|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.