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Alone, With Words

Why writers can’t live to please their readers.

Writers write in order to be read. This is obvious. But the speed with which words, once written, are now being read—a speed shaped by technological innovations long before the Internet turned the quick turnaround into the virtually instantaneous turnaround—has set me to thinking about the extent to which writing, for the writer, ought to have a freestanding value, a value apart from the reader. There is too much talk about the literary marketplace, the cultural marketplace, and the marketplace of ideas. We need to remember that a book—or a painting or a piece of music—begins as the product of an individual imagination, and can retain its power even when largely or even entirely ignored. (The paintings of Piero della Francesca were overlooked for several centuries.) I do not for one moment minimize the economic pressures on writers to publish—and to publish, if they are lucky enough to have the choice, in higher-paying places rather than lower-paying ones. I’ve made my living as a writer for 30 years, and I know how difficult it can be. But writers who live for their readers—or for what their editors imagine their readers want—may end up with an impoverished relationship with those readers. 

Writing, before it is anything else, is a way of clarifying one’s thoughts. This is obviously true of forms such as the diary, which are inherently solitary. But even those of us who write for publication can conclude, once we have clarified certain thoughts, that these thoughts are not especially valuable, or are not entirely convincing, or perhaps are simply not thoughts we want to share with others, at least not now. For many of us who love the act of writing—even when we are writing against a deadline with an editor waiting for the copy—there is something monastic about the process, a confrontation with one’s thoughts that has a value apart from the proximity or even perhaps the desirability of any other reader. I believe that most writing worth reading is the product, at least to some degree, of this extraordinarily intimate confrontation between the disorderly impressions in the writer’s mind and the more or less orderly procession of words that the writer manages to produce on the page. When I think about the writers I loved to read when I was in high school and college, I know what mattered most to me was the one-on-one relationship I felt I was developing with the writer’s thoughts. It was fantastic to feel I was alone with a writer, engaged in a splendid intellectual or imaginative conversation. (The wonder of reading Henry James’s late prose was in seeing his magnificent, disorderly thoughts achieve their infinitely complex order.)

I am not saying that writers need to be or ought to be isolated, either from other writers or from the reading public at large. But writers must to some degree believe that they are alone with their own words. And writers who are alone with their words will quite naturally, from time to time, conclude that some of those words should remain private. This needs to be emphasized right now, when so few people in the publishing industry understand why anything that has been written, and especially written by a well-known author, should not be published, and not published with the widest possible readership in mind. I was somewhat startled, a few weeks ago, to open a new collection of poems by James Schuyler, who died in 1991. The strange thing about Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems—which contains 163 poems discovered among Schuyler’s papers in the Mandeville Special Collections Library at the University of California, San Diego—is that the editors, James Meetze and Simon Pettet, feel no obligation to explain why this book exists. Didn’t anybody wonder why these poems were not published during Schuyler’s lifetime? There are many possible explanations. Schuyler might have thought certain poems were not good enough. Or he might have thought there was some virtue in publishing less rather than more. Or it may be that an editor prevented him from publishing things he in fact wanted to publish. But none of these questions is even considered, at least not in the brief introductory texts that the editors have included with Other Flowers. The idea—extremely simple, even simplistic—appears to be that if it was written it needs to be read.

The Schuyler collection is only one in what has become a flood of posthumous publications, encompassing work by Elizabeth Bishop, Henry Roth, Ralph Ellison, and Vladimir Nabokov. I am not against the publication of this material, at least in some form. What I fear is that many readers are coming to believe that a writer who holds something back from publication is somehow acting unnaturally. Nobody understands the extent to which, even for the widely acclaimed author with ready access to publication, the process of writing can sometimes necessitate a rejection or at least an avoidance of one’s own readers. That silence is a part of writing—that the work of this day or this week or even this year might for good reason be withheld—is becoming harder and harder to comprehend. There have always of course been posthumous publications. And there have always been controversies as to whether or not publication was in line with the author’s wishes. But the idea that somebody might choose not to publish—or might choose to publish in a small circulation magazine rather than a large circulation one—can look downright bizarre in the age of the blog and the tweet. The space between the writer and the reader is evaporating.

Writing, initially a very private act, has the potential to become an overwhelmingly public act. I realize that this is part of the excitement of writing. I’ve experienced that excitement firsthand. But how a writer chooses to negotiate the transition between the privacy of writing and the publicness of reading will ultimately determine what kind of a writer he or she is. Writers who publish with small circulation magazines and tiny, non-commercial presses can sometimes achieve an astonishingly powerful presence, because they’ve acquired their readers gradually, incrementally, one by one. And the writer who begins with the big blastoff by the major New York publishing house can all too easily vanish. Nothing is for sure. The writer who holds back too much may well be a hopeless neurotic. But if there are risks involved in resisting the public, there are also dangers involved in running after the public. Nobody talks about those dangers anymore.

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic. 

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