Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.
--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Friday, June 24, 2011

Marja-Leena asks a question

I enjoy going to Marja-Leena's site and think you would too.

Yesterday artist Marja-Leena Rathje wrote me a letter and asked about the truth of a post from a website she visits—it’s a useful site about books from Finland. The post argued various things: that women writers are judged and marketed by age and by looks; that the “old” and “ugly” have trouble finding publishers and agents; that women are sometimes asked not to write “too intelligently”; that foreign agents want to know book-sale numbers, looks, and age only; that “the media does not care whether writing is “the stuff of classics or reduced-calorie-ice-cream-human-relationship prose,” only that it has attractive interview fodder; that readers are underestimated by publishers; and that such writing and marketing beliefs as these “won’t result in art.”

These plain old facts of the way the world works are ones that I have long understood about the mainstream writing world in the U. S. After all, the states have led the globe in moving the focus from substance to celebrity. Substance in this case means art rather than the ephemeral and good books rather than weak ones. Pause. Caveat: I affirm this despite the fact that there are still great book reviewers and feature writers, agents, and editors out there, and honor still flourishes where it can. But I find it telling that these ideas weren't obvious and simple for Marja-Leena, who is a bright woman, accomplished and active in the arts.

So.  I acknowledge the justice of those remarks and their seemingly intractable nature:  then what can the woman who writes and aspires to art do? How can she navigate the world as it is?

She can seek to embrace a circle of readers who are loyal to her and support her work—that’s what big-house publishers once wanted for their “stable” of writers. They strove to provide and grow a “readership.” It’s not an easy thing to do, and she will be often on her own in this effort. She may be often discouraged by this obligation and feel that there is not enough time and that making new work is more important—that precious time to write is scarce when the needs of job and family (perhaps a spouse, perhaps children) already divide her pie of time. But in the 21st century she must certainly add this push toward community to her list of things to do.

She can hope to be part of a glistening spiderweb stretched across the globe; she can hope to find readers who will care that she is able to continue to publish (and the truth is that selling a certain number of books is always part of that ability to publish in the future) and so will buy and read her books and tell other people about them. She must have a certain confidence in and hope for the good will of others and the power of word-of-mouth.

The writer can look beyond the big-house monolith to university and small presses if she finds she is stymied in the larger system, her "progress" doomed by the fact that her promotion is so limited. But even in a less aggressive world she will find that she must sell to help her publisher and herself, though the demands are not as great as they are in a large mainstream house where she is often expected to produce numbers without sufficient promotion.

But most of all, the woman who strives to make the most beautiful and meaningful poems or stories or novels she can make must know some greater things. It's out of fashion to aspire, like Keats, to "the pantheon." Didn't postmodernism give a last smashing blow to that  shelf of writers' busts, mostly men's and often not at all pretty? But she must be out of fashion, this imaginary woman--this woman who exists in many shapes and with many faces.  Like Cather, she must sit down with the best, whatever the sex, whatever appearance they wear. Unlike a "celebrity," she must have humility in the face of what has gone before. Like Rilke she must follow the star that inspires revolution of life, like Austen she must learn how to write in the family parlor, and like Dickinson she must set aside any lack of notice from the world. She must attempt to be an Amazon, a version of that Blakean, Yeatsian archer who strives "to shoot the arrow of desire out of this flat plane of time and space"  (Stauffer, The Golden Nightingale.)

In such company, she can know that it is not ultimately about sales numbers or her pretty or not-pretty face—she can know soul-deep that it is not in the least about media or glitz or “youth culture” or celebrity or trivialities or the run-amuck American obsession with selling. She is in that world but not of that world, and so she can know what matters.

She can know that creation is beyond gender, though not beyond birth.  It is about instilling so much life into words that a story or poem comes to have a kind of life of its own: to be a new thing in the world. It is about the lonely room where the creator brings something out of nothing. At times it may seem to be about the hard chair, patience, and obsession. For the novelist it may be the sometimes laborious knitting and unknitting and re-knitting of the dream. It may seem all hard chair and no light.  At times it may seem to be about not quitting. But all that is just being a kind of servant, attendant on creation, ready and prepared for something to be born. 

At its best and highest, creation in words is about the joy of streaming language, the water from the fount, the light coming into the world. It is about the fire in the head and the exuberant chase of beauty and truth. And the woman who is a writer? She may join that wild hunt, whatever her age or face.

 Art without end, amen.

12 comments:

  1. Marly,
    Inspiring. In the face of such odds, it often feels easier to creep away into the corner, but we owe it to the gift we have been given, the one we try to nurture, not to do that. I can understand why Marja-Leena doesn't want to believe this stuff. Part of getting older is being faced with it repeatedly, till we can't deny it anymore. But once we were all young and thought we would be different. I certainly did. Art and luck and charm would overcome everything. So I don't think it has anything to do with intellect. It's the hope we secretly cherish for ourselves that keeps us from wanting to accept these truths about the world and about other human beings and the institutions they make.

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  2. Robbi,

    Wow! I think you commented on the unfinished version. I had originally "scheduled" it and then decided to change some things. So you posted before I thought it was up!

    "The hope we secretly cheris for ourselves": Ilike that.

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  3. very good response, Marly.

    If i truly believed that the young and beautiful were the only ones to succeed, i would have given up before i even started. There are so many examples that prove it is not the rule.

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  4. Well, "golden lads and lasses must / Like chimney sweepers, come to dust." We are all in the same human condition.

    And I believe that there is more room than generally allowed. A kinder system would permit more voices to be heard, pictures to be seen, and so on--and perhaps that is what we are building on the net.

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  5. This is marvelous, Marly.

    Wonderful advice, all the way through. I do think that's what we're building on the web. It's getting harder all the time, I think -- and God knows it was hard enough to start with -- to make a living by writing. But at the same time it's getting easier to get good, serious readers without Getting Published.

    This may not be a very good time to try to make a living as a writer, but it's the golden age for being a reader. I'm overwhelmed by the quality of the writers I get to rub virtual shoulders with. In a just world they'd be so famous they'd never have time for me. So I'm guiltily grateful for the injustice :-)

    (My word verification is "nomen," I kid you not :->)

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  6. Dale,

    Word verification has been entirely too apt lately!

    I'm glad you like the post--and I like modesty, so I am glad you are modest, but I shall have to go and see more of your poems for myself! (Today I just got "Juan Luna's Revolver," so that's my evening reading, but no doubt I shall wander out in the web-world soon.)

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  7. Great reply, Marly, more than I expected from my impertinent question (and what a suprise that you've featured me here, thanks!). I was rather shocked by the article because I did not completely believe that the only published women writers are the young and beautiful - think of how many older and elderly successful ones are out there, though granted they made their mark before our present so-called celebrity age.

    In my own personal experience as a rather introverted and shy visual artist, I have noted that those who are extroverted (looks can help too) and can get "out there" and sell themselves to the right people, generally do well. Here's where blogging, twittering etc. often helps us the rest of us introvert types make many connections as of course it helps everyone, though good writers can have an edge :-) It's still a struggle if we are making the art we want to for ourselves first, especially the "intellectual" work if you want to call it that in visual art, not just to make and sell the pretty stuff. I still remember someone close to me saying why don't I paint flowers - that hurt!

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  8. I think there is most certainly more room than is generally allowed!
    I cannot believe that all this (gender, looks) would make a difference when it comes to artistic endeavors.
    One would find me very hard to convince of that.

    Naturally, if one writes something that's going to make headline news, then headline looks are probably an asset. Other than that, I do not see this.
    Once upon a time, women would write under men's names. They were not (all) the most rugged looking of fellows, either.

    Why would an artist ever give up simply because they couldn't sell their work easily? Artisans, perhaps, but artists create their work (be it literature, sculpture, music, painting, etc.) because that is what they do. Certainly it is nice for some to be able to make a living from this sort of thing - and some people make a very good living indeed - but isn't that a separate thing from good writing? Good art?
    Isn't that something that happens to the talented AND lucky? People writing the right things at the right time under the right conditions... and knowing the right people, to boot?
    Perhaps one should treat that sort of success as one treats good looks. It's as much luck as anything else. Mostly so, in fact.

    I know SO many extremely talented and gifted artists. I know a much smaller number of talented and gifted artists who make a great living out of it all.
    When I hear artists suggest that they may as well give up because they're work is not selling - I can only agree with them. If there is not other call than 'success', they may as well.
    Good grief! This irks me so! Think of the number of posthumously famous artists there are. Just a step-out-of-sync with the rest of the world when they created their art.
    Most of them were not especially gorgeous, to my memory.

    Art is not potatoes. It's not a 'product' in the normal sense of the word. Art is communication, and some people are very lucky to be communicating to a world that wishes to hear when they have to say - as it's being said. This is a basic lesson for any artist out there, no matter what art they produce.
    No matter how talented/gifted you are, you will only make a living out if it if you are lucky.

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  9. It's marja-leena herself!

    Of course I featured you--it was your question. I don't think anything is engraved in stone anywhere, and it's possible to make your way despite things that don't matter. It's just a lot harder to be featured, promoted, etc. in the "entertainment" culture. And looks (including thinness for women, of course) and an ability to speak reasonably well definitely infuences marketing departments!

    Now I think a good blog post could be "Why I Don't Paint Flowers!" That is rather funny, but of course I have experienced the same sort of thing. In my case, I've met up with the "Why don't you write a nice little bestseller?" sort of question. Sometimes as a real question, sometimes as teasing.

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  10. Paul,

    Yes, I agree with you!

    I certainly don't think looks etc. make a difference to the art. They just make a difference to the marketer, the agent, and so on.

    I didn't bring up that little matter of luck because I've talked about it so recently in The House of Words. And luck is definitely in the mix.

    And you are right, art as "product" is another sad sign of the past decades.

    Maybe I am just nuts, but I do think we can turn such trends around. The culture is over-material, over-obsessed with money as a measure, decadent, and often trivial. We don't have to go along, and we can keep saying the things that need to be said.

    As you just did!

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  11. Paul,
    It's not about money; it's about having any sort of readership. I get so angry because I am not allowed to do a featured reading because I have not published a book. Why have I not published a book? After all, I have two quite presentable collections out there now, and half a book of autobiographical essays. It isn't me. I send things to journals, websites, contests. I try to get out there and get a public. No one who doesn't already HAVE recognition is allowed to GET recognition, at least in the non-virtual world.

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  12. Robbi,

    I think the issues are quite different with poetry. It used to be hard to get a first book. Then it was hard to get first or second. Now it is just plain old hard.

    That's in part why I did "The House of Words" series, to point people like you in different directions, and I still think that some of those options might work for you. Talk to Nic; you might find that a nanopress first book with an academic's introduction (to make it useful for job apps too!) leads to a "regular" press second book. Etc.

    Feel free to look back through that series and see if there is anything you would have liked to have had advice on that you did not see.

    You are swimming in a sea where other people are swimming also, many of whom are in a similar case to you. Try and make more connections with them and with others you meet on line.

    Also, if you do not have an adjunct job for next year, what about volunteering at a press or a magazine or a reading series or something like that? You're in an active region. Find something where you will meet people.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.