Saturday, October 22, 2011

From a Letter to a Fellow Writer Who "Hit it Big" and Got Worried About Authenticity

Dear ______,

I live by the belief that we artists have got to stick together, and I admire anybody like yourself who would devote so many years, paid or not, to the production of something as invaluable — if unquantifiable and increasingly anachronistic — as a serious literary work.

I have no doubt that your new book is well worth reading, and well worth the astronomical sum paid for it. I take no issue with writers being well-paid. I’m all for that! What’s troublesome, to you and me both, is the conventional logic of big publishing we’re already seeing at work here: a logic which holds that to discuss books in terms of the author’s payment is a valid or worthwhile way to talk about literature. Culture, according to such logic, is little more than a byproduct of commerce — the better-paid the book, the more worthy of attention.

We object to this. It is success-cult nonsense, long obtaining in society rags and in those Manhattan cocktail parties we read about in the New Yorker, and it spills more and more into respected literary discourse and threatens to become a lingua franca.

“How big was the advance?”
“Seven figures.”
“Well! I should read it, shouldn’t I?”
“Oh, you will. Like every other reader in the Western Hemisphere.”

In reality, as experience has taught you and me well, literature flowers and fructifies under a different sun. Its servants toil alone, usually at the edge of things. Most of the world’s deserving works are fated to exist in undeserved obscurity while the authors do wage-labor in factories, retail stores, or academe — or simply scrounge for food. You and I both recognize that 99.8 percent of all worthy literary creators live by this truth, a truth existent through the ages.

And you believe as passionately as I do, I know, that young writers — or old, still struggling ones — ought to be championed in their wildly impractical, unlucrative pursuits, even if the dominant discourse is all about cash, film deals, and bestseller lists.

Our art lives nowhere but in the work itself, the words on the page. The art surely does not live in whatever gross sum may be paid for it by the hit-hungry New York publishers.

You know this, and that’s why you’re worrying. Be comforted that you know it. Knowing it, you’ll stay the course.