“I agree with the view that writing novels is an unhealthy type of work. When we set off to write a novel… like it or not, a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface. All writers have to come face-to-face with this toxin and, aware of the danger involved, discover a way to deal with it, because otherwise no creative activity in the real sense can take place.”

Haruki Murakami
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running


The novelist Haruki Murakami in Tokyo

Writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor.


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10 Responses to “TOXIC JOB”

  1. sean carman Says:

    Hi Elif,

    I don’t know if you will have time to respond here, but I’d be very curious to hear what you think he might be referring to? Also: Is your view that writing novels is a kind of manual labor fundamentally different from Murakami’s, or do you think it’s another way of saying something similar?

    I can think of two ways that writing a novel might bring a kind of human toxin to the surface. One is, of course, the weird psychological terror that seems to accompany any kind of creative writing, and that I think of as the great source of all procrastination. Then, I suppose, he might be talking about the toxcity of any given subject matter. For any subject to be truly meaningful, maybe it would have to involve some exploration of the darker side of human nature?

    Anyway, this seemed like a fun question to ask, here in the comments section of your blog. I suppose I should also throw open the question to all of the other novelists and writers who must also follow your posts here.

    What say you, good people?


  2. Last Man Standing Says:

    Hey Sean,

    I personally, as a short story writer, would love to write more stories that don’t have conflict (and conflict is basically the unveiling of toxins). Ultimately, and this is probably a personal belief NOT shared by a lot of people, but I want to find peace, and I feel like I need to prove that peace is not boring, i.e. the worthy subject of an entertaining story. (If peace is boring, then what’s the point of solving problems? Why not just mess up the world some more, rather than improve it?) But writing such stories is really hard! We’re wired to look for the dark side and then, to a lesser extent, to try to alleviate it — probably good traits for living in this world, as far as that goes.

    Murakami is probably just trying to solve life-and-death problems, which is the only way to get people to really care and pay you money. From what I’ve read by him (one of his short story collections and two of his 1990s novels), these might include: loneliness, lack of meaningful communication, lack of meaningful work — so he’s addressing the spiritual or emotional side of things. He’s useful to the species because the human mind or spirit has outgrown this physical life of 80 years, 3 meals a day, sex and offspring, work steadily, yet we all have this instinct that we need to remain in this life, just as strong as our instinct to transcend it (actually, usually stronger) and we REALLY feel like OTHER PEOPLE need to keep living, it really puts us out when they kill themselves, or to a lesser extent when they don’t buy into jobs, sex, and/or family. So he does his work. And he gets paid.

    So, literature in a “this is important, we need to do it” sense absolutely has to deal with toxins… you might as well put up a sign that says so.

    There’s another side to literature, though, which is: “How do we wait through eternity? What do we do in heaven?” Yes, we get to know God, and that’s all fine and dandy, but what does that look like? Experiencing God is great, but you always experience God through something else, through signs or words or whatever. (Maybe it’s different in heaven, I’ve never been there.) So, what kind of literature connects you to God, when being connected to God is pure joy, that connects you to the truth when the truth is, no guilt or worries or fear of running out? My guess is: literature for the sheer hell of it (or perhaps for the heaven of it?) Literature that’s wasteful, because God can afford to be infinitely wasteful and his trusting children can be beautifully irresponsible. I think all good literature contains some of this.

    However, no honest literature can pretend like the author’s already in heaven. So good, honest literature operates on both the this-worldly and heavenly level. (Then there’s the question of what kind of literature we’ll write in hell, if we make it there: perhaps simply the literature that can’t stomach heaven.)

    Hopefully that addresses some of your prompt!


  3. Elif Says:

    dear LMS, i was just thinking something similar about utopian novels – viz. that the problem with so many utopian novels is they get their model of “sustainable practice” from the rhetoric/ philosophy of revolution, which is the natural place to look for it, and yet it’s almost never *actually* there! practically nobody has a plan for, or a way of describing, whatever we’re supposedly striving towards (except maybe the religious people). i read somewhere that the hardest part of the divine comedy for dante was paradiso…

    dear sean, those are great questions! to provide some context for the murakami quote – it’s a book about his love of jogging, yeah, so there he’s addressing the romantic stereotype of the novelist who drinks hard/ sleeps around/ doesn’t jog at 5 every morning – and his response is: “actually, novel writing produces such ‘toxins’ that you can’t afford to have a body weakened by dissolute living – you need physical strength and endurance.”
    because it’s a book about jogging, there is a sense in which this is really literal – but a recurring theme in murakami’s fiction is that the “enemy” that seems to come from the outside is always actually something that came from inside you – so i think on a more metaphoric level he’s saying, “hey romantic novelists, you don’t need to look outside you for the toxins – you need to look inside.”

  4. Brandon Spot Says:

    I love Haruki Murakami! He’s a weirt but talented writer. And you can feel that toxin he’s talking about when you read his novels!

  5. sean carman Says:

    These are great answers! LMS, I guess I had never considered that paradox in utopian fiction, but you’re right, it’s an interesting problem. Elif, I see what you mean. The protagonist in Wind-Up Bird goes down into a well — the perfect metaphor for delving into one’s own psyche — and his surreal defeat of his nemesis seems like a metaphorical excision of some kind of cancer. I agree with Brandon. Always a dark pleasure reading him.

  6. Elif Says:

    I agree with Brandon too, but am kind of concerned by the URL he linked to… is he a (really well-read) porno robot??

  7. Sean Carman Says:

    How did he get through the captcha filter? How did he formulate such a plausible (if suspiciously enthusiastic) comment about Murakami? What are his thoughts on Proust?

  8. Last Man Standing Says:

  9. Last Man Standing Says:

    Also, I’ve heard they hire people to write spam. Amazon has a site called Mechanical Turk that allows you to outsource tasks to computer users in India and the US. It’s quite useful! My friends used it to narrate some film reviews, for like, 5 cents a review. The US workers were awesome, either good or entertaining. The Indians, I’m afraid, were often too monotonous, although maybe Indians wouldn’t have minded.

  10. Dave Lull Says:

    75 at 75: Elif Batuman on Haruki Murakami

    A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Elif Batuman writes about a reading of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Murakami reads in Japanese and English, with other English excerpts read by Jonathan Levi. It was recorded live at 92Y on October 26, 1998.

    Posted on Jan 31, 2014

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