I’m getting ready to head up to Vermont for a week-long writing retreat. The fellow running my workshop asked us to bring along any questions we have on our minds, and this has intensified for me some issues I’ve been trying to sort out for myself since last November after my near-death experience. My questions may go beyond what my workshop leader has in mind, but I’ll likely raise them anyway.
One of them is: What does it mean to be a writer? How can I balance between what originated in me as a profound passion for its own sake and the kind of careerism that surrounds me?
In recent years, I’ve become a bit disillusioned. Some of this is no doubt sour grapes based upon poor career decisions I’ve made and the sheer difficulty of maintaining a literary publishing practice. It has never been easy to have a calling to be a literary writer. I remember reading Ted Solotaroff’s essay “Writing in the Cold” years ago. Starting with the fact that so many young writers disappear from the magazines and journals after promising beginnings, he outlines some of the challenges writers face in keeping going.
Solotaroff wrote that essay in the 1980s, and I wonder what he would make of the challenges literary writers face today. Even though Solotaroff noted the winnowing of promising writers, he had not faced a world in which a writer’s career need be instantaneously successful (as opposed to building a following over years) or risk perishing. He wasn’t talking about a world in which writers were expected to fit writing their next novel in between Twittering, Facebooking, and blogging their way into the hearts of millions in order to get that book published. When he wrote “Writing in the Cold,” he didn’t need to address the crumbling of the publishing industry in the face of online amusements, the near-complete dominance of genre fiction in publishing, even the encroachment of genre into an academia that has become almost as corporate as the publishing world.
I was reminded of how different things are today when I watched Stone Reader, a documentary film that came out in 2002. It’s a wonderful film that tracks a guy, Mark Moskowitz, who finally reads a book he bought in 1972 but never got around to reading. Like the New York Times reviewer who first inspired him to buy it, he thinks it’s a masterpiece and sets out to read everything the author, Dow Mossman, has ever written. He can find nothing else.
So, like one of Solotaroff’s promising young writers, this one vanished from the publishing scene. The filmmaker sets out to find him and ask him why he hasn’t published anything else. Along the way he talks to various professional readers including the original book reviewer, the author’s faculty advisor at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, a book editor, even the famous literary critic Leslie Fiedler. In some ways, it is a book focused on reading—even the trailer notes that the film is “for anyone who has ever loved a book.”
But by the end, the film also becomes about the tenuous lives of writers. It’s a film that made me cry about the loss of talent and promise that is so common. I cried for all of us who have published only one book, and for all those talented writers who never even get that far.
Another aspect, however, might be even sadder to me, and that is the depiction of a world of conversation about books and writing that I believe is disappearing. (The NEA also believes this.) One of the negatives of Stone Reader is that everyone Moskowitz interviews is an old, white guy. It’s one sign of the antiquated nature of a passion for books. One of these men is one of my former professors at Penn State, who attended Iowa about the same time Dow Mossman did. I was rapt as I listened to Bob Downs talk about writing, about his career. Even though it’s only been about fifteen years since I finished my MFA, I felt as though I was going back in time to a completely different era, a lost world. While I’m not sorry that the literary world is more diverse now, I am sorry that it has lost a shared sense of the sacred nature of literature, of the higher, non-commercial purposes of art. We still had it in the early 1990s, and you can hear it in the old guys in the film, but I wish I would encounter more of in the literary world these days. When I do find it, in a few friends, we keep it under wraps. We should no doubt be schmoozing instead.