Richard Smith: Blog or book?

Richard Smith< Is it better to write blogs or a book? I wondered this the other night as I attended the party to celebrate the launch of a friend's book.

He's spent seven years writing the book, but it's already high on the bestseller list and has had many very positive reviews. At the party I chatted to a medical colleague whose book from 10 years ago is still much discussed. Next week I'm attending the launch of the book of another friend who has made lots of money from his books and been invited several times to Chequers. Instead of frittering my life away with blogs and Tweets shouldn't I have a go at writing a proper book?
The first thought in my internal debate is that the experience of these friends is unusual. Most books don't make the bestseller lists. Indeed, most books are not reviewed and are never noticed by anybody. Even if they evoke a splutter of interest when first published most books are quickly forgotten. And few writers make much money: I have other friends who, although highly accomplished, have lived lives of near poverty because of their commitment to writing books. There are more cost effective ways to achieve the “fame and love of beautiful women” that Freud says we all crave.

The day after the party I sat on a committee with a professor who has edited a book to which I contributed a chapter. It's about to enter its fifth edition and has sold tens of thousands of copies, which is unusual for a medical book. I enjoyed writing the chapter for the first edition back when I was a boy but updating the chapter every few years is not much fun. And nobody has ever mentioned the chapter to me.

My experience of writing chapters for books is that I never get any response. I don't read the book, and I suspect that nobody else does either. So writing a chapter for a book is like a monk carving a beautiful gargoyle in the unvisited attic of a cathedral—except that the monk believes that God can see his gargoyle, whereas I don't believe in God and even if there is a god I can't believe he or she would read my chapter. So I'm writing the chapter for myself and so indulge myself even more than I do in a blog (yes, really).

The pleasure of a blog is instant gratification. You write it in 30 minutes, send it off, see it on a screen the next day, and often get some response—even if it's “My God, what crap.” But then a Tweet requires even less effort and gets even faster responses, sometimes within seconds. This is, of course, why there are hundreds of millions of Tweeters and only tens of thousands of book authors.

Yet the idea is deep in our Protestant culture that labouring long and hard over a difficult project is immensely superior to a quick splurge of pointless activity. So I think that I ought to write another book. But can I write a book that will say something worthwhile and that somebody will want to read? I'm sceptical that I can.

Like many people, I used to want to write a novel. I then decided that I had neither the imaginative power nor the technique. I agree, however, with Martin Amis that “the truth is in the fiction,” and some bit of me thinks that there may be something worthwhile in writing a bad novel. One of the things I most enjoy about writing is the way that the unexpected emerges, and it is said that characters in a novel can come alive and do the strangest things. That idea excites me, but I'm doubtful that I could make it happen. Nevertheless, if I get sent to prison or am rendered quadriplegic I might have a go.

So if I can't manage a novel should I try a work of non-fiction? Something magisterial that will get the world talking, at least for a day or two. I think immediately of Casaubon, the desiccated pedant in Middlemarch who spends decades writing his ludicrous and ultimately unpublished book The Key to all Mythologies while neglecting his sexy, young wife. I don't want to make that mistake, but a good book does need a central argument. It is hard to sustain arguments over the length of a book, which is why so many books are a five page argument stretched to 250 pages.

I'm being pathetic here, making excuses to avoid doing something worthwhile. But there is one thing that does tempt me to write book: Venice. The last time I wrote a book (and the only book that wasn't first a series of article) I did so in a 15th century palazzo in Venice, Palazzo Van Axel, one of the few Venetian palazzos with a double courtyard. It was one of the highlights of my life. If I can go there tomorrow I'll think of something to write a book about and won't care a fig if nobody reads it.

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.