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

Monday, October 22, 2012

Getting a few things off the writer's chest--

On Martel and on being a judge

Why are journalists and others complaining that Martel should not have gotten the Booker because a. she has one already and b. somebody else could have used the promotion? If she should not have gotten it--a thing I do not know, not having read the books that are finalists--that judgment should have been made on other grounds entirely.

As somebody who (with four others) carefully read 316 books this year in order to choose finalists, I just want to say that a judge's job ought to be solely and simply to choose the best books. It must have nothing to do with the personal histories of the authors. It must have nothing to do with book promotion and sales. It must have nothing to do with the trendiness of the subject. Its purposes should be clear and hard and a little cold.

On writing about writing

What silly things are said about writing! There's no reason to believe anything a writer says about his own work. (Yes, including this...) And journalists who whip up exciting little features can be miles off the mark.

The so-called sadness of writers who vanish

Yesterday I read one of those (rather frequent) articles invoking for our knowing amusement the names of now-forgotten writers, as though it is terribly sad that the poor deluded creatures wasted so much life on art. I just want to say that I think this is utterly ridiculous. Such a journalist believes that only the writer who takes home the gold ring has a life worth bothering with--never mind that the world doesn't even know who takes home the ring, according to our descendants, and that all most of us really know for certain in our age is who gets the most book promotion from publishers.

But that sort of opinion, appearing with surprising frequency, asserts a thing that is strange: that art comes before life. Patently wrong! There is no art without life. Think about it. Maybe art isn't the biggest thing in life. Maybe it is not first--maybe it should not be first.

I am engaged in a kind of life struggle to create a soul that is, despite all, beautiful and worthy. I do this only in part by building edifices of words. Somehow this increases me, readies me, steadies me. My intense joy in playing with words and telling stories is one of the things that makes me bigger on the inside.

So these forgotten writers: do we pity them? I do not. They dog-paddled or swam in the great ocean of words and art. Without them, the ocean would have been a smaller place, perhaps too small to hold great whales. Without the reaching after story and art, their lives would have been dwindled things.

Grumpy and possibly unfair, an insomniac's questions at 2:00 a.m.--

Have we as a country of at least potential readers given up on precision of word choice, a little variety of sentence structure, the ability to sound echoes from past works, etc.? Don't people read Conrad and Hawthorne or at least Poe in high school any more? Remember back to the Victorians and before when the development of taste was considered part of an educated personal's equipment for life?

On gratefulness

I had a lovely week of letters and comments from people in the arts and readers about A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage. As I still feel that the book is nigh-invisible, this cheerfulness was unexpected. I'm very grateful to those of you who complete my book (that one or others) by reading it. The tale is nothing at all without you.

Tiny explanation of my word-madness, somewhat like a manifesto--

I was given a gift. I did nothing to deserve it. All deserving comes simply from the degree to which I can increase the gift through fresh creation without falling under the sway of the fashionable lures and Babel-babble of my time.

This is, quite simply, a moral demand.

A call on my life is to not bury my talent in the ground but wield it, sometimes like a sword, sometimes like a song--like a thousand changing things. All this and more I strive to do in, as an editor friend wrote me this evening, my "hard-earned freedom."

7 comments:

  1. Marly, thank you for this reflection. I am on the edge of life circumstance requiring a step into the unknown, and your claim here rings true and relevant to my discernment. Two of three part-time jobs are now gone, a third (1/4 time) lasts only until February. All official applications for calls or appointments have come up empty. I am beginning to think that God has parted the Red Sea so that I might enjoy "hard-earned freedom" to write. I believe it is fear of vanishing that has kept me from embracing this opportunity; so your words of encouragement—completely consistent with what my head knows—are making more sense all the time.
    And of course there is no such thing as vanishing (Ps 139:7-12; Rom 8:38). Thank you for a good word!

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  2. Hi Mary--

    Lovely to hear from you and find that you had already heard from me! I look forward to finding out about your writing plans some day.

    I've gotten a note about this from another writer, but also from visual artists; I think the issues apply to many vocations.

    I'm finding that California is difficult right now for a number of friends... At least jobwise.

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  3. Yes, so much applies to visual artists too, Marly. Thanks for your ruminations, I especially dwelt on the 'writers who vanish' part. I think many are never 'seen' in the first place even while pouring out their hearts in their wiriting or art.

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  4. Some responses elsewhere6:47 PM, October 22, 2012

    Here are a few comments from elsewhere that dealt with the post--several of them especially interesting, as showing how people feel about the ideas and some specific responses... I've just put an initial letter of a name for each, all of whom are involved in the arts in some way.

    While I find that it's the silly posts that end up with a giant mountain of comments, I hate not to share the thoughtful ones that ponder ideas and in some cases are worthy of little posts of their own.

    * * *

    Here's one on being true from a painter I admire:

    A) Beautiful post today Marly. Particularly on the "writers who vanish." I couldn't agree more. It is a both a blessing and an accomplishment to be able to lead a creative life and to be true to yourself is worth a great deal more than awards and recognition.
    8 hours ago via mobile · Unlike · 2

    And here is a response that shows that the sense of art as a lonely vocation, sometimes without a clear response from an audience, is a feeling that needs to be addressed...

    N) A huge thanks for this one, Marly. Often I have imagined my work as so many messages in bottles. Who knows how many of them ever find the shore? Your post is a comfort.
    7 hours ago · Edited · Unlike · 1

    This one I left in for the mischief:

    D) Bee in your bonnet, thorn in your side, pebble in your shoe, brussel sprouts in your pantry, etc...you must speak out!
    7 hours ago · Unlike · 1

    And this one for that lovely willingness to look at ideas without feeling the need to rush to summary judgment:

    C) I enjoy your lively spirit, and your willingness to look at so much. Whether or not I agree with all or any doesn't enter into it, not for me.
    7 hours ago · Unlike · 1

    And here's a long, thoughtful response from another painter I admire, and a little caboose at the end.

    Y) You posit an accurate assessment: that journalists should not disqualify a writer for an award previously received, simply because they had one before. Award winners are not bound to the same situation as staff (and family members) who work for sweepstakes competitions hosted by one's place of employment. Perhaps the journalists wanted to create controversy by writing what they did. If this is so, it's a lazy and cheap practice. Your quest to maintain standards based on truth and excellence, is sadly, not shared by many in the industry. Too often, they play footsie-under-the-table with politics, favoritism, and shallow judgments. It's interesting to me that journalists value gold-ringed authors from the past, while denying the same access for contemporary, living authors. A contradiction, indeed. Outsiders, those not really part of the creative process, don't know beans about what's worthy, valuable, or deserving of life. They simply do not. Immersion in creation and the resulting by-products can't be codified with the slim and shallow nonsense that they cook up. It seems to me that journalists do the same that certain art historians and art critics do: bemoan the death of painting, or some other art form. I hear about this "tragedy" every 5 years or so. Well, they don't know about those of us who haven't killed off art. We are valiant because we insist on making art, with/or without praise because we must. Today's blog is one of your most magnificent, Marly. It's thoroughly thought provoking, and filled with razor sharp insights.

    J) Art is art. You don't need to pass schlock simply because it's up and coming.

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  5. Marja-Leena,

    Glad you found them interesting... When I read your words I thought of the ending of George Eliot's great "Middlemarch," where she writes this of Dorothea:

    Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

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  6. This was really a fascinating subject, I am very lucky to have the ability to come to your weblog and I will bookmark this page in order that I might come back one other time.

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  7. Y) elsewhere brought up the idea that it is critics (or journalists, maybe) who are always announcing that painting, etc. is dead--that it is their creation. Hadn't really thought about it that way and am not sure what I think, though certainly declaring the novel is dead is a intermittently popular.

    Anonymous,

    Thanks for coming by...

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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.