Every summer I swear I will waste no time watching Wimbledon, and end up glued to it. What is the connection, if any, between the activity of an independent author trying to write a novel, and tennis player trying to win a championship?
The difference between writers and tennis players are obvious. The tennis player is an athlete, supremely fit, sprinting around the court in the sunshine while the seat pours off him and his muscles ache with fatigue. The author sits like a slob at his desk, staring at a blank screen and typing for hours until his muscles are so stiff he can hardly hobble to the bathroom for a pee.
And yet perhaps there are a few similarities, after all. Firstly, both authors and tennis players are self-created. Tennis is an individual sport, just like writing. No one asks us to do this, we choose it for ourselves. The tennis player hasn’t got a manager, he isn’t part of a team – if he (or she) chooses to lie in bed all day no one will stop him. The same is true of authors. That long walk to the desk is very lonely. There are plenty of other things I could be doing instead.
Then there is the competition. Tennis is highly competitive, but so is writing. Both sports are shaped like pyramids. Only four players make it to the semi-finals, and two to the final. Writing and publishing are similar. Authors who sell 1,000 books a day are very, very few in number – as rare as Djokovic and Murray, perhaps. Those who sell 100 books a day – well, that’s good; they’ve just about qualified for Wimbledon, may win a first round match if they’re lucky. And then there are the thousands – the hundreds of thousands – of hopefuls who knock around the Challenger circuit, win the occasional match in Ulan Bator perhaps, and eventually retire and work as a coach in a sports centre. (Or teach English literature)
One of the great things about tennis is that the players are usually nice to each other, in public at least. Much nicer than footballers, for example. I think this is because they realize how unstable their existence is. A twisted knee, and cracked bone, and they can out of the sport for months, maybe forever. And the only people who understand what it’s like, from the inside, are the other players. Yet those are the very people they have to beat, in order to succeed.
Authors are a bit like that, too. It’s a lonely, competitive existence, yet authors – especially self-published authors – are often friendly and supportive to each other when they meet. Yet underlying this friendliness is a certain necessary arrogance. The tennis player needs to believe, to convince himself, that he (or she) is better than all the others – that’s the whole point of the game. In the same way authors believe that their books are better than those of their rivals, and hate it when readers judge differently. As Gore Vidal put it: ‘Every time one of my friends is successful, a little bit inside me dies.’ I’m sure Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray feel much the same way. Roger Federer must be feeling it a lot right now.
So, there you have it. That’s my thought for today. Now I must get back to work, before the long afternoon on the sofa cheering for Andy Murray!