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Monday, May 06, 2019

Down and out in Cripplegate Ward

John Rocque's 1746 map of London, showing Grub Street in Cripplegate Ward, above and to the right of St. Giles and the Cripple-gate churchyard--running from Chiswell to Fore Street. Public domain, via Wikipedia 
I'm afraid there was no wondrous golden time for writers--oh, there were times when disparate talents came together in one region and vied with one another, but even then there was often jealousy and insufficient reward. Look back, and you find Robert Greene railing at that "shake scene" and "upstart crow," a Shakespeare "beautified" with pilfered feathers. Or look at the denizens of Grub Street, journalists and poets struggling to feed and house themselves in a poor bohemian quarter, only to be pilloried by that clever and amusing cripple, Alexander Pope.

In an essay for The New Republic, "Down and Out in the Gig Economy," Jacob Silverman (lovely name!) lodges a complaint that "freelance journalism is a monetized hobby," that it is nearly impossible to do more that "serve the whims of capital." Not only has he not found a secure, salaried perch, but he has learned a truth that many writers know--that it is quite possible to write a book that critics love but that does not sell, for reasons out of the writer's control. Well, I sympathize with his lot and agree that journalism is in a parlous way, that there were some brief, better years for essayists in the last century, and that it's difficult for a writer of any sort to find a happy niche. Publishing tends to be a winner-take-all scheme. Go to any airport bookstore and check out the Top 10 books on sale. There you go. Winner-take-almost-all!

Though I'd love for the writer's life to be easier and more straightforward, it is not these challenges that make me uneasy with "Down and Out" but the essay itself as revelation of how such disappointments may harm the writer, either for a period of time or permanently. Many, many writers have challenges like the ones Silverman names, and there are other, unmentioned disappointments that pop up unexpectedly--quirky, oddball twists of publishing fate. In the kingdom of writer-dooms, Melville has long been a hero of mine. Years after any notice was paid to him, an old man, he pursued the work it was given him to do, writing poems, writing Billy Budd. He endured the agony of being ignored and thought mad (and perhaps of being mad from neglect for a time), and yet he kept harrowing his piece of literary ground and planting new seed, even when no one remained to believe that what he made would mean anything in the world. He persisted. He won a victory, although he had no earthly reward for doing so. But I have known writers in similar situations whose minds and spirits were bent by lack of notice, lack of support, and who did not have the resilience to unbend. I won't say their names, but some drift into mind.

The dream of creating something strong and true matters to the soul. A strange joy, it burns in the mind. Resentment and bitterness will never help a work grow and achieve beauty. Putting words together in fresh patterns is a kind of alchemy that transforms the inner being of the writer--creation may make the self larger and more resilient on the inside. Yet self-poisoning by resentment and bitterness remains a risk for any maker. To a writer, young or old, I'd say that there's no shame in pursuing some other dream if resentment becomes a blight, just as there's no shame in keeping on despite self-judgment or the world's judgment, and in striving to pierce the cloud of bitterness...

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  1. In the end, the work itself must be worth doing. I think Melville (who I also see as a heroic figure) knew that the work mattered, even if the world did not know it.

    I got an email a couple of weeks ago from Miriam Burstein of SUNY Brockport after she taught The Astrologer again. I'm always grateful when the good professor puts my wee novel on the curriculum, and it cheers me to think that another couple of dozen students are being exposed to it. That doesn't really help me keep going with new work, but sometimes I'll be grinding away at revisions to what will probably be another unpublished novel, and I will sit up to clear my head and realize that I am, no matter what, doing good work, that the work matters, all the things you say above. Today is a day like that, and I'm pleased to be making something with my own hands and head and heart. Really, it's a privilege and a luxury.

    1. Yes, I feel the same. "Privilege" has terrible connotations at the moment, but you are right. To create is high privilege, and it is a privilege that has been known to all sorts of people in all sorts of places. And I value highly the metamorphosis that comes with chasing the beautiful and true--it may be only of deep significance to me, but that does not matter.

      And hurrah for your Brockportian readers! I've been there, once. Another wintry SUNY... windy and cold, a good place to huddle up by the fire and read a good book.

  2. That piece left me uneasy too. He treats the prospect of holding down a day job as a failure, a source of shame. That's all wrong, and his mindset distances me significantly from his lament. I know from personal experience that there are number of unglamorous forms of writing he could do to earn a living and subsidize the work he loves to do.

    He could also learn a thing or two from many of the fine poets right (Amit Majmudar, Ed Shacklee, and A.M. Juster, among others) who have day jobs completely unrelated to their literary pursuits.

    I wish him well, but I say this as someone who's participated in several rounds of interviewing and hiring for a small business: If his resume landed on my desk and I took a moment to google him, I'm not sure that gripey essay would make me more inclined to hire him.

    1. The other day, I was saying that if I could be 18 again (oof, so much to go through), I would learn a craft at some place like the American College of the Building Arts in Charleston. And practicing that would be my day job! And I would write on my own time and dime...

      Yes, I think that there are some grand examples of poets and writers who do something surprising for their day jobs. Inspiring!

      It is hard to complain about the state of publishing, the state of one's own so-called career, or the reactions of other people to one's situation and not come off the worse for it. I don't really think it can be done unless you talk about other people in parallel boats or make it a fictional narrative.

  3. I am lucky, I can afford to fail as a writer. Being retired and "comfortable". The only thing that bugs me is whether I can claim to be a writer at all, given that very few people have ever paid to read my stuff. Having my name in blue in your Aerial Threads column was an unexpected and somewhat feverish delight. "Someone thinks so," I told myself. Then I thought of my friends - one in particular - who had laboriously accompanied me in those early days, a mere decade ago, jogging my elbow, making kind suggestions following my late decision to take fiction seriously. I inscribed a name or two on the dedication page thinking: "To hell with money, I'd like people who are unknown to me to note these names." I waited in hope, the main dedicatee died. Failure had to be acknowledged.

    The very strong possibility of further failure had to be part of my warp and woof. And yet its negativism had to be resisted. I wrote a second novel and it was far, far better. The plot unfolded - page after page - straight out of my imagination. In my heart of hearts I said to myself this is writing whatever anyone else says. I wrote two more novels and realised, wryly, that the second novel was better than both. Never mind.

    So, four novels completed and a fifth somewhat bogged down. Just to get through the physical act of putting down (and of course revising) those half-million words was an achievement. And after all, one cannot regard oneself as a writer if one doesn't write. But there had to be more. There is, although, alas, it takes the form of a truism.

    If one cannot realistically hope for readers one must look inwards. The act of writing - the struggle to find options, the awfulness of superficiality, the glow when you see twenty-five words ahead - has to be rewarding in itself. Writing is not a lovable process but somehow one has to love it. Even the reverses must seem to be part of a natural process. How? Consider being threatened: told you must never write again. Pile on the reality, envisage with horror the emptiness. And remind yourself every two of three days when things aren't going well. Putting one word in front of another should be its own fulfilmment. Now exercise a real writer's cold objectivity, scrub out what you've written and do it again, but better. Are you happy? Happier? Am I happy breathing?

    Otherwise it's an exercise in self-deception.

  4. Surely a writer is a person who writes... And exactly--love it! Because it is fairly well ensconced in "the gift economy" for most writers.

    “A man may wonder what will come in return for his gift, but he is not supposed to bring it up. Gift exchange is not a form of barter."
    ― Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property

  5. "Writer" must be more than one who writes. Otherwise those who create a shopping list or dash off a postcard (does anyone still do that?) might qualify. Faulkner's "to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before" is perhaps too flossy for a dictionary. One might further defiine the verb: "write - to originate in words". Still incomplete, alas.

    Lewis Hyde is close even if "gift" in this context smells slightly of self-sanctification. But away with navel inspection. You are a writer and I would provide a reference to that effect. And I, despite my overlong comment, have known moments when I might have said I "wrote".

    Writers are suddenly tempted to use participles like "ensconced". Leading others to think "So that's why those wall-niche lights were given a name I associate with bakery products".

    1. Well, you have me there! I'd say you are entirely right from start to finish.

      Perhaps a whiff of what you call "self-sanctification" is a risk with all labors that have little financial reward... Or perhaps writers are prone to self-mythologizing from time to time.


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.