“What is success?” Bonnie Raitt asks in the old 1970s tune. “Is it doing your own thing? Or to join the rest?” Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson struggled with the same question:
In some respects, Melville and Dickinson had the great misfortune of writing just as antebellum America was creating a mass audience for its authors. With almost universal literacy among its nonslave population, increasingly sophisticated publishing and transportation networks, and a widespread yearning for a national culture different from but equal to that of Europe, America had for the first time in its brief history a truly national audience that seemed within reach to many writers. “The proof of a poet,” intoned Whitman in the introduction of his 1855 Leaves of Grass, “is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” Whitman meant that in a newfound democracy, an author sensitive to his or her audience could expect a widespread readership that transcended class lines and geographical boundaries.
While Whitman would not receive the kind of audience acceptance he prophesied and craved for several more decades, other writers of the period became the nation’s first literary superstars. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne were representatives of a new indigenous high culture during the 1850s, their images photographed and painted, reproduced in newspapers, magazines, and the frontispieces of elegantly published books. But it was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which sold millions of copies in its first few years, that initiated the era of the best-seller. Stowe and her titular hero became household names, cultural emblems in the cause of abolition—and, in the South, figures of derision. Numerous other women writers, including Fanny Fern and E.D.E.N. Southworth, similarly enjoyed immense readerships. It was these writers who prompted Hawthorne to complain that “America is now wholly given over to a d—d mob of scribbling women.”
Attaining such popularity invariably involved certain trade-offs. As Kearns notes, “The work of authorship [then as now] requires engaging in publicity, negotiating the best deal, shopping one’s goods, reading and marking proof, and other activities that may strike a writer as unpleasantly sordid.” The correspondence of Hawthorne, Stowe, and many other writers of the period is filled with responses to requests for autographs, speaking engagements, and other chores that often took away from time spent writing.
More important, attaining a democratic audience sometimes entailed a diminishing of literary standards. For years, Uncle Tom’s Cabin wasn’t studied in the academy because it was believed to be too popular, too sentimental, too unconcerned with exceptional language use. Even Whitman, one of the most vocal spokespersons for a broad-based national literature, expressed some reservations about mass audiences in his Democratic Vistas. “I say that democracy can never prove itself beyond cavil,” he announced, “until it founds and luxuriantly grows its own forms of art. . . .” The only problem, he continued, is that too often the tastes of the crowd fail to encourage difficult ideas or rich and multilayered literary language. Publishers were therefore motivated to appeal to vulgar sensibilities in order to maximize profit. “It seems as if . . . there were some natural repugnance between a literary . . . life,” Whitman laments, “and the rude rank spirit of the democracies.”
As Kearns reveals in Writ:ing for the Street, Writing in the Garret, Melville felt this particular conundrum with acuity. In a famous letter to Hawthorne, written several months after his refusal to Duyckinck, he complained, “What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,—it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches. . . . Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.” Melville was by no means alone in his alienation from the market and from mass opinion. Dickinson, too, struggled to imagine her authority as a writer, addressing the tyranny of democratic public opinion in one of her most trenchant poetic observations.
Much Madness is divinest Sense—
To a discerning Eye—
Much Sense—the starkest Madness—
’Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail—
Assent—and you are sane—
Demur—you’re straightway dangerous—:
And handled with a Chain—
According to Kearns, both Melville and Dickinson developed authorial strategies that allowed them to turn their backs on antebellum America’s burgeoning mass audience and to imagine themselves as romantic artists governed solely by inspiration. Instead of courting the crowd, they became “garret” writers whose artistic prestige was bound up in the fact that they were not writing for “the street.” So dissimilar in so many ways, both authors nevertheless were linked by a mutual desire “to operate outside of the capitalist and mimetic markets (especially opposing advertising).” Suspicious of the tastes of a mass audience as well as the techniques by which publishing houses transformed authors into marketable commodities for that audience, “they desired to publish in ways that preserved their total control and ownership of their work.” By refusing to sell out, Kearns argues, they were able to write works governed by their own autonomous aesthetic criteria, works that ignored popular trends, that aspired to art for art’s sake. To accomplish this, however, they had to content themselves with small, private audiences capable of determining their respective works’ design and intentions.
Mr. Roth stopped because he feels he has said what he has to say.
“I sat around for a month or two trying to think of something else and I thought, ‘Maybe it’s over, maybe it’s over,’ ” he said. “I gave myself a dose of fictional juice by rereading writers I hadn’t read in 50 years and who had meant quite a lot when I read them. I read Dostoevsky, I read Conrad — two or three books by each. I read Turgenev, two of the greatest short stories ever written, ‘First Love’ and ‘The Torrents of Spring.’ ” He also reread Faulkner and Hemingway.
“And then I decided to reread my own books,” Mr. Roth went on, “and I began from the last book forward, casting a cold eye. And I thought, ‘You did all right.’ But when I got to ‘Portnoy’ ” — “Portnoy’s Complaint,” published in 1969 — “I had lost interest, and I didn’t read the first four books.”
“So I read all that great stuff,” he added, “and then I read my own and I knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea, or if I did, I’d have to slave over it.”
Mr. Roth is now in excellent health, after back surgery in April, and exercises regularly. But he said: “I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” He went on: “I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.”
Joe Queenan “started borrowing books from a roving Quaker City bookmobile when I was 7 years old. Things quickly got out of hand. Before I knew it I was borrowing every book about the Romans, every book about the Apaches, every book about the spindly third-string quarterback who comes off the bench in the fourth quarter to bail out his team. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but what started out as a harmless juvenile pastime soon turned into a lifelong personality disorder.”
A case can be made that people who read a preposterous number of books are not playing with a full deck. I( prefer to think of us as dissatisfied customers. If you have read 6,000 books in your lifetime, or even 600, it’s probably because at some level you find “reality” a bit of a disappointment. People in the 19th century fell in love with “Ivanhoe” and “The Count of Monte Cristo” because they loathed the age they were living through. …
No matter what they may tell themselves, book lovers do not read primarily to obtain information or to while away the time. They read to escape to a more exciting, more rewarding world. A world where they do not hate their jobs, their spouses, their governments, their lives. …
Henry David Thoreau would surely have understood such feelings. As most people know, he lived for two years in a small cabin in the woods he built himself, to read, to write, to think, and to discover the natural world. But he was not the antisocial recluse many people think he was. That is one of the common misconceptions about Thoreau explored in this engaging essay in Humanities (published by the National Endowment for the Humanities).
Hilary Mantel — currently at work on the last in a trio of novels about Thomas Cromwell — lives in a quiet place with an unquiet mind.
He, Cromwell. She knew after one page that she’d got it, the voice. “I just wanted to laugh in joy because I’d been wanting to do it for so long.” Historical fiction doesn’t cover it; these books are an inhabitation. …
After all the research, the reading, the note-taking, the indexing, the filing and refiling, it is a question of tuning in. Alison, she says, is how she would have turned out if she hadn’t had an education – not necessarily a medium, but not far off, someone whose brain hadn’t been trained, and so whose only (but considerable) powers were those of instinct, of sensing, of awareness. Mantel describes herself as “skinless”. She feels everything: presences, ghosts, memories. Cromwell is researched, constructed and written, but he is also channelled. Occupying his mind is pleasurable. He is cool, all-seeing, almost super-heroic in his powers to anticipate and manipulate. (Craig thinks Mantel made the mistake of falling in love with her leading man and that her version of Cromwell is psychologically implausible for a man we know tortured people.) Mantel relishes his low heart rate, the nerveless approach to life, a mental state unbogged by rumination. She says that when she began writing Wolf Hall, first entering this mind, she felt physically robust in a way she hadn’t for years.
Mantel’s mind is different. Left to her own devices, she can get caught up: “Yesterday morning, I was enjoying a hot shower and I started thinking what it would be like if I were in prison, and I couldn’t have this shower? And then I thought, ‘Well, I wonder, if I were in prison, would people bully me, or would I bully them?’ And then I stared thinking, ‘Well actually, it’s unlikely that you’d have to go to prison now, although earlier in your life you probably could very well have murdered someone . . .’”
“I think there was probably a time in my life when I did have that capacity if I’d encountered the right circumstances. So by the time I’ve got out of the shower, I’ve been through this whole scenario in my head where I’ve gone to prison for a variety of offences at a variety of ages and of course I’m suddenly miserable and frightened. But it’s like an exercise, the way a dancer would go to the barre every day and go through a routine: I think this is how you live as a writer. You wake up with some uncomfortable thought and instead of dismissing it, like a normal person, you find yourself indulging it.”
“When authors disown their work, should readers care?”
D.T. Max has written (and published) the first biography of David Foster Wallace. The Daily Beast ran an excerpt earlier this year.
All of the above via Arts and Letters Daily