Photograph: © Paul Bausch onfocus.com
RECENTLY, I SPOKE TO a group of MFA students at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I wanted to pass along the best advice I got in my own MFA program 15 years ago. Our professor Wilton Barnhart had said, "cultivate literary friendships."
It was almost a koan in its three-word simplicity. He meant us to sift through what that verb, that adjective and that noun might mean to us. He did not add a clause that I now wish he had: "and for Christ's sake, do not let them become transactional."
The world after publication is — beyond its many joys — an evaporating and ruinous goldfish bowl of thwarted ambition. If you write long enough, you will know editors and agents. You will have dinner with people who give interesting fellowships to weeklong retreats in the south of France. You will teach at good programs and you might know when a publisher's child is having a birthday and what his favorite Transformer is, and these facts more than the quality of your humanity might be what makes you a chess piece when another writer slaps you on the back and asks you if you might read something he wrote.
It's hard to explain to writing students that there are pods of very friendly, arguably moral authors who treat each other as if the literary life is led on a firing range. They meet you alertly, brightly drawing from natty holsters their own signs of power, rank and aid, and then requesting that you do the same. They aren't evil, really, and the impulse behind it is so close to camaraderie it almost smells right. We all need help, and we all want to help each other, which makes the nuances of the transaction murky. Some people never see the problem at all and others treat every request like you're asking for a toe of which they are particularly fond. In the end, parsing the aspirational nature of literary friendship is as much of a longshot as sexing the yeti.
But I thought I'd give it a shot, and luckily I had help. Because I'm a collector of art and old books, I get email notifications of auctions, and the day I was to lecture my students, an old autographed letter appeared on the Ira & Larry Goldberg auction site. It illustrated the nature of "transactional" so beautifully I read it aloud that night.
It's a one-page, single-spaced TLS (as they say) from William Faulkner. He is reacting to a request for a blurb in this, 1961, his final full year of life. To summarize the career until then: he'd struggled, his work had gone out of print, he'd almost drunk himself to death in Hollywood, where he was a failure. In 1946, washed up, spit out, he'd had his forgotten work reissued in The Portable Faulkner. This was the lightning and the thunder that changed his life. Seemingly overnight, he made an entire region of America a viable place to pan for talent and story, he won the Nobel Prize, he won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award too, and by January 1961, he'd spent about 15 years taking what comforts he could as a celebrated, revered, and golden writer.
The addressee is named Joan Williams. She is 30 years old, and she's written the manuscript for a first novel called&nbs...read more