John Fowles was a conflicted novelist whose desire to change the world was at odds with his chosen genre of experimentalism, and whose literary ideals were quashed by his hefty sales figures.
Every writer is compelled to write. They must be, or they wouldn’t do it. The hours are long, the pay for all but a tiny percentage is pitiful, the need for a second (for which read primary) job or a partner who earns is essential, and that last creates its own problems, psychological and temporal. There is no time off.
Why then, one might ask, are so many people drawn to writing fiction? Intimations of immortality? An impulse for fame or acceptance or respect? A desire to join, in however small a way, the pantheon that stretches down from Homer? Or because they have the story, the words, the urge to communicate? Writing fiction is communing. It is a social activity undertaken in isolation. For those compelled it is a compulsion that cannot be resisted. It is why John Fowles, when he gave up teaching to become a full-time writer after the success of The Collector, said he didn’t think of himself “as ‘giving up work to be a writer’. I’m giving up work to, at last, be.”
Fowles embodied the compulsion and uncertainty afflicting all writers. A social realist who wanted to be an experimentalist, he classed all writers as ‘either entertainers or preachers’, adding magnanimously, ‘’I’m not against entertainers.” He was a high-minded populist who spliced his undoubted gifts for storytelling with classical and mediaeval European allusion and all-round pedagogy. In short, Fowles was caught on the horns of the paradox that affects all writers to a greater or lesser degree: the higher the art, the fewer the sales.