The Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer

Three articles crossed my messy desk recently about how tough it is to be a writer -- an "alternative" writer, a "Texas" writer, and some other kind of writer. ("Serious," I think, was the designation.) How the corporate press prefers hacks, academia rewards jargon, poets are impoverished, publishers hype the facile, and cyber-barons call us mere "content providers." How good wordsmiths must leave their sweet homes and go to cutthroat places like New York and Los Angeles to entertain the hope of a living wage. And you can't get health insurance. And it's rougher if you're not white and if you're not middle-class. And you can't get anywhere anyway unless you flatter the affluent.

All of which is pretty much true. When young writers query me, I say: Whatever your talent, to keep your integrity you must abandon all hope of financial security. To be a writer is to take a dare. And almost everybody loses. They usually skip this in writers' workshops, or there'd be fewer paying customers.

What's annoying about this crop of essays is their stance that our situation is somehow new, and that writers today are treated more ruthlessly than in the past. Such essays (and they come in waves every few years) miss the history of what it means to be a writer in any era, any country. Which makes them insidious, because part of a writer's function is to remember. So before you sign up for your next workshop, remember...

Edgar Allen Poe: the first truly original American writer, an inventor of the modern short story and of the science fiction and detective genres; and a prime influence on Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Rimbaud (who, in turn, are still the source of much of what we call "avant garde"). He was thought morbid for his very originality, a freak, driven mad by his demons and by the walls of complacency against which he smashed his fragile head. Died young and broke. More to the point (and this will be a recurring theme), Poe died with no serious expectation of acceptance or remembrance.

Emily Dickinson: with Walt Whitman, the greatest poet of American culture. Didn't trust the world beyond her garden, and who could blame her? She spoke her verdict on that world, literary and otherwise, by never seriously attempting to publish. Her work didn't reach a wide public until decades after her death, and then only by a series of accidents. And it took more than a century for her poems to be printed as she wrote them, rather than as timid editors thought she should be punctuated.

Walt Whitman: the only American writer likely to be read in a thousand years, and easily the most original and influential poet of modern times. Printed his first volumes himself, even sold them door to door. He was praised at first by literati like Emerson, then disowned by them when he seemed too sexy and maybe gay. When the Civil War broke out, he didn't try to "cover" it or profit by it, but volunteered as a nurse and comforter (a risky business, given the infectious diseases that swept those hospitals). Always hard up for money, as he grew older he was smothered in the sort of praise he still gets, a praise that tries to defuse the inherent danger of his content -- which is, and always has been, the most subtle form of censorship.

Mark Twain: made his fame and fortune by writing funny and trite, while his one serious work (Huckleberry Finn) is still censored nearly a century after his death.

Herman Melville: Moby Dick, The Confidence Man, and Pierre or the Ambiguities, didn't make him a dime or earn him much reputation. His publishers deserted him. He worked in an office the rest of his life. When he wrote Billy Budd (because he couldn't help but write it) he just stuck it in a drawer. It lay there for decades after his death. Like F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, Zora Neale Hurston, Jack Kerouac, Jim Thompson, Nelson Algren, Sherwood Anderson, and so many others, Melville died with his books unavailable in any store (and there were only "independent" bookstores in those days), feeling an utter failure.

Theodore Dreiser: published Sister Carrie, a shocking novel for its time, in 1901; as of 1928, it had sold 456 copies. Two years after its publication, in 1903, Dreiser was stacking planks for the New York Central Railroad at 15cents an hour. Somehow he stuck it out to write An American Tragedy many years later.

Ring Lardner: the transitional American writer from the Victorian to the modern style, the first to write truly modern short stories, and the writer who taught everyone the style of written dialogue that's still taken for granted as "standard" -- and who in the hell ever speaks of him today?

Jack London: famous for his adventure stories, yes, and only recently unseated by Stephen King as the most widely read American author in the world; but "the establishment," as we used to call it, has buried the fact that he remains one of the most politically radical writers of his or any other day. Try finding London's most revolutionary works (People of the Abyss, The Iron Heel) even in independent bookstores. This is a form of censorship rarely spoken of: the selective burial of a great hand. In fact, the best novel I know about how a commercial society chews up writers is London's Martin Eden.

Gertrude Stein: in self-exile from the United States almost her entire writing life, so that she could live openly gay (albeit demurely, not openly) and unharassed, and write as crazy as she pleased.

Randolph Bourne: a path-breaking essayist with a career that spanned only about eight years, unable to publish after he voiced uncompromising opposition to the First World War. Most of his papers were illegally confiscated by the police (and never returned), and no complete collection of his work appeared until decades after his death.

Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, H.D., Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens: Every poet today still writes like one or the other of them. Nearly all these greats, including Frost, had to find publishers and praise in England before being accepted even among literati in America. Of them all, only Frost made a living solely on his writing. Eliot was an editor; Stevens, an insurance executive; Williams, a pediatrician -- not just to start with, but their entire working lives.

Hart Crane: never even had anything that could be called an "entire working life," his poetry never reached beyond a few, and he was driven to despair and suicide writing advertising copy and hiding his homosexuality.

William Faulkner: belittled by most critics for the first two decades of his career, worked as a Hollywood hack to pay the rent until well into middle age. Wrote As I Lay Dying in three weeks while working in a factory.

Henry Miller: always scuffling for money, had to wait 'til his old age to be published in his own country, and even then warrants were issued for his arrest.

Let's leave American writers for a bit and go to D.H. Lawrence, the greatest writer of this century. Whatever you may think of his work, more than any other, Lawrence opened the doors for modern literature. The Rainbow was declared obscene; Women in Love had to be privately printed; Lady Chatterly's Lover was published at first only in Italy. He was hounded from England because of his "obscenity" and for being with a German woman during the First World War. He roamed the world thereafter, ill and always in need of money, tirelessly writing novels, essays, poems, never quitting, dying in 1930 at the age of 44 but leaving behind more work than many writers who lived decades longer. At the time of his death it was against the law to buy his novels in most English-speaking cities.

This list is taken only from the great names. For every name here, there are thousands who worked just as hard, wrote pretty well, but went unnoticed, unpraised for their efforts, and unforgiven for their transgressions.

Notice something else about this list: These names are from a time when literature was the flagship of the arts. Before television; before computers; before bookstore chains and the dominance of the Stephen Kings and the Danielle Steeles; before writers' workshops; before talentless critics calling themselves decon-structionists set the literary tone. This is how it was in "the Golden Age."

Do you want to be a writer? This is your tradition. And, even if you're as good as these people, this is likely to be your fate. Workshops and college degrees aren't going to change that. Computers, corporate media, and bookstore chains haven't made it worse. They haven't changed the fate, they've just changed the way it comes about. In any generation, there are a few who break through -- Henry James, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin. You can make your own list. Like them, you might steal home, but it's not likely.

A forgotten novelist, William Dean Howells, said 100 years ago: "What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending." Don't expect to be thanked for attacking the complacency of people whose true religion is complacency. Don't expect to be supported for taking the dare. Write. Dare. Make your stand. But always remember that nobody's invited you, least of all the readers; and nobody's forcing you. So, for the sake of Heaven, and for the honor of those who've gone before, don't whine. n

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