THE WRITING GOES WELL, the business of dealing with publishers does not, and I try to maintain my grande indifference. I tell myself that it would be worse if the publishers were eager for whatever I produced, while I was unable to do any work that satisfied me. I have given up novels because my latest — and almost certainly last — The Duke's Man, took me a year to write and then 10 years to sell. Worse, I have to admit that all those houses that turned it down were right, because even though it is a book of which I am defiantly proud, it has sold in the middle three-figures and has yet to be reviewed anywhere. That is what I should have expected. There are too many books to read, so, for efficiency, reviewers pigeonhole authors, and my unpromising slot is as a playful (or, as reviewers think, un-serious) elitist.
But the reasons for my farewell to the novel are only mildly interesting. More important is that there are other, equally interesting literary pursuits. I have been translating a lot and have been writing poems. Bizarrely, poems and translations are easier for me to place with publishers, but even if they weren't, I'd write poetry because I enjoy it. And I would translate because doing that is a way to continue my education. The Consolation of Philosophy. Orlando Furioso. The Mahabharata. I'd never even read these (mostly because the translations weren't any good), so fashioning English versions was an opportunity for me not just to encounter the texts but to work with and through them — even to be a collaborator.
Now and then, I regret my status as an ex-novelist. There was something comforting about having a large work that I could resume every morning and think about at night. The uncertainty of the first 50 or 60 pages was exhilarating, and the reassurance of getting to the point where the characters start talking back and having a life of their own is an experience like nothing else. From then on one has to persuade them to do what the outline calls for (or something like it but perhaps better and more interesting). The constraints of a poem kick in right away so that the meter or rhyme can force one to improvise and sometimes to reach that high mesa of achievement that cannot be earned but is a dispensation of grace. There can be grace in writing novels, too, but I've been there and done that. I'm in my middle-seventies now, white-haired, gray-bearded, and tired. Writing novels involves a lot of typing. I've learned to settle.