WHAT CAN MAILER AND DICKINSON, ROUSSEAU, CONRAD AND GEISEL TELL US ABOUT HOW TO EARN A LIVING AS A WRITER?
fresh-faced young writers waiting on his every word a most successful career. And we students were happy too happy to be in the presence of such evident success, and contentedly adrift in the fantasy that the challenges of earning a living and of great art had little to do with one another.
Once upon a time, decades ago, Norman Mailer came to speak to a class of Columbia MFA writing students, myself among them, not about how to earn a living, but about the craft, the art of writing. It was a sunny afternoon. The famous writer was smiling and leaning back in his chair, more than happy to share pearls of wisdom from what must have seemed that spring day with
photo by Anne Fassotte
Whereupon, out of the blue, one pesky student, a friend of mine asked: How we can earn enough money to live and still have time to write?
There was an edge to the question, an undertone of If you're so smart, Mr. Great Writer, tell us something that might actually be useful. In 2007 many may have forgotten or not be aware of how long and hard Norman Mailer once worked to make himself a center of controversy and get his name in the papers. Among other things, with The Prisoner of Sex and other publications and public remarks he attacked feminism when feminism was at its height. I suspect my friend Jackie was not disposed to think highly of a man who had made his living in part by attacking women and the women's movement. And she had a young child to raise and a husband who, like her, was struggling to make it as an artist. And, unlike Mailer, Jackie and her husband had not come of age right after World War II, during one of the great economic booms in the history of Western capitalism, but rather in the midst of 1970s stagflation, when jobs for liberal arts graduates just paid the rent. Jackie was far from starving she was paying an Ivy League tuition, or taking student loans to pay it but she had that great problem of the working classes, no matter how well paid: Time. Classes, husband, new-born child, copy-editing and writing scripts for video games to bring in money she didn't have much time to think, let alone write.
Mr. Mailer, Jackie said. I would appreciate it if you could tell us, how we can earn enough money to live and still have time to write?
In high school, when I began telling people I was going to be a writer, one of my teachers warned me that very few serious writers are able to make a living off their writing. The figure 50 has stuck in my mind. Our culture has room or resources for only 50 full-time serious writers? In high school the resolution of this problem came to me quickly and clearly: I would be one of the 50. (Probably next year.)
I am struck now by the extent to which, in adulthood, not only I but my friend Jackie and Norman Mailer as well remained attached to this idea that literary success = being able to earn a good living from one's writing. Writers in so many other countries either cannot hope to make a living from their writing, do not hope to or both, but for American writers the primary challenge is not to speak truth to power, bathe in the wonder of language, stretch or undermine readers' sense of the possible or master the craft. Above all we want to become real writers: to be able to live reasonably well off royalties and rights sales and not have to work at another job.
In the days when I used to tell non-writer acquaintances (truthfully, it so happens) that I had published a novel, I was struck by how often their first question was How many copies did it sell? Or, Is it a bestseller? In the United States questions as to the integrity, depth, courage, wisdom, originality, goals and even subject of a writer's work are secondary. They may come to seem of interest, of great interest, but only as regards real writers, money makers.
Among the fictions MFA students and other aspiring writers embrace is that a writer who can earn a comfortable living from her work is able to devote most all her time to serious writing, and approach this work with the free-est of minds. (We shall have no more luck defining serious writing than the Supreme Court has had defining pornography. Let's cling to the idea of stretching or undermining readers' sense of the possible.)
In fact, writers who would live by selling books, no matter how serious, must spend a good deal of time promoting themselves and their work, networking, reading colleagues' and competitors' books. If, like Mailer, one has a taste and talent for controversy, this may boost one's sales, but likely one will also get branded controversial and thus be expected to controverse year after year, book after book. In later commenting on the fame and fortune he achieved at 25 with the publication of his first novel, Mailer wrote, Never again would I know, in the dreary way one usually knows such things, what it was like to work at a dull job or take orders from a man one hated. As one who has worked at dull jobs and for narrow-minded, fully detestable bosses, I am well placed to appreciate the freedom the Mailers of the writing world enjoy. I can add, too, that having to work two jobs one for money, one with one's words and ideas can limit and add stress to one's romantic life. But I also appreciate, and know in a way that the Mailers of the world cannot, the luxury of anonymity, of a phone that doesn't ring; of being able to write in public places and go on vacation without attracting the attention of strangers. The luxury of being free of expectations that I write about this or that, fiction or philosophy, with footnotes or without. The luxury of no one depending on me for their 15 percent.
But this is also to say that as an American writer I have failed. Real writers are free not only from dull jobs, but from the whole oppressive [and liberating] structure of working life. They make their own hours, wear what they want to wear, have sex when they're in the mood for sex, obey only their muse and not even her much of the time. To the more artistically inclined members of the vast American working classes (be they employed in hospitals, investment houses, law firms, boutiques, academia), not having to have a job and still being able to go out for sushi, mud treatments seems like hitting the jackpot, being one of the elite.
Was it for this reason that my high-school teacher did not think it important to call my attention to how hard it is to write well? (Or is it for this reason I did not hear what she said on this score?) One might also have asked a 16-year-old, What is it exactly that you have to write about? Was I intending to be a writer because I liked the sound of the title, because what I'd heard about the lifestyle sounded appealing, because my father wanted his son to be a writer, because I felt called to tell my compatriots something, because I enjoyed putting words together?
That day at Columbia Mailer might have raised similar questions in response to Jackie's mercenary question. Alternatively, he might have helped students think about all the various ways writers do in fact support themselves. (See section 6 of this essay for my attempt.) He might have discussed the use of controversy, and of current events, to sell books, or one of Mark Twain's insights: the reading public finds thick books more worthy of serious consideration and of buying than thin ones. He could have reminded us of how many of the greatest writers Twain, Dickens, Dostoevsky and Balzac, for starters wrote for money, voluminously, on deadline, with little time to think or revise, driven not a little by creditors or hunger for status and luxuries. We might have been led to conclude in many of these cases perhaps in Mailer's as well that part of such writers' success was owing to the fact that they had little time to reflect, little time to entertain their critical faculties. They were forced to give their inspirations free rein. (A significant subset of this group is made up of writers who have more or less limited themselves to recording their bursts of inspiration, leaving the right-brain work the winnowing and shaping to a spouse, agent or editor. Cf., some of Maxwell Perkins' more prominent clients.)
That day at Columbia, though, we did not talk about any of this. What I remember is a sense in the room that Jackie's was an inappropriate question, which indeed is what it was meant to be and why I liked it at the time. There was a reminder that Mailer had been summoned to talk not about the business, but about the craft of writing, the art. I remember, after the conversation had moved on, he told us how some things are hell to write and in other cases it's like a little bird is sitting on your shoulder, dictating. (Would that my bird were not so flighty.)
Since that day, I have often recalled my friend's question. Not because of its temporary inappropriateness, but because of its appropriateness, because of the important practical issue to which it calls attention and for the deeper issues it touches on. For example
Exegi monumentum aere perennius
Regalique situ pyramidum altius,
Quod non imber edax, non Aquilo impotens
Possit diruere, aut innumerabilis
Annorum series et fuga temporum.
O fearful meditation! Where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
Horace, Shakespeare it is a grand tradition, writers complaining about time. It is also a bit ironic insofar as time is a major component of the human predicament and were this predicament with that annoying time limitation first and foremost not so grave, readers would not be so desirous of ruminating on it or escaping from it with the help of books.
Let us also note the commonplace that each writer, no matter how many books she may have in her, has but one thing to say. Supposing the truth were that, in fact, the best of us had six times more half a dozen things to say. How much time is really needed to get these things down on paper? Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a not atypical example, lived 66 years. Ten percent of this span, from 1755 to 1762, was all it took for him to write Héloise, Emile and Le Contrat social, plus the Discours sur l'inégalité a work of such insight, vigorous expression and influence that a writer might well be satisfied to have written only this.
As regards the practical issue, I have come to think that young writers pay insufficient attention to the fact that their choice of how to earn a living is going to affect not only how much time they have to write and reflect but also the kinds of writing they are going to do, the set of subjects, styles and ideas they are going to be able to explore. Think, for example, of the new genre of poetry that was created as a result of the proliferation of teaching jobs for poets, jobs that tended to offer the space, calm and quiet of rural settings rather than the big-city bumping and honking of different classes and tastes fighting for recognition. Think of the writing styles and subjects that have been promoted by the Internet, blogging, e-books.
I put the word choice in quotes because my sense is that what we're talking about here is a kind of only choice or sequence of only choices. For all we may be ace ruminators, and make lists, set priorities and feel we are choosing between viable alternatives, we writers have no more control over the course of our lives than anyone else does. Rather, over time, we learn more and more about what our circumstances and character are allowing. Clearly Norman Mailer is someone who needed celebrity and controversy at least as much for its psychological rewards as for its financial ones. And Emily Dickinson would have died of starvation before she tried to become a public figure.
Although this must be the subject for another piece, I would note in passing the role that business considerations and politics play in our only choosing. In preparing the present essay I reviewed some of Mailer's political reporting, work which once inspired a whole generation of new journalists, myself among them. I must say that in 2007, at 52 years old, I found the work less appealing. It seemed to substitute poetic phrases and extravagant claims for identification of the basic conflicts and power relationships in American society. Yes, this candidate, Mailer wrote of John Kennedy, for all his record, his good, sound, conventional liberal record, has a patina of that other life, the second American life, the long electric night with the fires of neon leading down the highway to the murmur of jazz. Such sentences seemed, on account of their verbosity above all, to be less about truth-telling and more about helping people fantasize and lose touch with what was really happening. (Mailer's claim in The White Negro that the reason white Southerners were against integration was because they were afraid of Negroes' sexual superiority was at once more to the point and equally distracting, diverting attention from the economic issues that underpin America's racial conflicts.) I sensed, too, that the profusion of stuff (the neon, the highway, the jazz) in Mailer's political journalism dovetailed with the economic terms of the work. Book-length pieces are more profitable than concise articles, and highly commercial magazines (such as Esquire, which published his 14,000 words on the 1960 Democratic and Republican conventions, Superman Comes to the Supermarket) are traditionally not in the business of political-consciousness-raising but of selling whiskey, cigarettes, stylish clothes and other jazzy things. I was also struck by how the aftershocks of McCarthyism and the catechism of the Cold War may have inspired, if not necessitated, the growth of a new, more entertaining, less analytical journalism.
To counter-balance our contemporary American view, I want to offer the examples and commentary of two writers whose different only choices about how to earn their livings were part and parcel of their also writing quite different work than Mailer did. One, Emily Dickinson, while another American, is of another time and ethic, and of a different gender; the other, Rousseau, is from another time and culture. I will quote a Dickinson poem and a passage from Rousseau's Confessions that speak to the question of making one's living as a writer. The approaches they champion accord better than Mailer's (or Balzac's), with the values of the family in which I was raised, and thus, not surprisingly, they accord better with the approach I have pursued as a writer. I would stress, however, that this does not make superior Dickinson's or Rousseau's approaches. (For a counter-example, see the brief biography of Theodore Seuss Geisel at the end of this piece.)
As regards Dickinson, let me begin by insisting that her accomplishment cannot be fully appreciated if one reads only the half-dozen poems regularly printed in textbooks and anthologies. She wrote almost 2,000 poems, and reading and rereading in her collected works I continue to encounter gems and shining moments. My shortest favorite, poem 1155 of The Complete Poems:
Distance is not the Realm of Fox
Nor by Relay of Bird
Abated Distance is
Until thyself, Beloved.
Living modestly, provincially off support provided by male relatives, Dickinson was able to ignore the literary marketplace, instead writing for the ages, angels and herself, and for a beloved sister-in-law who had little or no capacity to understand Emily's work. And thus, unlike Mailer, Twain, Dickens, Dostoevsky or Balzac, she was in a position to feel and to alert future writers, MFA students included:
Publication is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man
Poverty be justifying
For so foul a thing
Possibly but We would rather
From Our Garret go
White Unto the White Creator
Than invest Our Snow
Thought belong to Him who gave it
Then to Him Who bear
Its Corporeal illustration Sell
The Royal Air
In the Parcel Be the Merchant
Of the Heavenly Grace
But reduce no Human Spirit
To Disgrace of Price
Rousseau offers another model, albeit a model more available to writers in an aristocratic society in which women served as the intermédiares and mécènes, the promoters and patrons of talented and ambitious men. In this context, and as the son of a wayward watchmaker, Rousseau's only choice involved using his talent for charming and pleasing well-to-do and well-connected women. Pleasing them intellectually, artistically and sexually. Of course Jean-Jacques, no more than Norman or Emily, did not care to reflect on how his means of support affected his work. More fun to indulge eloquently in fantasies of autonomy, freedom from social constraint.
May I be excused for commenting that to read Rousseau in translation is no more to read Rousseau than reading Dickinson or Superman Comes to the Supermarket in French would be to read Dickinson or Mailer. Much of Rousseau's ideas may be communicated, but lost is the grace of his best prose and the opportunity it offers to appreciate the particular eloquence of the French language. (Rien de vigoureux, rien de grand ne peut partir d'une plume toute vénale. Il est trop difficile de penser noblement quand on ne pense que pour vivre.) Lost is the suggestion in Rousseau's work that the content of ideas may be less significant than the pleasure of ideas, of declamation and of writing. I mention this in part wondering if a Mailer fan might not say that this was akin to one of the virtues of Mailer's work a flow of American language whose music transcends its meaning?
Nonetheless, here in translation is Rousseau's answer to the question of how to earn enough money to live and still have time to write:
I might have embraced the most lucrative course and, instead of reducing my pen to copying [music], devoted it entirely to writings which I felt capable of continuing. And, given the flight I had taken [leaving Paris to live on a country estate], these writings might have enabled me to live richly, even opulently, if only I had been disposed to mix, even but a little, an author's tricks with my devotion to producing good books. But I felt that writing for bread would soon have stifled my genius and destroyed my talent, which lay more in my heart than my pen and which arose solely from an elevated and proud way of thinking and could only be sustained by it. Nothing vigorous, nothing great can come from an entirely venal pen. Necessity, and avarice perhaps, might have led me to write with greater speed than excellence. If the need to succeed had not gotten me caught up in cabals, it might have made me try to say things that pleased the multitude, rather than what was useful and true. Instead of the distinguished author that I might become, I would have been nothing but a mere scribbler. No, no, I have always felt that the role of author is not and cannot be illustrious or respectable except insofar as it is not a profession. It is too difficult to think nobly when one must think to live. To be able to speak great truths, to dare speak them, one must not be dependent upon success. I released my books to the public certain that I had spoken for the general good, without caring for anything else. If the work was rejected, it was too bad for those who did not want to learn from it. As for myself, I did not need their approval in order to live. If my books did not sell, my métier [as a copyist] would support me; and it was just this that made the books sell.
It is important to recognize that the nobility of this speech is equalled by its scarcely disguised disingenuousness. Rousseau's work as a copyist paid at best some of his expenses. As he himself comically relates in the very same section of Les Confessions, his lodging and that of his mistress and his mistress's mother were being supplied by a wealthy woman, Mme. d'Epinay, and in return for her generosity, Rousseau had to spend time time he says he would rather have given to his writing, his walks and other endeavors chatting with Mme. d'Epinay, a woman who for all he liked her and for all she was herself an excellent writer was too thin and pale, too flat-chested (Jean-Jacques says), for him to feel truly enthusiastic about.
But here is an excellent opportunity to appreciate how one's writing can be influenced by one's source of income. Denis Diderot, one of Rousseau's great friends/enemies, remarked regarding the relationship between eighteenth-century French literary society and French writing of that time: Women accustom us to discuss with charm and clarity the driest and thorniest subject. We talk to them unceasingly; we wish them to listen; we are afraid of tiring or boring them; thence we develop a particular method of explaining ourselves easily, and this passes from conversation into style.
How, till sad mortality o'er-sways her power, is a writer today to make a living?
Neither Shakespeare, Mailer, Dickinson or Rousseau would have or could have responded in this fashion, but I wonder if in 1980 Jackie, I and our fellow MFA students might not have been most helped by an Aristotelian approach to the question. A first step, that is, would be to set down how writers do in fact make their livings.
(a) Off stocks & bonds, rents, via the exploitation of the present or past labor of large numbers of people of whose lives the exploiter has rarely but a vague idea. That is, by being born wealthy or accumulating wealth. Proust comes to mind, Henry Adams. One of the other writers in my MFA program upon graduation bought an old tenement on New York's Lower East Side. For many years after that, as rents and real estate values rose precipitously, I enjoyed the thought that he had been the most sensible of us all. I suspect, however, that rather than ensuring that he could write what and when he wished his tenement taught him that he preferred being a landlord. (It has been said that one only becomes a writer if one cannot do anything else, and I would like to think further that the lack of fellow feeling required to be a successful landlord would prevent one from being a successful writer. This, however, is likely wishful thinking on my part.)
(b) By marrying money or marrying someone willing to exploit others' labor and/or prostitute himself in the work world and share the proceeds with his writer spouse.
(c) By teaching. Note here, however, that the wages one receives from teaching and the hours one has to work in order to receive them are proportional to one's literary reputation, and thus teaching tends to be a good option particularly for writers who have already achieved a certain measure of real-writerhood. (On her way to Yale and Princeton, Toni Morrison wrote her first novel, The Bluest Eye, while working as an editor for Random House and raising two kids. I recall her telling an audience that she did her writing in the quite early hours of the morning.)
(d) By writing for money tailoring one's work to the demands of the marketplace and/or of the agents, editors and critics who serve as its gatekeepers. This can involve writing or trying to write audience pleasers thrillers, attention-grabbing subjects or styles, and so forth or working more directly for money, e.g., doing technical writing or journalism for a fixed wage. Some writers, in the grand tradition of Dickens et al., try to write literature that sells, and others try to earn money from paying projects say, by writing software documentation, screenplays or celebrity profiles, or by doing translations while reserving time for their literary efforts. And somewhere between these two poles lies those Raymond Chandler and Nora Ephron come to mind who find that commercial projects create a structure in which they are able to approach literature as nearly as they wish or can. There is also a much larger and perfectly respectable group of writers who come to find that they are content just doing the paying work, that writing literature was a youthful dream to which they are no longer greatly attached.
(e) By living poor, instead of struggling to earn struggling not to spend. Slipping away from the writing profession, I would here cite the example of my first wife, an artist and graphic designer who long had an interest in book design, but when we lived in Manhattan it was somewhere between difficult and impossible for her to get started in this field. Perhaps a few renowned, highly commercial or highly productive designers could earn a New York income designing books, but an idealistic, perfectionist neophyte, . . . She was designing menus for expense-account restaurants and promotional materials for fashion designers until we moved to a small town in North Carolina and cut our living expenses in half.
(f) By networking, making connections, doing favors, praising the mighty. I would note here: (i) it helps if one is born with connections or marries them; and (ii) often in real life writers combine various approaches. For example, Rousseau mixed free-lance work and entertaining wealthy women; Dickinson was supported by others and lived modestly. Many writers seem to throw themselves eagerly into networking and log-rolling, often combining this approach with a teaching career or writing for money.
(g) By having another job (but not a second career, as in "h" below). One of my best Columbia professors, the late great Argentine novelist Manuel Puig, worked for some time as a baggage handler at Kennedy Airport in New York. I stress the some time because I suspect that in many cases these kinds of jobs figure more prominently in legendary accounts of writers' lives than they do in those lives themselves. Myself, in my youth I was a mechanic in an electronics factory, a handyman at a mental hospital, an incompetent carpenter. My outlook was profoundly affected by these experiences, but such jobs did not prove to be my only choice for supporting my writing habit.
(h) By having a second career. Here we might distinguish two subcategories:
(i) Those who combine working in the publishing industry with networking, doing favors, making contacts, writing nice reviews of one's friends' work; and
(ii) Those who work at jobs outside the publishing industry. Wallace Stevens comes quickly to mind, but I would also mention John Locke. I mention Locke because his biography first supported by the Earl of Shaftesbury and then working as a commissioner of the Board of Trade and Plantations exemplifies the transition that for English writers occurred during the seventeenth century. To quote the historian Christopher Hill:
. . . after 1642 many patrons [of writers] found themselves in exile. The Cavendish family could no longer maintain Hobbes. Of those aristocrats who remained in England many were in financial difficulties. So the patron, although he by no means ceased to exist, no longer occupied the centre of the author's attention. Dedications, Thomas Fuller noted in 1647, begin nowadays to go out of fashion. . . .
Two alternatives offered themselves. One was to earn a living as a literary free-lance a possibility opened up by the easing of the censorship and the expansion of the literary market. . . . The profession of letters was only just beginning; but it offered new prospects of freedom for the author who could hit the taste of the public. . . . The second possibility was the more hopeful: to enter the public service, whose expansion was offering new opportunities to able men.
By way of conclusion three observations:
First, we should disabuse ourselves of any notion that there is one right way for writers to support themselves. It would not take much effort to think of great works that have been produced by writers who supported themselves, or were supported, in any one of the ways outlined above. We might like to say, rather, that there is a right only choice for each writer, and fortunate are those who quickly find their way to their only choices. But the fact is, even for a given individual it can be hard to distinguish between right or successful ways and wrong or unsuccessful ones.
Among other things, each individual has conflicting goals. One only choice may give a writer the most time to write, or lead him to pay time the most or least heed; another may get the most publishable pages out of him or sell the most books, win awards; another may lead to words that, long after his soul is ferried across the Styx, will be read with the writer's name attached to them. In my own case, I have made significant sacrifices so that I could write with a minimum of distractions, and one of the results of this is that I have been able to appreciate that writing is, above all, my preferred distraction. So should the success of my only choice be judged by the quality or quantity of what has been produced, or by the quantity or quality of the moments of relief I have enjoyed along the way?
A more prominent example: Joseph Conrad, whose only choice came down to something vaguely like Mailer's trying to write literature that would sell and thus being forced to write on deadline and struggling mightily against the limitations of his brand (teller of sea stories). Clearly, from the standpoint of several generations of readers the results of Conrad's only choice were extremely good; but, I gather that for Mr. Conrad the process was agonizing. Supposing that instead he had first made a fortune at sea, and so was able to write only what he wanted when he wanted (and in Polish?). Would he have had more fun (or less) but produced much less (or more)? Would he, perhaps without knowing it, have missed the ecstasy of great artistic accomplishment, or the simpler pleasure that comes from hard work? Art occurs in the struggle between constraints (inherited forms, language, the desires and demands of one's audience, the marketplace, the Styx) and the desire of the artist to escape, breathe free. Dickinson, Henry Adams, Nietzsche, James Joyce, Proust these are exceptional examples of writers whose egos and superegos were so strong, the writers could do great work even while scorning the market, inherited forms, the community of other writers, or all three. More often writers so detached dry up, while many another does his best work while struggling to earn a living and a reputation, while being bullied by editors and agents, literary forms, hungry children, greedy creditors, status-conscious parents or spouses, government censors or even executioners.
Second, I cannot help noting that in the fabled Sixties there was an idea that selling out was bad, whereas now the same behavior renamed marketing oneself or one's work is considered essential. Attention has shifted from the moral or spiritual import of the behavior, or of avoiding it, to trying to figure out how to do it most effectively. A writer, or any artist, who doesn't market herself get an agent, a website and a publicist is an amateur, a loser, a nobody.
For those of us who enjoyed the idealism and naïveté of the Sixties, the current mood is demoralizing, and I would like to insist that American writers American artists have lost their way. (And I cannot resist an observation of the historian T.R. Fehrenbach: Expenses rise to meet the cost of every sell out.) As a fall-back position I would like to insist that less important than what one does is that one does it with one's eyes open. I would like to urge writers and other artists, young and old, to understand the only choices they have made and are making and the effects these choices have on their work. But I am afraid that even this position is untenable insofar as it does not seem that pursuing the Socratic ideal of self-knowledge is particularly conducive to the creation either of great works of art or of great works of philosophy. Nietzsche, Kant, Plato the list is long, voire all-inclusive, of geniuses who had a vastly better idea of what they had to say than of why they were saying it. And then there is the problem (here in Iris Murdoch's formulation): I can decide what to say but not what the words mean which I have said. I can decide what to do but I am not the master of the significance of my act. Even a writer capable of knowing what only choice she is making and why cannot know and has little control over what present and future readers will make of her work.
There is no escape. This is my third observation. In the present context, for example, I note that for all they help a writer succeed in conventional ways being born with connections or marrying money does not necessarily mean that one enjoys more autonomy than one less endowed. Connections tend to require nursing lunches, phone calls and e-mails, readings and parties. As Rousseau found out, sugar mamas and sugar daddies tend to demand their pound of flesh be it brilliant conversation and (Rousseau thought) kinky sex, or holidays with the relatives, cooking, childcare and ego-stroking, or demonstrable success to add to the bill-payer's own luster and warm her welcome into some high or artsy society.
I would not forget that, for economic reasons, well more than half the US population is for all intents and purposes excluded from literature, philosophy, MFA programs. And it is hard without a good source of money and of moral support to long persist in the expression of unpopular sentiments or in the exploration of forms that, either because of their newness or their complexity, lack broad appeal. But nor would I ignore the Shakespeares, the (Theodore Seuss) Geisels, the (Larry) Davids who have been able to create something awful close to High Art through the expression of rather popular sentiments and the exploration of broadly appealing forms.
Every only choice has costs and virtues, and in every sacrifice to the demands of one's muse, one's circumstances and one's culture may be found the seeds of great work, not very great work and not much work at all. My old classmate Jackie might be interested to know that, already in his forties and little suspecting he would one day become a children's book author, let alone America's most valuable champion of the possibilities of language, literature and imagination the future Dr. Seuss was commander of an Animation Department in the U.S. Army. Long before he realized that the little bird flitting around his shoulders had a gift for anapestic tetrameter and ideas for such classics as The Lorax, If I Ran the Zoo and Horton Hatches the Egg, Theodore Geisel was writing Your Job in Germany and Design for Death (a portrayal of Japanese culture sufficiently reflective of prevailing attitudes to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1947). Earlier, during the Depression, his only choice was to support himself and his wife by drawing advertising for General Electric, Standard Oil and other companies. He first became nationally famous as a result of his advertisements for Flit, a common insecticide. In retrospect it appears that his slogan "Quick, Henry, the Flit!" laid the groundwork for a great career.
- Other tentatives: While running for Mayor, Mailer proposed that New York City secede. In a book on Marilyn Monroe, he proposed that she was murdered by federal agents. In The White Negro he celebrated the murder of a middle-aged candy store owner (daring the unknown).
- N.B.: The fact that writers in other countries cannot hope to make a living from their writing does not mean, of course, that masses of people in these countries are writing just for the fun of it. On the contrary, as a rule the smaller the market, the more writing becomes an elite occupation or hobby. And, even in the United States the vast majority of the population is rather more besieged via television and radio, and at school and workplace by the words of others than given any real opportunity to find their own words, to offer them to others and to earn a living as a result.
- In The Spooky Art Mailer advises against such reading.
- The literary market in the person of its agents, editors, large-order-placers and reviewers pushes its writers to be as consistent as a clothing chain or automobile manufacturer. I once heard of an Hispanic writer who a good deal of success with a first novel about Hispanic life. As a result he got a teaching job at an American university and so his second novel was about life at an American university. I can't sell this, his agent or editor apparently said. You've got to get at least one good Hispanic character in here.
- Quoted by Lee Siegel in Maestro of the Ego, The New York Times Book Review, January 21, 2007 (a review of Mailer's latest novel, The Castle in the Forest).
- I should note that in 1983, Jackie, Amy Friedman, Stephen O'Connor, Molly Renda and I, along with several other friends, published a fiction collection which went by the title ISBN 0-943568-01-3.
- Horace, Odes III 30. An English translation:
I have built a monument more lasting than bronze,
Loftier than the pyramids on their regal throne,
Which neither biting rain nor the furious north wind
Could ever destroy, nor the countless
Sequence of years, nor the swift feet of time.
- William Shakespeare, Sonnet 65.
- In Advertisements for Myself, Mailer wrote that the statement about Negroes' sexual superiority had been incendiary but unilluminating.
- While she does not discuss New Journalism per se, in the opening chapters of her excellent book about intellectuals and the civil rights movement Carol Polsgrove offers story after story of how the work of writers and editors was twisted and channeled by the Cold War; by US government funding for writers and publications that supported US Cold War aims; and, above all, by the fears of writers and editors who had been or were suspected of having been communists. Cf., Carol Polsgrove, Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), especially pages 74 and 86-88.
Another excellent examination of the intersection of politics and literature is E.P. Thompson's article on Wordsworth and Coleridge's Jacobinism: Disenchantment or Default? A Lay Sermon, published in Power & Consciousness, Conor Cruise O'Brien and William Dean Vanech, eds. (University of London Press and New York University Press, 1969). I would call particular attention to pages 174-76 where Thompson discusses the effects of internalized political repression on Wordsworth's later work.
- Elle était fort maigre, fort blanche, de la gorge comme sur ma main. Ce défaut seul eût suffi pour me glacer: jamais mon coeur ni mes sens n'ont su voir une femme dans quelqu'un qui n'eût pas des tétons. (She was very thin, very pale, and had a bosom like the back of my hand. This defect alone would have turned me off; neither my heart nor my senses could ever recognize the femininity of a person without breasts.)
Note that Rousseau had a particular gift both for making valuable friends, female and male, and for getting into nasty fights with them, for finding people on whom he could depend and then resenting the dependence. It is thought that his characterization of his relationship with Mme. d'Epinay in Les Confessions may be a rewriting of history after the flowers of friendship had faded.
- Quoted in Martin Kingsley, The Rise of French Liberal Thought (New York: New York University Press, 1954), p. 105. See also, Lewis A. Coser, Men of Ideas: A Sociologist's View (New York: The Free Press, 1965), pp. 14-15. As regards eighteenth-century French salons and literature, Coser writes: The literature that emerged was eminently a literature of sociability, a literature of playfulness, liveliness, and sparkle but also a literature that too often eschewed exploration of the deeply personal and philosophically profound. [The German sociologist] Georg Simmel has remarked that it is considered tactless to display intimate traits, character, and mood in society because such display militates against that formal and playful interaction that is the very essence of sociability. His remark helps us to understand why the style of most French eighteenth-century writers keeps close to the surface. (Rousseau here is an exception.)
- Allow me to take this opportunity to mention a wise observation of one of the best teachers I had at Columbia, Stephen Koch. Faced, I am supposing, with a fair number of students eager to sell out, students who imagined that if, say, romance novels were big sellers, then they would simply write a romance novel, Stephen insisted that it was impossible to write down. That is, if what one has to say gibes with the conventions of a particular genre the genre of high-brow literature included one may be in luck, and particularly if one is willing to accept one's fate, e.g., to be a romance novelist or a metaphysical poet. But as Stephen King, for example, could never write Leaves of Grass or anything close to it, no more could Walt Whitman have written The Shining.
- Cf., Neal Wood, The Politics of Locke's Philosophy (University of California Press, 1983). From page 26.: From the standpoint of vocation, Locke was a university don, adviser and agent of [Lord] Shaftesbury, salaried official, author, and physician. In the service of Shaftesbury and in government he was deeply involved in planning and administering colonial and domestic trade and agricultural policy, giving special attention to Irish commercial rivalry and the problem of unemployment and labor discipline at home. Indeed, as a commissioner of the Board of Trade instituted in 1696, he was one of the principal architects of British commercial imperialism.
- This is not to say that all has changed. As in the seventeenth century Hobbes, Galileo and many another promoted the interests and status of the aristocrats who supported them, so today we have think-tank intellectuals, media pundits and university scientists who promote the interests of those who support them.
Excerpt is from Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution 1603-1714 (W.W. Norton, 1961), pp. 157-58.
- I am leaving out here the more commonly cited problem of judging the quality of what has been produced, and the further problem of judging whether what is being lauded is what the writer wrote or thought s/he wrote. It would hardly be surprising if in a few hundred years Mailer, Dickinson, Rousseau, Twain, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Balzac and their accumulated work, letters, romantic interests were forgotten. Who reads the bestselling popular science/self-help books of the sixteenth century, the elaborate works of i professori dei secreti? Between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance who read any of Plato's works besides the Timaeus? And does the Plato who was discovered in modern times to be one of the greatest writers of all time bear much or any resemblance to the conservative aristocrat of ancient Athens, who, with his class and its values losing their hold on power, took refuge in academia and philosophy? Can it be said that some Plato hit upon an extraordinarily successful only choice because it produced offspring that so many generations later were found to have or were twisted to have extraordinary qualities that their progenitor neither intended nor imagined? As Michel Foucault put it in a classic lecture, Qu'est-ce qu'un auteur? What is an author? (See also the quotation from Iris Murdoch further on in the present essay.)
- An excellent but more extreme case is offered by the child psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in his essay On Success: In psychotherapy one always has to remember that anyone who is failing at one thing is always succeeding at another. . . . If I fail as a student to have a girlfriend, I succeed at keeping myself as someone who loves only in the family. . . . If I can't write my essay, I can show myself to be capable of refusing a demand by a figure of authority.
- While not wishing to launch into a discussion of the many different things the word freedom has meant, I think it worth noting the extent to which for American writers freedom is a negative, a capacity not to be not to have to conform, not to have to work at a job, not to have to embrace the conventional wisdom.
- E.g., in The Education Adams says that he came to feel he was writing for three of his friends, and for only those three friends.
- The Idea of Perfection, first published in the Yale Review1964; here as published in Murdoch's collection, The Sovereignty of Good (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), p. 20.
- All thanks to the Wikipedia article on Seuss for this information.
WILLIAM WARNER is an essayist who lives in New York.
[copyright 2007, William Warner]