How did you come to put together The Writer’s Reader?
[Jay Parini, my co-editor, and I] both taught workshops for emerging writers — here at Middlebury, at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, at Iowa and Harvard and elsewhere — for more years than we care to think about, and all that time we’ve been Xeroxing certain essays we love, essays that seem particularly well-suited to providing consolation, instruction, and the muscle of inspiration, not just to the small-w aspect of the practice but to the larger, more long-term, capital-W sense as well. At a certain point it became almost physically painful, not having these essays between covers (especially the ones out of print), not being able to share them in an easy, accessible way. It just seemed somehow stupid and wrong that there was no way to introduce a new generation of writers to Natalia Ginzburg’s piece, say, or Tillie Olsen’s, or Ted Solotaroff’s, or Danilo Kis’ — to name just three of the wiser, more over-arching essays about the writer’s life you’re ever likely to find.
Do you see writing as a form of vocation?
Afraid so. After all it’s not just about talent; it’s not just about temperament or intelligence; it’s not just about the ability or desire to write a book; it’s about all these things plus something more, a certain willingness to commit to the on-going project of spending your best years this way, for better or worse. I mean, it’s not for everyone. We see plenty of young writers who have all the talent and drive in the world, who embody what Charles Baxter’s essay refers to as the condition of being “full of it.” But the prospect of living up to that gift (or affliction), of sitting alone in a room day after day, turning sentences around in their heads, forever not-knowing, as Donald Barthelme calls it, what happens next … this doesn’t always suit their temperaments. Why should it? It barely suits ours. I mean there’s a considerable amount of tension involved, not just surface-body tension but the deeper kind that taps into the spirit too.
What do you think is the relationship between preparation and creation?
Messy and uncertain at best. On the other hand there seems to be no way around it. Basically the sense of preparation, as far as we can tell, can be boiled down to an early ardour for books, a teasing sense of possibility regarding what language can be made to do, and some dim appreciation for the long, slow trudge towards getting there yourself. It’s not just a literary process, of course. There’s life involved too. That’s why we love essays like Roberto Bolaño’s account of stealing books as a teenager in Mexico City, or Henry Miller’s “Reading in the Toilet” — for the sheer relish in transgression that informs both the reading and the writing of books, the way literature, like life, if it’s any good, is fed by our highest and lowest impulses at the same time.
The collection surveys a wide range of writers who speak from a variety of cultural and historical contexts. What do you think their accounts can tell us about the changing role and practice of the writer?
One obvious issue, increasingly relevant unfortunately, is the question of personal vs social engagement — that is, whether the struggle to conjure a narrative is responsive to pressures larger than the self. Philip Roth’s oft-quoted essay, “Writing American Fiction,” describes an American social reality so circus-like and fast-changing and borderline absurd, there’s no way fiction can keep up with the pace of events and do them justice — and this was written back in 1961! Roth’s provisional answer, which of course even he doesn’t stick to as his career unfolds, is to leave all that stuff to the journalists and turn one’s fictional gaze upon that other dysfunctional, cataclysmic mass, the Self. As Danilo Kis writes, “Do not bet on the moment: you will regret it.” But then one line later he adds: “Do not bet on eternity: you will regret it.” In other words, there’s no right answer. To pretend your work operates in a cultural or political vacuum is impossible, but to succumb to the merely topical is a recipe for shallowness. You have to forge some third way between. The late John Berger’s essay, “The Storyteller”, reminds us that “very few stories are narrated either to idealize or condemn; rather they testify to the always slightly surprising range of the possible.” But as your question indicates, that range of the possible is conditioned by context; it changes with the times. Now unfortunately we here in the States are confronting a set of sickening political realities the writer can neither keep up with nor ignore. In that sense we’ve arguably joined the rest of the planet. This can’t help but have a profound impact on the fiction to come, though how that will play out is anyone’s guess.
What threads or patterns do you see that link each writer’s account?
Let’s see: difficulty, headaches, crippling rage and self-doubt, enduring worries over money, mysterious slippages of nerve, will, and talent, and a very occasional if ridiculously vague sense of having somehow lucked into accomplishing something anyway, despite if not because of all the other factors — along with a Beckett-ian (or Zadie Smith-ian) resolve to “fail better” next time — that’ll do for a start, anyway.
How does the book address the binary thinking of success and failure that so often haunts the aspiring writer?
Well, put it this way: in an ideal world the aspiring writer should probably shed conventional notions of “success” and “failure” as soon as possible, since the application of either label would represent an enormous limitation. You may have success in worldly terms, but on the page it’s more often the opposite. What Zadie Smith calls “the dream of the perfect novel” always goes unrealized. Any experienced writer knows this in advance, and yet they have to find a way to try to write the perfect novel anyway, to not be defeated by that closed gate. So the success vs. failure binary isn’t very helpful. The only really useful binary, which we think this book really affirms, is working vs. not working. Essays like Tillie Olsen’s “Silences” and Ted Solotaroff’s “Writing in the Cold” address the long-distance loneliness of the writer as he/she grapples with the angels and demons of career and literary achievement, and there’s a lot of accidents and trap doors along the way. Many go off to war, not all return. And it’s not always about the work either – life figures in there as well. None of it can be laid out predictably on a graph; it can only be illustrated by example, and in retrospect. Which means there’s no way to tell a young person that their work or for that matter their life will turn out more ambiguously than they hope (or fear), that there are more gradations and involutions and accidents along the way than anyone could possibly anticipate. But somehow it always seems important to try.
And yet despite or maybe because of this we see the book as an affirmative one. That’s why we begin with Natalia Ginzburg’s essay. And really we could and maybe should have ended with her too. So that’s what we’ll do here. Here she is on the parameters of the vocation, its demanding rigor and extraordinary inclusiveness, a vocation that channels everything, “the days and houses of our life, the days and houses of the people with whom we are involved, books and images and thoughts and conversations — all these things feed it… it swallows the best and the worst in our lives… it feeds itself, and grows within us.”
The Writer’s Reader is available from Bloomsbury.
About the Editors
Robert Cohen is a novelist, short story writer, and essayist, and is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Middlebury College, USA. His books include Inspired Sleep, Amateur Barbarians, The Varieties of Romantic Experience, and others; his stories and essays have appeared in Harper’s, Paris Review, the Atlantic, GQ, The Believer, and many other magazines. Among his awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers Award, a Lila Wallace Writers Award, and a Pushcart Prize. He has taught creative writing and literature at Harvard University, the Iowa Writers Workshop, Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers, and Middlebury College.
Jay Parini is a poet, novelist, and biographer, author of The Last Station, which was made into an Academy Award-nominated film in 2009. His novels and biographies (Steinbeck, Frost, Faulkner) have been translated into over thirty languages. He is Axinn Professor of English and Creative Writing at Middlebury College. He has edited many books, including the Norton Anthology of American Autobiography, The Columbia Anthology of American Poetry, and the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature. He is a regular contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education, CNN, The New York Times, and The Guardian. He has also written for GQ, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, and Salon.com.