Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Note from the snow village--

Image by Clive Hicks-Jenkins in my Thaliad
(dual hc/pb, Phoenicia Publishing, 2012)
I've just read Tim Parks's post in the NYRB blog, "Writing to Win," and am feeling amused. It seems that I hardly qualify as a novelist at all because I do not feel in the least that writing is a competition, and I have no compulsion to "win" against others. It's a lot more pleasing to help other writers than to trip them up and race off. In fact, I have no sense of wishing to be "better" than others in terms of numbers, which don't tell us a lot about whether a book is any good. It's not that I don't want to have readers; I do. Books aren't complete without readers. But numbers are always less than the desire to make novels and stories and poems full of energy and truth, grace and beauty.

Is it because I am a woman and lack literary testosterone that I have no fever to elbow aside other writers in some imaginary race? Is it because I am a busy woman who is on the tail end of raising three children? Certainly the post makes writing novels sound like a boy's game. Is it because I live in a remote place, and as a Southerner practically hibernate in the winter, so that I lack concern for being visible? (No, I'm not going out until the snows melt! Or at least until child no. 3's next wrestling meet. Brr. It's later today.) Is it because I began my writing life as a poet in a time when poetry book publication was limited, and so didn't expect a book immediately? Perhaps all novelists should be forced to start out in a landscape where publication is difficult, the snows are long, and the place obscure. It might calm them down a little.

It occurs to me that I live the most ordinary life possible. People in my little Yankee village know me as my husband's wife, my children's mother, or as Marly--most of them don't even know my writing surname, my birth name. They're more likely to ask me the date when my husband gets back from Kyrgyzstan (and if it's a man I'm talking to, he may say I'm the best wife in the world because my husband is off adventuring in Kyrgyzstan) or how my children are doing than to ask me what I'm writing. My friends who are painters and writers in the area and some others do know, of course, and we get together and talk about art and books and children and travels and so on.

Oh, there are articles in the local paper, but few people make the connection. My audience and my events tend to be elsewhere, though I do readings or talks for the village library or school and visit the occasional local book club from time to time. My closest non-village readings were in the nearest large town until the bookstore there decided that having readings "wasn't fair" to some others who couldn't bring in sufficient audience and dropped the series. So now most of my book activity is at a good distance from home.

I like this life; it's helpful being a member of a community and involved in various group activities. By the lights of those Tim Parks talks about in his essay, that leaves me out of the winner's circle. "It's a competition," he says of them. Luckily I aspire to something else entirely . . . and so am not downcast.


  1. Does a writer need to be known? Or read? Or is the act of writing enough? Those seem to be the questions that are always at the core of what it means to be a writer. Or am I completely wrong on this one.

  2. Well, readers are wonderful and needed. A book is not complete without a reader. So yes, readers are essential.

    But this gung-ho drive to have a commercial book is ridiculous, at least if one cares about good books. Books are not widgets.

  3. It is interesting, though, that some writers seemed not to care about readers. I think about Kafka, Hopkins, Dickinson. Kafka wanted his writings destroyed upon his death. That request was ignored. Hopkins himself destroyed much of what he had written because it represented to him that was contrary to his spiritual commitment. Dickinson published only a handful of poems during her lifetime. Her family saved the rest for us.

    I agree with you, though, that there is a delicate balance between the need to write and the need to be read. This is a balance that Flannery O'Connor, for example, understood quite well.

    And I hope this does not sound patronizing: An artist understands the delicate balance. A commercial writer has no such understanding.

  4. Hmm. I'd say they all, even Dickinson, made a few overtures to the world. But different people handle what comes next differently!

    Also, these are all very soulful writers, whose work deepened them and changed them. So even without many readers, much happened.

  5. Yes, Kafka certainly wanted to be published during his lifetime. I'd bet Dickenson wanted it as well, because what you say about readers being necessary is true. Just yesterday I was thinking about how truly exciting the act of writing is, the knowing what you want to say and the confidence that you know just how to say it, but when that bright shining moment passes, you still have the work, and you need to share it, to complete the circle as it were.

    I think Tim Parks and Salman Rushdie might be more competitive than a lot of other writers. Rushdie especially seems to write with at least some intention of drawing attention to himself rather than to his work. I have my own battles with envy, it's true, but I don't see publication as a zero-sum game, where if a readers chooses my book that means he won't read anyone else's book. So publication isn't winning. It's something else, something important, but it's not beating someone at their own game.

  6. Dickinson had Helen Hunt Jackson for a friend... and Hutchinson (sp?), though I doubt he was as satisfactory. And some others.

    I agree with you... and would say more but the furnace guys are here and then there's a wrestling meet. In Poland. Poland, NY.

  7. Ah, another one of those interesting discussions where I, as an artist, seem to find myself substituting 'visual artist' for 'writer' with the same struggle for self-fulfillment vs commercial success and awards.

  8. I expect we are on the common ground there, Marja-Leena!

  9. If we have something that we feel is an important message for all, we will hope that many people hear it.
    Because we feel it is important?

    If we want to be heard because we love being heard - well that is another thing entirely.

    A quiet voice speaking truth is only heard (sometimes) when a lout voice being loud takes pause for breath.

  10. 'A lout voice'
    What a choice typo!

  11. Genius typo!

    To make art is to transform oneself, so it does have a virtue on its own. Yet it's still incomplete. I expect the numbers don't matter so much to a novel--how many readers dance the dance with the writer--and yet a writer is greedy for readers!

  12. "Wink of eternity" is said to be a typesetter's error for "wing of eternity." Hart Crane.


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.