He must practice; he must work hard; he must sacrifice mere pleasure to the demands of art; he must be, in a sense, both single-minded and monastic. Unless he is a polymath of the most formidable proportions, he cannot afford or support a second career as a public figure.
In a word, the serious writer must take serious vows if he is to concentrate on his chief aim. A vow of silence, except through his work. A vow of consistency, sticking with writing to the exclusion of other fields. A vow of ego-chastity, abstaining from adulation. A vow of solitude, or at least long periods of privacy. A vow of self-regard, placing the self as writer before the self as personality. --Patrick Kurp, 'A Vow of Ego Chastity,' seen via D. G. Myers on twitter
Patrick Kurp quotes poet L. E. Sissman on his blog, and of course I measure myself by those severe words. In many ways I measure up. I work hard and in solitude; I regard my work as an intense pleasure, so that call to vocation is easy. Because I write and am the mother of three children, I am utterly without hobbies of my own (I should like them but have no time to devote), though I vicariously enjoy my husband's. I'm not sure I can be called absolutely single-minded, as I have those three children and husband (Is that a second career or just a life?), but I doubt that Sissman took his monasticism that far--he was married twice and his literary executor describes him as being fond of motor cars and photography. I do get grand praise now and then, but I can't say that it has shaped me, as I was brought up as a proper old-fashioned Southerner, obsessed with tact and not thinking too well of myself (after all, back then we Southern babies of the caucasian variety arrived with a certificate of national sin, thanks to the painful workings of history. Now nobody knows history, so the practice has been mostly discontinued.)
Kurp talks about being left with a bad taste in his mouth after hearing an author interview; clearly the radio interview violates Sissman's protocols. I've felt similarly about many interviews, usually because the interviewer and author talked about things that I felt were as intimate and secret as life events can be--things like the writer's mental illness or the death of a child or early sexual abuse. In part my distaste comes from the simple but enormous fact that I am a Southerner brought up by a Southerner who was the ninth baby of a mother born in the nineteenth-century. Essentially my mother received the training of the prior generation, and it was a genteel education that also tinted my childhood to some degree.
But there's a more important reason that such personal issues should be secret. Secret things have a power. They are seeds. They grow and produce fruit. They are essential wounds that never quite heal. Unless, of course, you talk them away... Power can be dispersed and lost like water running away from its source.
As a Southerner who has lived in Cooperstown, New York for some fourteen years, my first thought when I see an essay ending with something like "The rest is X" is Twain's hilarious evisceration of Cooper, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses
." Twain's essay ends this way:
A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.
Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.
For Twain, the "rest" was art, and the line is simultaneously tribute and condemnation. Kurp's post ends this way: "The rest is marketing." His X
, marketing, stands opposed to all that a writer should be.
What are we to do about this little problem of marketing in the 21st century? Does any writer who does not receive a major push from one of the Big 6 or some lucky "black swan" accident (like an Oprah pick, a Big Read, etc.) have the freedom to say "no" in the current day when t.v. or radio or interviewers for print or internet call? I have tried the Big 6--I published four novels with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and have had paperbacks from Penguin and Harcourt and others in that rich group of publishers. But I have not received a push, not in all my 11 books. When John Wilson, the editor of Books and Culture
, read one of my books many years ago, he asked this: "Why are you the invisible novelist?" I hope that I have improved in visibility since, but that question is evidence of the hard fact that it is difficult to collect a readership without assistance in this enormous, busy country.
In some ways I am an unusual case, as I have published novels, short stories, poems, an epic, and a couple of children's books. In just the past year various houses published
a novel, a collection of poems, and a blank verse epic of mine. That variety means not doing what the publisher wants; that's not consistent, according to the worshipped doctrine of genres. Yet even if I had only written novels--and if those were related in some way, as mine are definitely not
--I doubt that I could have achieved a very large readership without luck or a push.
Now the world is changing; I have ebook rights to five of my out-of-print novels and two forthcoming ones and intend to use them. Still, I don't have the luxury of being monastic about marketing. That choice would be terribly unfair to my publishers--particularly to a small press like Phoenicia Publishing
, where each book means a financial risk for the house, and each review
or interview is important. If I look at the just-out Thaliad
, I see a book that was desired by the publisher but that was costly in many ways. The design work, incorporating the art Clive Hicks-Jenkins made for the book
, was much more demanding and time-consuming than the average book, and it made the book more expensive to produce for the publisher (although not to buy for the consumer.) The whole idea of publishing an epic adventure in verse was a risk--is a risk--no matter how beautiful the finished product. I've always thought it silly for writers in this country to claim "risk" for their writing, but publishers really do gamble and take risks. To say "no" to marketing is, no matter how much I would like to live in a fairy tale world where no such work is needed, impossible.
* * *
Notable responses to the post--
D. G. Myers on A Commonplace Blog
D. G. Myers is perenially interesting.
Myers has a grand, complex response to this post here
. I agree with him, although I pointed out afterward that after I left my second agent (Liz Darhansoff), I simply did not bother getting another and have relied on presses that asked for a manuscript. There are all sorts of things such action and inaction might indicate... Should you ask me why in an interview, I might be willing to suggest the range of possible feelings that would make me act or not act in such ways. But I would not be willing to explain which of those actually were mine.
James A. Owen on facebook
I'm abashed by this one, but nevertheless was glad to see it go out to James's many fans. Repeating it here is definitely in the realm of marketing. It strikes me that the reason I'm a little reluctant is that it includes a phrase about me, and is not simply focused on the book. I could take out the line, but then I would fail to admit that I e-know James, who once published a story of mine in his lovely magazine,
Argosy. Such things are what one dithers over--what I dither over--when I do anything that approaches marketing.
Marly is someone I count as a friend, and one of the smartest writers I know. THALIAD is freaking amazing. The last time I had such an emotional response to a book, it - KAVALIER and CLAY - won a Pulitzer. Read Marly's essay, especially if you do creative work for a living. Then go buy a copy of THALIAD.