Friday, March 31, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Making It As A Writer

Success: 1:6
“Happy is the man…”

“Writers are greatly respected. The intelligent public is wonderfully patient with them, continues to read them and endures disappointment after disappointment, waiting to hear from art what it does not hear from theology, philosophy, social theory, and what it cannot hear from pure science. Out of the struggle at the center has come an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for. At the center humankind struggles with collective powers for its freedom, the individual struggles with dehumanization for the possession of his soul. If writers do not come again into the center it will not be because the center is pre-empted. It is not. They are free to enter. If they so wish.”
Saul Bellow, Nobel Prize Lecture, December 12, 1976

The happy writer is the one who gets published and who gets paid handsomely for his work; together this implies recognition of the writer’s work. Money is the universal system of recognition today; I can’t think of any other socio-economic system that has such universal power or appeal like capitalism. Even China, which is still officially communist, has capitalism as its economic system. This alone has done more to the change the nation.

For writing is work and its value is determined by what the market deems as its fair price. This is not an assessment of knowledge that I find comforting, but it nevertheless says something important. The economic rule of supply and demand applies to knowledge, which in the case of writing can now be had on the cheap in all but a few cases. This is not to say all knowledge put in written form is equal, but its evaluation is often based on its marketability and on its cultural relevance.

In other words, in the marketing of words, writers become famous because the persons who manage the publishing industry think that such writers will earn them a profit; and they earn them a profit because they have already become famous. It’s nice work if you can get it. Most don’t, but not for lack of trying. If I have made the rule of success simple, it is because this is often the case. Talent might rise to the top like cream, but it always helps if you know “someone” or if you are “known.”

There are many good writers who never get sufficiently noticed to make a living with their craft, and thus have other jobs to keep them able to pay their bills. Most don’t make it, and you don’t hear about such persons in the literary magazines, academic journals or academic courses. Writing is a lonely profession and the loneliest of the lot might be the freelance writer, who hustles for work alongside the hordes of writers for the diminishing number of publications that pay sufficiently well for articles.

It was common at one time for even established fiction writers, even literary writers of first rank, like Saul Bellow, to supplement their book income by submitting long-form non-fiction articles to magazines as a non-staff member or as a freelancer. I am not sure if this is the case today.

Freelancing, a profession with which I have had a long association, is no longer viable for traditional writers like myself. It is true and worth noting, and with a degree of sadness, that not many can survive the barrenness of low-paying work, the rotting state of poverty and the death of rich human companionship. Humans have certain universal needs, if left unmet turn to pain and misery. Recognition is one, as is the moral idea that your work matters. Writers might say that they write for themselves, but most want people to read their work.

When Bellow writes in his Nobel Lecture that “the individual struggles with dehumanization for the possession of his soul,” which is a universal theme of what internal obstacles the individual faces. This used to be one of the prime struggles when Bellow said these words more than 40 years ago. Perhaps this is no longer the case, but I believe it is so, despite the protests of Science & Technology that we are progressing well. 

This need to overcome obstacles seems as important now as it was then, as the individual struggles to regain his place in society; and it left to the writer to regain the center with moral words of intellectual depth and meaning. This being the case, what is a writer of prominence to do, if not support this effort? Some enter the arena, the center of it all, to counter the dehumanization of the soul with healing words. Yet, this rarely pays well or earns the writer any measure of respect among those who like and enjoy the status quo. It is a thankless endeavor, but a necessary one.

The few writers who make a lot of money might sometimes question the (a)moral aspect of their work, or might suffer pangs of guilt for their success, but they are likely less miserable than the ones who have no money or no recognition. They might squander it all, but they have the opportunity to rebuild their fortunes, banking on their name—a Faustian bargain? Whether or not they are fulfilling the purpose of the Writer is something that they might eventually address. Does a state of misery make you a good writer? Does living with adversity and overcoming it make you a better writer?

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