Anyone who has attempted a career in writing knows that the only constant, day-to-day, from morning ‘til night, is that whatever it is you are working on, you absolutely hate it.
You hate the characters who become less relatable by the letter, you hate the settings for which you are running out of descriptive words, and most of all, you hate yourself for thinking that you were on your way to profundity when all you ever had was a hackneyed abortion barely worthy of a middle school creative writing assignment. The good news, though, is that even–maybe especially–our literary greats aren’t and haven’t been immune to these studies in masochistic self-loathing. They kept at it, and as a result their phoned-in books ended up in bookshelves throughout the world.
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
“I’m writing a novel…the first in my life” Leo Tolstoy wrote to his friend when he began Anna Karenina. The statement was a profound one, considering the prior success of his epic masterpiece, War and Peace. Hailed by many as a flawless work of art, Anna Karenina’s contrasting tales of adultery and philosophy detail the transformation of a man and a woman against the backdrop of the declining tsarist rule in Russia.
Halfway through writing it, however, Tolstoy began his own transformation, rededicating himself to a radical, anarchistic brand of Christianity as the result of a poorly-timed mid-life crisis.
Excessively concerned with morality and disgusted with art and its indulgent nature, Tolstoy became disillusioned with the novel and refused to finish it, even saying in a letter to his friend, “My God, if someone would finish Anna Karenina for me. Unbearably repulsive.” Fortunately for literature, Tolstoy had a contract to fulfill with The Russian Messenger, which was serializing the novel, and he returned to work on the literary staple. The novel marks a turning point in the author’s career, though, as every piece he published after Anna Karenina took on a decided moralist tone.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Gambler
Most know him as the author of Crime & Punishment, but Fyodor Dostoevsky was an across-the-board genius comparable to his contemporaries across the globe. Similar to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky finished The Gambler due to an impending deadline with his publisher. But it was not simply the potential forfeiture of his royalties on the book that made adhering to the deadline so important; it was the forfeiture of all his royalties on every book he wrote for the next nine years.
Since he was in need of money specifically to pay off debts from his roulette addiction, Dostoevsky, with a November 1 deadline hanging over him, frantically penned The Gambler from scattered notes and ideas he had memorized. Dictating his novel to a stenographer recommended to him by a friend, Dostoevsky got the book to his publisher on October 30th, after twenty-six days of work. Four months later they were married.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes
Though most if not all people today think of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, the greatest literary detective of all time, Doyle the man fancied himself a doctor and historian. His attempts at practicing were not very successful, and to fill the void of incoming patients he instead created characters in his office. Doyle eventually managed to sell a short story about a detective modeled after a favorite professor and started sending out more short stories using the same character. Before long, Sherlock Holmes was a household name and Arthur Doyle was a doctor without any patients.
A writer of many talents, Doyle couldn’t stand the fact that his other works–poems, science fiction, and historical novels–were met with little more than passing sighs by Holmes readers. So incensed was Doyle that he wrote to his mother that he fantasized about killing Holmes once and for all. Bitter at his own typification and the character who would overshadow him, Doyle killed Holmes in a final glorious act of martyrdom. Doyle never expected the public outcry would be so bilious and persistent, and eight years later he relented, producing a total of sixty stories about Sherlock Holmes, four of them novels.