Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Writer and Her Times

Part of me would rather just sit on the couch and read tonight rather than post (F. Karinthy's A Journey Round My Skull is waiting half-read, not to mention a true crime about polygamists), but I can't let go of the question that Max posed in the comments of the last post: If an unknown, unconnected, relegated-to-the-slushpile Flannery O'Connor were alive today, would she be published?

Of course this is really several different questions. If Flannery O'Connor were writing today, how would her writing be different? Would she still be writing about Southern Grotesques? Would she even write at all? Would her love of language have been beaten out of her by dreadful 1970's reading curricula (which I blame for the low numbers of readers today)? Would she be writing scripts for reality TV shows, instead?

And, okay, say she was a writer and had the same pet subjects. Even though most current editors would claim to respect her as a canonical writer, would they actually publish her? Or is her gift and her talent one particularly suited to her times, and not really transferable to other times?

And say her gift does transfer, and she writes more or less the same stuff but neatly updated for today's reader: you know, with televangelists. Are today's editors too thick and money-grubbing to recognize a good thing when they see it?

Here's what I think: Some, maybe most, writers have talents and material that are not transferable. That is, they are stuck in their times, they speak only to their times, and teleported elsewhere they would not have much to say. The great historical writers are mostly the exception: Shakespeare, Dickens, Homer. But the rest of us are able to write and be published only because of a particular juncture of self and country and era.

I think Flannery O'Connor is one of the exceptions. I think if she were alive today, she would be a writer, and though her material would be different, I think she would be able to publish it. Who knows if she'd get the kind of audience she did in her own time. But her voice is distinctive enough, and she herself was persistent and single-minded enough, that she would probably publish books.

I don't live in the city, and I've met only a few editors, so I can't make many sweeping judgements about them. But thinking about all the people I know who want to write, all the people who've tried to become writers, I can't think of a single one who writes moderately well and is persistent who hasn't published. I know lots of brilliant unpublished writers, but every single one of them -- without fail -- has quit or is still quite young or new at it or is taking a very long break. There are about as many of them as there are mediocre writers who work their tails off and get book contracts, present company included.

So what I'm saying is, I think there are at least a couple of editors who are smart enough to recognize the good in our contemporary F. O'Connor. Not all of them, judging by the appallingly bad memoir I just skimmed in ARC (Such a Pretty Fat it's called, I'm not joking). An obvious talent like hers would float to the top of the slush pile eventually, with or without her connections or MFA. Maybe it would take a while, longer than it should. But I think it would happen.


jrlennon said...

I agree--I think O'Connor's relatively unadorned prose and her very prominent cruel streak make her more universally interesting than most writers.

But wow, does the whole "would so-and-so have been published today" question ever annoy me. It is generally asked by embittered people who blame the time they live in for their own failures. "I may not be published, but in this day and age, neither would Henry James."

If you write or read literary fiction, the publishing industry is not on your side. It has never been on your side. You are a distraction, and this has always been true. If publishing really sucks at the moment, its heightened suckitude can only be measured against the slightly less intense suckiness of the past.

Would Flannery O'Connor have been able to make a living from writing, were she writing today? Probably not. She would probably have to teach, or go to law school, or something. But having read her essays and letters (especially her letters) with gratitude and awe over the past ten years, I think I can safely conjecture that, if she were our contemporary, she wouldn't be publicly whining about how shitty her career was, and how people were stupid and didn't give her enough respect. Like anybody worth reading, she would probably cowboy up and just write her damn stories.

rmellis said...

While I agree, I think a certain amount of embittered whining is allowable as a perk of the profession, along with some hard drinking and literary revenge-taking.

ed said...

And, of course, O'Connor lived with her mother and didn't travel or, as far as I can tell from reading her letters, spend money on anything but peacocks and postage.