The golden rule of writing: ‘nobody knows anything’

I bet even in her very wildest dreams E L James, the author of Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels, never imagined that it would turn out to be the runaway publishing success story it has become.

But then, who ever really knows what’s going to work before it’s out in the market? I’m a big fan of William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, the recurring motto of which is: ‘Nobody knows anything’.

Goldman wrote the screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man and The Princess Bride, so clearly he did know something, and in his book he discusses how to set about adapting stories for the screen. But what he meant by ‘Nobody knows anything’ was that you can’t tell whether you’ve got a hit or a flop until it’s out there. (Apparently he didn’t get very good marks in his creative writing classes in college, which should be heartening for anyone else in the same boat.)

The Great Gatsby and Jane Austen

Once books or paintings or other works make their way out into the world, it can take time for them to find their place. So Van Gogh died in penury and his art now sells for squillions. And F Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, went to his death having absolutely no idea that in 2012 the book would be adapted all over the place, performed unabridged, and regarded by many as pretty much as close to the perfect novel as it is possible to get.

According to Jay McInerney in The Guardian back in June ‘many of the 23,000 copies of the book printed in 1925 were gathering dust in the Scribner’s warehouse when Fitzgerald died in obscurity in Hollywood 15 years later’.

Even Jane Austen, who has something not far off a cult following – the Janeites − nearly 200 years after her death in 1817, was out of print by the 1820s.

It’s a funny old game. Maybe we should qualify the adage ‘Nobody knows anything’ by adding, ‘Not for a while, anyway’.

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