Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Literary Professionals

I have been doing a lot of finishing old half-finished essays lately (no, I will not identify which they are, you will have to guess.) This post began life as a response to a post by Beth at Cassandra Pages many months ago.

The professional literary writer sustained by a public is a product of the cheap-only-if-centralized print industry. It didn't exist before the printing press, and I don't think it will survive it. Which doesn't trouble me: I don't know that it was an especially desirable phenomenon. It's not at all clear to me that trying to please a wide public, or more precisely, trying to please editors who are trying to please both a wide public and a publishing company, tends to produce good writing.

If we have settled for living in a Capitalist society, then we shouldn't fuss about the market shifting to adapt to different technologies. I don't see why I should be more distressed about professional writers being out of work than I am about, say, loggers being out of work here in Oregon. If they're not needed, they've just got to learn to do something else. That's the society we've chosen to live in.

The fact is, there aren't just a few people with something valuable to say. There also aren't just a few people (though fewer, I concede) who can say it well. Professionalizing writing may have given a few people full-time jobs, but it also ensured that only a few of the people worth reading were read.

Many of us who write would like -- or think we would like -- to spend all of our time writing, and not have to do anything else. But is that really good for writing? Think of the writers you most admire -- how many of them simply wrote, and did nothing else? Writing is a reflective activity, a yin activity. Making it a yang activity, the main activity of life, violates its nature. It's no wonder that Hemingway blew his brains out. No one bought more heavily into the idea of the full-time writer than Hemingway (and his handlers: he was a very deliberately produced public figure). But you can watch him becoming increasingly desperate with the fact that making writing the central activity of your life leaves you with nothing to write about. It was not so much that he lied, as that there was no more truth to tell. He viewed it as an existential crisis and a psychological failure. May it not have been simply an untenable life-project?

It was my ambition, all through high school and college, to be a writer of fiction. (Which is odd, because I had no talent for it whatsoever; but it was what Great American Writers wrote, so by God I was going to write it too.) After college, I spent a year -- my family being at the time well off enough for me to do so -- just writing. The dream life, yes?

It was probably the worst year of my life: the loneliest and the least productive. At a wrenching psychological cost I produced, by dint of grim grinding determination, a couple uninspired short stories and a couple essays. In the course of an idle year, that's all I produced. I made half-hearted and unsuccessful attempts at publishing them, and gave up. While in college, on the other hand, I had written two short novels -- not effortlessly, but handily enough. I probably wrote less, in my year of Being a Writer, than any year before or since. And I still bear the scars of that horrible time, of day after day after day of trying to wring stuff out of my head that simply wasn't there.

In retrospect it's not at all mysterious to me. I didn't have anything to say because I didn't have a life. I wasn't doing anything in the world, and, unsurprisingly, when I tried to reflect, all I had to reflect upon was trying to reflect. There are people who have made careers of just that, but even at the tender age of twenty-one I knew that wasn't the career I wanted. Or the life I wanted.

So I find myself unmoved by the endangered-species status of the professional literateur. The species can vanish, as far as I'm concerned, as rapidly as it appeared, and no one will be much the worse for it. We may in fact be the better for it.

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