I’ve been reading three exceptional novelists lately. Their voices and styles are exquisite and recognizable; their content is of abiding interest; their characters are sharply drawn. But after initial successes, they were forgotten.
Two were British and one was American, but they shared an inner nationality: undeserved obscurity. It caused them a great deal of suffering.
And then they were remembered again.
Barbara Pym (1913 – 1980, Some Tame Gazelle, Quartet in Autumn) is an insightful, gently satiric novelist whose work was abruptly rejected by her publisher after years of a stable commercial relationship. Perhaps her quiet, subtle depictions of British village life were too quiet and subtle for the marketplace.
On some days—this has always fascinated me—she would follow occasional strangers on the street. Was her benign stalking an effort to find meaning in a world that was no longer reading her? Was she trying to inhabit others’ lives that she thought were more interesting than her own? Was she looking for material?
Only when the poet Phillip Larkin praised her work in the Times Literary Supplement did a publisher once again offer to produce her books, three years before her death.
Penelope Fitzgerald (1916 – 2000, The Book Shop, The Blue Flower) wrote radio pieces on commission for wartime BBC. Following that, she was literary editor of World Review, a prominent cultural journal in England. But family circumstances sapped her creative life, delaying the writing of her superb books until she was sixty years old.
Henry Roth (1906 – 1995) published a much-admired novel, Call It Sleep, and could not manage to write another book until old age. Through adulthood he lived in obscure poverty as a laborer and chicken farmer in New England. I read Call It Sleep while living in Manhattan and was so mesmerized by the dark autobiographical story and vigorous writing that I traveled to the Lower East Side in order to stand on the site where the action takes place. (Only later did I learn the story’s events actually happened in Harlem.) When Roth reached old age he revealed the cause of his lifetime writing block: debilitating guilt over the incestuous relationship he and his sister pursued in the family home over several years.
For each writer who is forgotten and manages to come back to literary life, there are far more who will not be remembered. After spending so much of my free time between the ages of 40 and 75—time when I could have been white-watering, sky-diving, attending masochist support groups—there’s a good chance that my books will be forgotten.
Except for a Shakespeare or Chekhov, I suppose most writers are eventually forgotten. We laugh and cry and write on our way to oblivion.
But back to Pym, Fitzgerald, and Roth. Before being forgotten, then re-remembered, they had to be noticed in the first place.
In the current welter of books, why are some noticed and others not? Is it because one has twenty reviews and another has three? (I was recently told, “On Amazon, just pay attention to the number of reviews. How they’re rated doesn’t matter.”) Is it marketing? Is it because good books are more noticed than poor books?
I try to supplement the efforts of my small press by being as loud a huckster for my work as the next guy. Like so many other self-promoters, I sound immodest at best, fraudulent at worst.
It’s not just the ungracious advertisement of one’s own writing that bothers me. It’s that so many self-promoted books, both e-book and print, strike me as middling to poor. Self-declared editors who don’t know much about language and literature ply their trade; writers who know equally little rely on them. I read so many bad sentences; so many lifeless pages that roll by without pertinent observations or an interesting slant.
Virginia Woolf talks about the right words in the right order. Throughout literary history, writers have sought truth and beauty by putting down the right words in the right order. We aim high. We aim to make art.
Perhaps it has never been easy slithering about in the can of worms where writers, editors, publishers, publicists crawl all over each other to get more reviews, more ads, more appearances, more sales than the next guy. (And now we can add Amazon to the list.)
In “The Death of the Artist and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur” (The Atlantic, January/February 2015), William Deresiewicz writes of graphic artists (he could be talking about writers, too):
A Gen-X graphic-artist friend has told me that the young designers she
meets are no longer interested in putting in their 10,000 hours [to gain
mastery]. One reason may be that they recognize that 10,000 hours is
less important now than 10,000 contacts.
It’s hard to believe that the new arrangement will not favor work
that’s safer: more familiar, formulaic, user-friendly, eager to please—
more like entertainment, less like art. Artists will inevitably spend a
lot more time looking over their shoulder, trying to figure out what the
customer wants rather than what they themselves are seeking to say.
And what if the customers have poor knowledge of style and content? Though author Barbara Pym failed to please her publisher, eventually she was recognized as a memorable writer by someone (poet Philip Larkin) with acknowledged mastery and taste. Readers (and the publisher) took a second look, reconsidered the work, and Pym continued saying what she wanted to say. (And then she died.)
Markets and the Internet have no artistic knowledge and taste. People have artistic knowledge and taste. In The New York Times today (January 18th, 2015) I read Leon Wieseltier’s essay “Among the Disrupted.” He writes about knowledge and taste. He could almost be referencing Larkin’s advocacy of Barbara Pym’s work.
The humanistic methods that were practiced before digitalization
will be even more urgent after digitalization, because we will need help in
navigating the unprecedented welter. . . . The new order will not relieve
us of the old burdens, and the old pleasures, of erudition and interpretation.
Are there too few discerning readers to support the really fine novels in the welter of fiction being self-published and commercially produced? Probably so. How, then, does a writer who seeks truth and beauty survive financially and emotionally?
By marrying someone rich or getting a day job. And by simply writing.
Assuming that we write with conscious intent, our creative acts will help fill existential loneliness and get us through the night. That may be enough. That may have to be enough. It’s not necessary to agonize if fast readers who want shallow action, cardboard characters, dead-end language prefer mediocrity.
Barbara Pym, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Henry Roth found the strength to continue writing, published or not.
Maybe next year, at age 76, I’ll take up something safe and predictable. Like parachuting. Or not. Writing a surprisingly good sentence or an unexpected bit of bright dialogue are my extreme sports now.
Existential emptiness—controlled existential emptiness—supports art more surely than popularity and the right contact list. Art is ultimately its own reward.