Tim Parks’ Writing To Win (over at the NYRB) is making the rounds as a link-of-the-day. In the space of a few paragraphs, Parks pinpoints some of the wilder absurdities that enmesh the lives of those aspiring to, and occasionally reaching, the Olympus of Pro-Writin’.
Lots to interact with, here: Salman Rushdie as indefatigable self-aggrandizing blowhard, the general public’s patronizing/pitying attitude toward aspiring artists, the hoi polloi’s (mostly) uncritical approval of those who “make it,” etc. This is the bit that won me:
“Every year, I teach creative writing to just a couple of students. These are people in their mid-twenties in a British post-graduate course who come to me in Italy as part of an exchange program. The prospect of publication, the urgent need, as they see it, to publish as soon as possible, colors everything they do. Often they will drop an interesting line of exploration, something they have been working on, because they feel compelled to produce something that looks more 'publishable,' which is to say, commercial. It will be hard for those who have never suffered this obsession to appreciate how all-conditioning and all-consuming it can be. These ambitious young people set deadlines for themselves. When the deadlines aren’t met their self-esteem plummets; a growing bitterness with the crassness of modern culture and the mercenary nature, as they perceive it, of publishers and editors barely disguises a crushing sense of personal failure.”
That’s a fairly apt description of my mid-twenties, when I took my shot at Pro Writin’. As my pursuit dragged on, I found that the stuff getting accepted or commissioned was increasingly of less interest to me than the stuff getting rejected — an ill omen for someone dreaming he might one day live off what he wrote. Better, then, to find another line of work that paid the bills, and devote a segment of my free time to the writin’ I enjoyed.
There is a temptation to wave Parks’ screed as a “sour grapes” manifesto for giving up The Dream (witlessly aligning myself with Alice Munro’s legion of subdued losers). But I remain chiefly struck by Parks’ opening gambit: “One of the great mysteries of the writer’s life is the transformation that occurs when he or she passes from being an unpublished to a published novelist.”
I suspect Parks’ observation is truer in the larger markets — particularly among those writers who have a shot at international renown. In my experience, most of the published Canadian novelists I’ve interacted with are receptive and encouraging, rarely hesitating to lend their imprimatur to a wannabe’s maiden effort.
There are reasons for this. The CanFic scene remains a small pond, abundantly stocked with schools of small publishers. And even those novelists who score contracts with Random Penguin, or Harper, are rarely in a position to quit their day jobs. If you want to be read by anybody in this country, you’d better be nice to everybody in this country.* **
I doubt anyone was nicer to everyone in this country — or any country, really, because she went “international” — than the late Carol Shields. Having encountered her first in 1986 and again, some years after she’d won her Pulitzer Prize for The Stone Diaries, I was left with the deep impression that this woman hadn’t been much changed by either publication, or critical recognition, or fame. A remarkable writer, and a remarkable person — of which, more anon.
*Cue the chorus of upstarts demanding a more critical national culture.
**It’s a rare Canuck novelist who reaches such lofty heights as to afford a prickly demeanor. Margaret Atwood inevitably springs to mind, though I suspect her bitchy reputation is somewhat overblown.