On the Formulas behind Bestsellers

Because sometimes, other people really do put it better:


“Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living.” That was Flaubert’s opinion, and it is a fair expression of the way it feels if you choose to spend your working days putting words down on pieces of paper.

For most of the time, it’s a solitary, monotonous business. There is the occasional reward of a good sentence—or rather, what you think is a good sentence, since there’s nobody else to tell you. There are long, unproductive stretches when you consider taking up some form of regular and useful employment like chartered accountancy. There is constant doubt that anyone will want to read what you’re writing, panic at missing deadlines that you have imposed on yourself, and the deflating realization that those deadlines couldn’t matter less to the rest of the world. A thousand words a day, or nothing; it makes no difference to anyone else but you. That part of writing is undoubtedly a dog’s life.

What makes it worth living is the happy shock of discovering that you have managed to give a few hours of entertainment to people you’ve never met. And if some of them should write to tell you, the pleasure of receiving their letters is like applause. It makes up for all the grind. You abandon thoughts of a career in accountancy and make tentative plans for another book.


The above are the first three paragraphs of the second chapter of Peter Mayle’s book Toujours Provence—the sequel to the irresistibly charming A Year in Provence. It’s not a book about writing (which explains a considerable amount of its charm), but the few pages that Mr. Mayle devotes to the subject already says a great deal.

If all else fails, at least I now know a surefire formula for achieving bestseller success: move to an obscenely picturesque European town inhabited exclusively by eccentrics with quaint regional accents and obsessively chronicle the local culinary delights.

Piece of cake.


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