We have an odd relationship with success in Britain. At times it seems, we only seek it for ourselves and resent it in others. We certainly do not celebrate it in others readily. We like success that we can relate to, which we can explain – which is to say, success in moderation.
Perhaps this explains the disquieting media reaction to Ye Shiwen’s extraordinary, record-breaking 400m medley swim. A bit too successful: either she was on drugs or she is the product of an unpleasant and repressive sporting superstructure that strips children from their families and their villages and trains them half to death. Either way, this sixteen year old girl who is undeniably an extraordinary swimmer, however become, is denied the accolade of her abilities and efforts – derided as a symbol of something we resent, we distrust, something we can’t explain and more; a country of which we are suspicious. In the words of Winston Churchill: “Wars when fought thus by great nations are often very dangerous for the proxy.”
What then about books? We seem to like bestsellers – like battery hens – too many, bloated and cheap. We are proud of J K Rowling, the most commercially successful author in the world and we make nothing of the fact that she wrote her novels in cafes while living on benefits. Romance and myth-making aside, that shouldn’t really be acceptable. But commercial success in authors is much rarer than commercial success in most other professions, particularly outside of the arts, and it is true also that it is not the aim of writers, good ones at least, to be commercially successful. First is the impulse to write, to teach, to tell. Second is the love of life, of pleasure and the means by which to exploit and acquire the two. Perhaps then commercial success in authors is more pure than in other jobs, more honest and therefore more acceptable.
Perhaps we are simply fickle. Either way, the effort, dedication, practice, of writing something down and writing it well is similar in its way to that of training to be an Olympic athlete. Gruelling physical and mental preparation are required and demanded for both. Both athletes and writers face the possibility that they may not please the crowd, that they may not win their respective audiences, that they may not win their respective races, that they may face, at the end of their preparation and trial, rejection instead of accolade, failure instead of success. That is their profession and that is their choice, but the least we can do as an audience is to be a little discerning.