Tuesday, April 19, 2011


What a writer in our time has to do is write what hasn't been written or beat dead men at what they have done. Ernest Hemingway.

For more than thirty years I taught young (and old) writers the craft of literary fiction, emphasizing in my classes the virtues I believed great writers brought to their creations. After one such mini-lecture 25 years ago that had me huffing and puffing for perhaps twenty minutes, a young woman raised her hand and said, "You know, I'm glad you told us that." I asked her why. Her reply was, "Because now I understand that I don't want to be a great writer. I just want to write a few stories and maybe get them published, and that's all."

I said, "OK, that's fine," and I promised to do everything I could to help her achieve that goal. I relate this story because when we ask what advice we should give to young writers, or wonder what are the strategies for a "successful" literary career, it's important to first ask what a person wants from writing and publishing. Is it money? (If so, most apprentice writers would likely do better by going into real estate.) Is it about getting attention or creating poems, books and stories as ornaments for their egos? (As a Buddhist, I have a few problems with that one.) Some people, like the young woman in my class, simply want to write for the sake of self-expression and to have a little fun. Others want a career writing the kind of genre fiction they enjoy reading (romance novels, murder mysteries, fantasy, street lit, etc.). Still others hunger for what they consider to be "fame and fortune" and want their ephemeral personalities to leave an impression on the (equally ephemeral) contemporary literary scene.

There's nothing terribly wrong with any of these intentions. I'm not holding them up for ridicule---or at least not too high. The world of fiction writing is capacious enough to hold many different kinds of stories, many different kinds of writers. And offering "business" advice to writers so motivated is certainly easy enough: Get a good literary agent to handle your contracts, protect your interests and the rights to your material, and provide a statement of your yearly earnings for the IRS---unless you enjoy doing all that yourself. (With a good agent, you can forget about things like this and just create.) Make sure you pay your taxes. If you have one or more "big" years, make sure you set aside what you know you will owe Uncle Sam. (I've known way too many writers who after their 15 minutes of fame didn't pay when they had a book that sold well, or somehow didn't notice that the MacArthur they received is taxable). I would recommend getting a good financial advisor (or a team of advisors) who can wisely and carefully diversify a financial portfolio, and help you plan each year for your expenses, and for your retirement. 

Get a lawyer to help you work out a will that explains in detail how you want your literary properties handled after you're gone (mine is 50 pages long with much granularity of detail and, even as I write this, I know it needs to be updated---all wills should be revisited every 5-to-7 years or so). If you get rich, live like you're poor (but treat yourself to something you really want now and then, of course). Don't give up your Day Job, at least not immediately. I've always been fond of the image of the company CEO who drives, not a Lexis, but an old beater and wears clothes off-the-rack. That's extreme, obviously,  but you get what I mean: if you make a bundle, don't radically change your life-style. Just because you have a best-selling book (or a "hit" record, as they say), there's no guarantee you will have another, especially if you're a literary artist and not writing industrial fiction year after year. Let me say a bit more about that.

The commonplace advice offered above would cover (and skimmingly so) some aspects of  the "business" side of any profession. But, in my view, a literary artist is not just producing over and over again a product or a commodity like toilet paper or a bar of soap. Movie people (and the sales people in publishing) like to believe they can "target" audiences for a particular work. That's their job. Regardless of  the merit of a work's content, they're supposed to think in terms of units sold and profits made or, as a Hollywood screenwriter friend of mine once put it, "asses in the seats." But this may present a problem for literary writers who, from book to book, go wherever their robust imaginations take them. The audience for Middle Passage or the slave stories I wrote for Soulcatcher is---well, I guess it's generally people with some interest in the Peculiar Institution and matters related to the subject of race. I don't think that audience generally overlaps with readers of Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (or I'd wager at least not by much), nor should it overlap.

 So this is for me a perennially interesting question, one wrestled with by every American writer I know about since the 19th century: art vs. commerce. From the time I first starting writing seriously and steadily when I was 22-years-old, it seemed to me that the first thing any writer needed to determine before putting pen to paper is if he (or she) had something original and important to say or show us. A writer would be wise to ask, "What can I uniquely bring to the table that enriches literary culture? What is missing from our literature, and can I fill that lacuna?" James Weldon Johnson, Richard Wright, Zora Neal Hurston, and Ralph Ellison knew exactly what they were bringing to the table, what there was about their work that hitherto had never been seen in literary culture---and they produced the equivalent of literary manifestos or an ars poetica that made their artistic intentions clear. In my case, I wanted to contribute to a thematically and aesthetically expansive American philosophical fiction, especially in the area of black literature. (I've never forgotten something my literary agent once said: "Charles never sold out." My first impulse was to reply that I didn't know how to do that. Maybe he should tell me. I'm just kidding here.) August Wilson once asked me, "What makes a great writer?" I didn't hesitate, and replied, "A great vision." August nodded and thought about that.

In one of my essays, "Progress in Literature" I expressed the issue in a way that probably echoes Hemingway's statement above:

 "At any given moment, physicists here and abroad are laboring to answer objective questions handed down by Einstein, Bohr, and others---tracking down the Higgs bosen particle (or "God particle" as it's been called) at the Large Hadron Collider, for example, or patching up cracks in Unified Field Theory; it's a competitive race of sorts, as James D. Watson points out in The Double Helix. Similarly, the history of literary practice creates objective aesthetic possibilities, artistic works demanded historically by the foul-ups and partial breakthroughs in past literary art, novels and stories that fill in the blanks and potholes created by the oversights and omissions of those writers who preceded us. No, these are not your average 'commercial' novels, only great books that advance literary practice. As the old saying goes, good fiction sharpens our perception; great fiction changes it. In the realm of American literature at any time there are always important subjects, unexplored, that cry out for dramatization..."

So before committing oneself to a lifetime of writing, I would suggest every young literary fiction writer (and old ones, too), answer for themselves the questions Jean-Paul Sartre posed in What is Literature?, "Why do I write? For whom do I write? What is writing? What do I hope to accomplish?" And I highly recommend that they consider, first a statement from Noble laureate Saul Bellow's 1970 essay "Culture Now," which I placed before my students for three decades, and then August Wilson's "Four Rules" for writers. 
Saul Bellow wrote:
"This society, like decadent Rome, is an amusement society. Art cannot and should not compete with amusement. It has business at the heart of humanity. The artist, as Collingwood tells us, must be a prophet, 'not in the sense that he foretells things to come, but that he tells the audience, at the risk of their displeasure, the secrets of their own hearts.' That is why he exists. He is a spokesman for his community. This account of the artist's business is old, much older than Collingwood, very old, but in modern times this truth, which we all feel, is seldom expressed. No community altogether knows its own heart, and by failing in this knowledge a community deceives itself on the one subject concerning which ignorance means death. The remedy is art itself. Art is the community's medicine for the worst disease of mind, the corruption of consciousness."

          And here are August Wilson's "Four Rules":
          1. There are no rules.
          2. The first rule is wrong, so pay attention.
          3. You can't write for an audience; the writer's first job is to survive. (Italics mine.) 
          4. You can make no mistakes, but anything you write can be made better. 

No comments:

Post a Comment