THE WRITING GOES WELL, the business of dealing with publishers does not, and I try to maintain my grande indifference. I tell myself that it would be worse if the publishers were eager for whatever I produced, while I was unable to do any work that satisfied me. I have given up novels because my latest — and almost certainly last — The Duke's Man, took me a year to write and then 10 years to sell. Worse, I have to admit that all those houses that turned it down were right, because even though it is a book of which I am defiantly proud, it has sold in the middle three-figures and has yet to be reviewed anywhere. That is what I should have expected. There are too many books to read, so, for efficiency, reviewers pigeonhole authors, and my unpromising slot is as a playful (or, as reviewers think, un-serious) elitist.
But the reasons for my farewell to the novel are only mildly interesting. More important is that there are other, equally interesting literary pursuits. I have been translating a lot and have been writing poems. Bizarrely, poems and translations are easier for me to place with publishers, but even if they weren't, I'd write poetry because I enjoy it. And I would translate because doing that is a way to continue my education. The Consolation of Philosophy. Orlando Furioso. The Mahabharata. I'd never even read these (mostly because the translations weren't any good), so fashioning English versions was an opportunity for me not just to encounter the texts but to work with and through them — even to be a collaborator.
Now and then, I regret my status as an ex-novelist. There was something comforting about having a large work that I could resume every morning and think about at night. The uncertainty of the first 50 or 60 pages was exhilarating, and the reassurance of getting to the point where the characters start talking back and having a life of their own is an experience like nothing else. From then on one has to persuade them to do what the outline calls for (or something like it but perhaps better and more interesting). The constraints of a poem kick in right away so that the meter or rhyme can force one to improvise and sometimes to reach that high mesa of achievement that cannot be earned but is a dispensation of grace. There can be grace in writing novels, too, but I've been there and done that. I'm in my middle-seventies now, white-haired, gray-bearded, and tired. Writing novels involves a lot of typing. I've learned to settle.
A book came in this week: a biography of Charlie Fenton by Scott Donaldson. That's the same Fenton who let me into Daily Themes as a sophomore. He left Yale in 1958, went down to Duke as a full professor and, in 1960, threw himself out of a twelfth-floor window of the Washington Duke Hotel. I hadn't known about this until I learned it in Donaldson's biography, which is grim reading. Why somebody kills himself is usually a mystery, and Donaldson hazards a number of intelligent guesses. My suspicion is that, as a teacher of writing, Fenton was bedeviled by his own exiguous output. A few short stories, a couple of unpublished novels. He had brought out a quite good biography of the young Hemingway, and one of Stephen Vincent Benét, but those were academic books. What he most obviously needed was some modern psychopharmacological help that wasn't then available. But it also crosses my mind that, as an ex-novelist, I could have reassured him that it was okay not to be a novelist, that many people get through life without writing anything at all, and that the literary life, as he should have understood from writing biographies, is often deforming.
For my own amusement, I have been composing a series of essays about my thirty books of fiction (novels, novellas, and short stories), mostly because nobody else is likely to undertake such a chore. Too much to read, for one thing. But one of the pastimes of old age is looking backward, which, if undertaken with honesty and realism, is interesting even if not always cheerful. What strikes me is that some of the books are really very good but were unsuccessful, either because the publishers never had any expectations of them doing well, or because the baggage of my Sutton career was still burdensome, or maybe because the books were too good to succeed in a marketplace that is ever more driven by profit-seeking. When I started out in the sixties, the shelf life of novels was maybe three months. Then the bookstores would start returning them to make room on their shelves for more recent work for which hopes had not yet faded. That shelf life these days is closer to three weeks, and you either start out very strong or die. It's a hideous ecology in which, as in Gresham's law, the bad drives out the good.
In theory, college and university English departments are supposed to provide a counterweight to the forces of dumbing down that pervade what we call, with a certain degree of cockalorum, our culture. But these university departments are under pressure, themselves, fighting for undergraduates quixotic enough not to major in economics, or business administration, or political science. (At Harvard, these days, half of the undergraduates choose econ. or "government" — Harvard's term for political science, which they think is maybe not all that scientific.) English faculties are willing to stoop to survive, even if they have given up any notion of conquest. They teach graphic fiction, which is comic books. They turn their finely honed hermeneutic abilities to the advertisements in fashion magazines. Writers like me are of little interest because we are "elitist" which is to say that our books assume readers who have encountered other books before and can recognize allusions. The Norton anthologies, meanwhile, footnote anything the least bit obscure to save the students (stupid? lazy? both?) the trouble of having to look anything up. It's not a world I'd want to be part of, even if I were welcome.
What is further dismaying is that my experience with academic life has been mostly at the high end. Few people know how bad it gets at the bottom. I was appointed some years back as a trustee at Bunker Hill Junior College and I served for a few months — until the other trustees unanimously voted me out as a nuisance and troublemaker. The BHCC "success" rate (completion of the two-year program in three years or less) is less than five percent. Students come, pay relatively high tuitions (and fees) and after a term or less realize that they just can't do the work. I wondered what their library was like, so I explored its catalogue online and found that they had 22 novels by Robert Ludlum and one by Anthony Trollope. When I suggested that this might not be quite the right balance in an institution of "higher learning," I was warned against meddling. Their motto, on a moving electrical sign outside the building, is "Imagine the Possibilities." I pointed out that this was also the slogan of Campbell's Soup. It is not surprising that they dismissed me as a wise-ass.
I go into this sordidness — mercantile and academic — not to break any news but to explain how I've managed to adjust to being ignored. It's not only okay but, in some ways desirable. I am fortunate to have had the support for many years of Louisiana State University Press, but even if I hadn't been so lucky, there would have been a consolation in the comparison any poet can make between his or her career and that of Emily Dickinson, who got her pieces into satisfactory shape and then put them into a drawer. Easy for me to say, having published a hundred books, but it's still true. Etymologically, publication is vulgar. Acceptance from a discriminating public is mostly a fantasy. Within the past couple of months, Harvard University Press and The Johns Hopkins University Press have both "passed" on a translation of mine of the poetry of Guido Cavalcanti, who was Dante's best friend. Editors at both presses said they liked the book but couldn't see it breaking even. I didn't doubt their arithmetic, but I had to wonder whether the possible loss they were worrying about was of a size to be a major impediment in an enterprise that is supposed to have a higher purpose. I finally found a home for the manuscript — at the University of Athabasca Press in Canada. But suppose the worst case and assume that I hadn't found Athabasca. Would I have been much affected? The book is done and I like it; published or not, it will be among my papers at the Beinecke at Yale and, sooner or later, someone could discover it. Once these books are finished, they are finished and no longer my responsibility. I turn my attention to something new and interesting, if I can find it.
During the writing of the conspectus of my fiction, I have realized that some of the assumptions I made years ago were entirely fanciful. I only mention them here because I suspect that other writers, especially young ones, entertain one form or another of the same odd notions — that there can be a kind of immortality in publishing and that once one has gotten into print it is forever. This is magical thinking, and even if it is literally true that when a book is out there it stays there (no matter how modestly), it does not follow that the author stays there with it. I am surprised at how little connection I feel with books I wrote 10 years ago (let alone 50). I recognize bits of idiolect and see some technical moves that I approve of (even if I wish I'd managed them a little more gracefully). But they aren't me. For one thing, I've changed and they haven't. They are the work of a younger man who no longer exists. If there were an afterlife, I suppose the connection between the biography and the enduring spirit would dwindle in the same way. I am proud of some of the books (Anagrams, ABCD, Lives of the Saints, Turkish Delights, Alice at 80, and a couple of others), but that pride is embittered because they deserve to be much better known. On the other hand, I find myself slightly pained by the other books, because they should either have been better or should never have been written. But there is no blame either way, for our paths have long since diverged. And as with children, one must learn to let go.
The great line that Robert Frost often used — about a poem's being "a momentary stay against confusion" — is, like many of his dicta, darker than one first realizes. We experience that momentariness in our reading lives but it applies even more aptly to writers. Having completed a poem (or novel or play), one feels a satisfaction that lasts a couple of hours or even a couple of days, but then he goes on to something else. Or worse, to nothing else. I often think about Harper Lee's weird career: one book, To Kill a Mockingbird, that was as much a "hit" as any literary novel can be, and then silence. Or, by way of contrast, I think of the remark attributed to Joseph Heller who, when some rude guest at a dinner party complained that he'd never written anything as good as Catch 22, replied, "Who has?"
In 2005 Northwestern University Press published Re Verse, a series of my essays about poets and poetry. Not criticism, really, but musings. Somewhere in the book I say that I don't believe in criticism but rather in remarks. It was Frost I had been thinking of, whose honed apothegms could do the work of an entire essay and, because of their brevity, could stay in one's head. "A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom" is one. "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader" is another. Those ten words are more useful as a guide to prospective writers than any number of works of literary theory or, God help us, creative writing courses. I didn't sit down to write Re Verse, but merely collected essays that had accumulated over the years. It was in those broodings that I saw — more than in my novels or poems — some traces of my "self" because they were full of opinions I recognized as mine, attitudes I could endorse, and even, dare I say, wisdom I had earned during fat years and lean. I don't mean to suggest that I am therefore a "critic," who occasionally dabbles in "creative writing." Quite the opposite, but that book makes the distance I feel from my fiction even more recognizable
My connection with my poetry is closer and more stable. A poem is a record of an instant's experience and, if our memories of our lives' narratives are unreliable, our recollections of particular moments can be vivid and enduring. I can look at a poem I wrote decades ago and recognize the neural charge of its prompting as having been mine, and the better the poem, the more I recognize myself in it. Of course, I can also experience that frisson when I read other people's poems that prompt in me a feeling of recognition and assent. Indeed, one of the motives that young people have when they start writing is an eagerness to reproduce that kind of instantaneous connection. We all write to understand ourselves and to be understood by others, which is what other writers hope for, too.
Or, of course, to be misunderstood. I have one poem that a fluke of textbook editing has made more or less famous. "Titanic" got into one anthology and then got picked up by other anthologists, so that vast numbers of high school students and college freshmen have confronted it, mostly to be puzzled by it or annoyed. It's very short:
Who does not love the Titanic?
If they sold passage tomorrow for that same crossing,
who would not buy?
To go down... We all go down, mostly
alone. But with crowds of people, friends, servants,
well fed, with music, with lights! Ah!
And the world, shocked, mourns, as it ought to do
and almost never does. There will be the books and movies
to remind our grandchildren who we were
and how we died, and give them a good cry.
Not so bad, after all. The cold
water is anaesthetic and very quick.
The cries on all sides must be a comfort.
We all go: only a few, first-class.
This seems perfectly clear to me. It's mostly about the ship going down. It's also a riposte to Hardy's "Convergence of the Twain." If it has some meta-meaning, which I didn't intend at the time but will admit as a possible way of reading the poem, it probably has something to do with grace. But that is not the heart of it, which I'd locate rather in its attitude, its boulevardier response to disaster (which carries with it, paradoxically, both advantages and disadvantages). But secondary school teachers have been at it, circling it, pecking out its eyes, and assigning essays about it. (What poet ever put down his pen or hit "print" thinking of the huge piles of student essays his words would beget?) To suggest something of the misprision out there, I adduce a "paraphrase" I pulled from the web:
Titanic, the largest and most advanced, prestigious and honorable ship of its time,
It was the dream of all dreams to be a part of history on her maiden voyage.
Though sadly many die in the unexpected tragedy of this unsinkable ship,
What a wonderful way to leave the world, never forgotten, the ultimate dream in life.
But I recommend first class!
In what way is that clearer than what I wrote? Is it in any way faithful to my text? I am sympathetic with teachers who work hard and are generally underpaid, but they ought to recognize their limitations. No one should be allowed to teach youngsters about poetry who does not, himself, read poetry for pleasure.
"Titanic" aside, I recognize that I haven't had much of the burden of "fame," but I realize that this may be a good thing. To be widely known is to be widely misunderstood. I remember encountering John Updike once in front of the Forty-second Street Library in New York. We weren't friends, but we'd met a few times. We greeted each other and determined that we were both going to see the Walt Whitman exhibit inside. "Let's go in together," Updike suggested. Why not? So we're up there, walking up and down the aisles between the display cases, and I get the strange feeling of being stared at. One can actually feel the weight of people's gazes. But then I realized that they were staring at Updike, not me. He'd lost his privacy. I hadn't. And I would prefer not to.
This piece will appear in the Contemporary Authors' Series, published by Gale