The Writer’s Life
edited by CAROL EDGARIAN and TOM JENKS
WRITERS ON SUCCESS AND FAILURE
To flourish is to become dangerous.
Success is paralyzing only to those who have never wished for anything else. Similarly, when the envious arrive at the position of being enviable their envy is redoubled and they become murderous toward others and whip themselves into being murderous toward themselves.
Every time I read a review of Saul Bellow I get the heaves. Oh this big, wild, rowdy country, full of whores and prizefighters, and here I am stuck with an old river in the twilight and the deterioration of the middle-aged businessman.
There are no second acts in American lives.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald
Most writers are bipolar . . . this characteristic blood chemistry is compounded by the volatility of reputation, or even by the melodrama of the daily mail. Independent (largely) of the writers’ bipolarity are the extraordinary ups and downs of book reviews, like the good luck or bad of the NYTBR assignment. And in the mail a young editor of an old house in New York introduces herself and wants to reprint two out–of–print books in a new series. In the same mail an old friend screams that my new work is a total disaster. The telephone rings and I have won a prize I never thought about, $10,000. A week later the young editor has eloped to Syracuse and abandoned her projects. Next day I am included in an anthology, seven poems, and my name goes unnoticed in a history of my own generation.
This evening . . . Colonel Goldsworthy marched up to my tea-table, and hastily saying, “There, ma’am,” he put a newspaper on the table and hurried out of the room with the greatest speed.
I read this paragraph: “The literary silence of Miss Burney at present is much to be regretted. No novelist of the present time has a title to such public commendation as that lady; her characters are drawn with originality of design and strength of coloring, and her morality is of the purest and most elevated sort.”
You will say, perhaps, Why be vexed? Why, my dearest friends, because every mention alarms me; I know not what may follow. . . . Indeed the more and the longer I look around me, the greater appears the danger of all public notice! Panegyric is as near to envy as abuse is to disgrace.
Every ounce of acknowledgment of one’s worth, however little, by the outside world, each endorsement of what I have become (no matter how insignificant), puts me in danger. In order to move forward in my work and deeper into the chambered nautilus of the mind that produces it, I need to retreat from praise from the world, from the arena of critical recognition.
What exactly do I think about prizes? . . . it makes me really uneasy to imagine all the furor of applause . . . around a Goncourt winner. . . . Furthermore, the idea that one owes one’s worth to the judgment of certain people is intolerable.
Yet . . . there’s an agency or manner whereby the prize appears as a social phenomenon, quite independently of those who give it—rather like the annual return of some sun festival, which arrives to settle capriciously on a chosen head. . . . And as the beneficiary for one year of such an honorific institution—I shouldn’t dislike it all that much. My cynicism thus masks a dubious taste for consecration.
The Americans collect other people’s past because they have none. They dream of instantaneous tradition. . . . The immediate museum. You astonish; they consecrate you; they kill you.
Today I awakened in the delight of not knowing what a literary award is, that I do not know official honors, the caresses of the public or critics, that I am no one of “ours,” that I entered literature by force—arrogant and sneering. I am the self-made man of literature! Many moan and groan that they had difficult beginnings. But I made my debut three times (once before the war, in Poland; once in Argentina; and once in Polish in emigration) and none of these debuts spared me one ounce of humiliation.
Most defeats are profitable. Most victories costly.
I suppose one has to be desperate, to be a successful writer. One has to reach a rock-bottom at which one can afford to let everything go hang. One has got to damn the public, chance one’s living, say what one thinks, and be oneself. Then something may come out.
But I am afraid to do this. . . . I try to write “proper” books, which fizzle out for their propriety, when all the time there are other things that I should like to say and honester ways to say them. I was lamenting this to a friend of mine who is a burglar, but he answered: “You can’t starve. All you have to do is try burglary. If you get away with it you have money; and if you are caught they give you food in prison.”
—T. H. White
I am 34 and know that life is short. I have accomplished nothing of what I wished to accomplish. And what was that? Really, I wanted the impossible. A man could do it, perhaps, but not a woman. I wanted to become somebody, an artist entire, beginning with nothing, nothing at all—no roots, no money, no parental help, no culture, no father—to create myself from scratch through language only, to see my face without a mirror. And I have failed, naturally. Everything else that I have—and it is a lot—has lost its savor because of that failure. Praise is empty. I have accomplished nothing of what I intended and never shall. The children do not make up for that. They have their own destinies and I have just a succession of days.
The disappointment of hope leaves a scar which the ultimate fulfillment of that hope never entirely removes.
We have sold 650, I think; and have ordered a second edition. My sensations? as usual—mixed. I shall never write a book that is an entire success. This time the reviews are against and the private people enthusiastic. Either I am a great writer or a nincompoop. “An elderly sensualist,” the Daily News calls me. Pall Mall passes me over as negligible. I expect to be neglected and sneered at. And what will be the fate of our second thousand then?
The public is very critical of my Pugachev and, what is worse, is not buying it.
I dream that a lady, looking at my face, says, “I see you’ve been in the competition, but I can’t tell by your face whether or not you’ve won.”
You don’t think of those who haven’t, you think of those who have.