written, have done intellectual work and have done housework?
Bunny by Mona Awad
Samantha Heather “Smackie” Mackey is in the second year of her MFA program at an elite university. Initially, Samantha despises her cohort—four upper-class women she nicknames “the Bunnies” for their vapidity and eerily similar fashion sense. Her only friend and ally is Ava—a cynical art school drop-out who shares a disdain for the group. However, one day Samantha is formally invited into the fold (by means of a small origami swan) and falls deep into their strange world where it’s possible to conjure their monstrous creations in off-campus “Workshops.” Soon the edges of reality blur and her friendship with Ava threatens to collide with the Bunnies, Samantha must navigate an increasingly unfathomable world.
The Tenants by Bernard Malamud
Malamud’s novel about black and Jewish relations in 1960s New York pulls aside the curtain on the often obfuscated issue of writing as a raced subject. Henry Lesser is a novelist incapable of finishing a novel and the sole tenant in a rundown tenement. His solitary artistic pursuit is soon interrupted by the arrival of a black writer, Willie Spearmint, to the building. Henry and Willie become not only unwilling neighbors but professional rivals. The presence of Willie’s white girlfriend Irene and the landlord’s plans to evict both men in order to demolish the building quickly bring things to a head.
A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Ruth is experiencing writer’s block on a remote island in British Columbia until she stumbles upon a washed-ashore Hello Kitty lunchbox on the beach—detritus most likely from the devastating 2011 tsunami in Japan. Inside is a diary written by lively sixteen-year-old Nao, lonely and bullied after a recent move to Tokyo. Before Nao plans on killing herself, she wants to document the life of her Buddhist nun great-grandmother who is over a century old. As the diary unfolds, Ruth is pulled into a meta-narrative that collapses time and space, with Nao’s past, her present, and both of their futures in the balance.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
On an unnamed island off an unnamed coast, things have a habit of disappearing not just from the locals’ possession but from their very minds. The authoritarian Memory Police are the ones maintaining that whatever has disappeared remains forgotten and most of the island’s inhabitants remain blissfully unaware of any changes. However, the few who are able to remember lost objects live in fear of discovery. A young novelist learns that her editor has been marked by the Memory Police and she begins hiding him underneath her floorboards.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Arthur Less is about to turn fifty and is failing—at writing, at dating, at life in general. After receiving a wedding invitation from his not-boyfriend of nine years Arthur is at a crossroads. He can’t say yes because of the awkwardness but he also can’t say no because it would look like defeat. So he comes up with a half-baked idea to travel the world, going to every literary event he’s been invited to. From a romance cut short in Paris to a near-deadly fall in Berlin, Arthur along the way finds his first love and his last.