Saturday, May 24, 2014

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: The Death of a Literary Writer

     Yesterday, I think it was yesterday, or last week, last year, whatever, I woke up feeling really low and decided I didn’t care anymore.  I reached for that mythical tether, that thread of sanity so important to steady one’s feet near that perilous edge of the intellectual and emotional abyss called depression; my tether was gone.  Think about it, there are ten thousand reasons to feel hopeless in your God forsaken world, but as I once believed, it takes only one pseudo-sapient purpose to maintain that inane delusion that your life, your talent, your avocation might be a worthwhile pursuit.  I reached and my tether was no longer there.  The curser blinked on a blank screen: no words, no ideas, no meaning, not a single syllable gleaned from all the words of my studied vocabulary would follow my fingers to paper.  I had nothing left to say, and no one seemed willing to listen.  So I quit!

     Yes, I know this alley smells like urine, well, maybe that and rancid garbage; I don’t really care.  I didn’t invite you, if you want to go, go.  I got two bottles and enough change to buy a third if I need it.  This smell isn’t uncomfortable to me.  People, now they are the great offense to my senses.  I hate what I call, regular people.  I hate it when I see them with their shallow laughs and empty smiles.  No depth, no comprehension, no intuition; nothing is worse than an empty skull.  I am talking about illiterate people who think they know about life, but everything they know is external and there is nothing on the inside.  Most people are like poorly written books:  A pretty cover luring your wallet while remunerated blurbs distract the eyes from the vulgar excuse for language inside.  Twain called himself a misanthrope; now that would be a book club I could join.
     I bought this wine at Kenny’s Mart across the way; I didn’t even have to speak to that ugly, pierced, tattooed cashier.  I doubt Mary would remember me; she once was a brief $20.00 date when I needed one.  Now she collects soiled money from soiled bodies that shun orthodox society and bide our time in drunken shadows while our meager insignificance fades to nothing.  This is the caliginous part of town where the morose, cabalistic people come and spend our nights in the sanctity of darkened alleyways.  We are not a lost people; we know where we are and why we are here.  When I handed the cashier my crumpled money, I watched a lucid thought roll across the dimmed horizons of my mind:  Would these two bottles give me any more satisfaction than the old whore’s mouth once did?  I almost smiled.  I collected my change without eye contact and retreated from the harsh light of my reality.
     It’s okay, we can sit here.  This doorway is safe; it’s deserted.  It was once the kitchen entrance to some Italian ristorante or bistro or something, back when this was a better part of town.  I ate here once.  There are no restaurants in this neighborhood anymore.  If your stomach can hold food, there’s a mission up that way about two blocks.  They’ll make you pray for dinner.  I don’t remember how to pray, or who to pray to, so when I get hungry, I just buy more wine.   
     You want some of this?  I don’t mind; I’ll share, but then you are going to have to walk over and get some more from Mother Mary, or whatever she is calling herself these days.  Do me a favor though, don’t shop by price.  Get something with a little palate.  There are some things I miss about my old life.

     What are you doing here anyway?  Are you another writer doing one of those “Where Are They Now” series?  Investigating to see if I’m following in the footsteps of the 20th century masters?  Yeah, well I did; I’m a sot, too, okay? 
     There was a time when people called me an intellectual, but you knew that already.  Did you know there were some who called me professor?  A few even called me a great writer once, but only a few.  Believe me I worked hard at writing.  I wrote stuff that I thought would matter; apparently, it didn’t.  I argued with publishers and the literati that the universal interest in the written word was not dead.  I crusaded for years on campuses and in libraries to start a renaissance of culture and education through literature.  I even tried to pen a new version of The Confidence Man, just to thumb my nose at the snooty readers of pulp.  It worked for me almost as well as it worked for Melville.  I couldn’t bring myself to write the sophomoric crap the public wanted, not for the sake of a paycheck.  I languished in mediocre toils to write while refusing to compromise my education and talent for something as unredeeming as currency.  My riches, I wanted to believe, were banked in the words I wrote. 
     I blame a lot on our television society.  Give the public twenty-two minutes of meaningless dialogue and keep their attention long enough to get to the next commercial break.  No complex plot, no instructive tutelage, no metaphoric allusion, just instant distraction; no mind required.  A pathetic brain-washing, which billions of people are willing to subject themselves to nightly.  And can we blame the emerging writer?  Why spend time honing a craft, studying the greats, embedding thought, acculturation, and morals into a script when a thousand actors and directors, barely competent enough for a community theater, are willing to take anything and put it on film so that advertisers can defile the sensibilities of their mind-numbed consumers.  Who cares if the script is without flavor or substance, the writer has earned a byline.  Some might call that fame, but fame and pride are rarely compatible.
     Please don’t tell me you write for some cheesy e-zine. 
     Yes, then came the web.  The Internet ruined literature.  In the old days, you could walk into any brick-and-mortar book store and find a thousand horribly written books, but at least you could be confident that some talentless editor and desperate publisher read the damn thing before subjecting the public to its content.  Now, any hack with half an imagination can string a few sentences together and quote unquote, publish their tripe to an e-book.  They are today’s published elite.  Ha, some even call themselves authors. 
Jaded?  Yes, I’m jaded.  I’ve lived long enough to have earned that title.  I once had a shoebox with eighteen rejection letters to every piece I ever published.  What do these new writers have?
     Yes, I am sure there are some well written e-books floating around out there, but I would bet you another bottle of wine that you would have better luck winning a million dollars with a scratch-off lottery ticket than finding a masterpiece in the dollar section of e-book titles. 
     There is no intentional mastery anymore.  No one writes in depth and then rereads, revises, edits and rewrites anymore.  In today’s publishing world all that is needed is a cursory spellcheck, format and upload.  I have had the misfortune of reading some that even skipped the spellcheck.  Most of the billions of books out there contain no suggestion of the discipline of writing.  How can an author be an author when they know nothing about syntax, punctuation, allusion, continuity, complementary word choice, symbolism or plot structure?  Conflict, crisis, resolution?  Hell, they would think I was talking about the six o’clock news.  They claim their readers want Middle Earth and sorcery or sex charged characters bent on overly descriptive orgasms and violently jealous passions, but what they really mean is that is what they know how to write and everything else takes too much effort.  Ask today’s writer about man’s inhumanity to man, the consequence of actions, and internal tumult?  You know what they would say, how is it in internet lingo, WTF?  Why struggle with the technical aspects when the goal is to show something written to other people?  Like I said, fame and pride are inherently opposite.
     It’s a shame, but as I have grown old, my world has gone the way of The Langoliers, and it isn’t even Four Past Midnight yet.  Flaubert, Nabokov, and Kafka: they are no longer great teachers or the quintessential paradigm.  Their names are now obscure references in the SparkNotes needed to pass the requisite high school English courses.  It is unfortunate, but if you attempted to strike up a conversation with one of today’s authors on Queequeg’s juxtaposition to Christian hypocrisy, or von Aschenbach’s struggle with gender identity, or Edna Pontellier’s ill-timed advancement of female sexual liberation, you would draw vacuous responses from all but the fewest of those who consider themselves writers.  But ask that same aggregation about The Bachelorette or The Big Bang Theory and you would likely get a diatribe of worthless, non-humanizing episodic recounts.  Television is the new art of storytelling, and that my friend, is sad.
     You are making me sober.  Open another bottle, would you?
     We’ve lost so much since William Faulkner’s time.  How did he so elegantly phrase it back in 1950?  “The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which alone can make good writing, because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”  Nothing has changed since the mid-century, it has only gotten worse.
     The world of literature has faded like yesterday’s sunset.  Today, writers get criticized for symbolism, multifarious vocabulary and allusions of every ilk.  I once had a student complain that my writing was too complex; it made him have to think!  Oh, my God, what have those study guides done to the classics.  I feel nothing but pity for those who wish to read and write without using their minds.
      A story is not just a story.  There is so much more than a beginning, middle, and an end.  A story is the writer’s antidote to mortality; his chance to exist in perpetuity.  But for a writer to live on, the story must leave the reader with something to ponder after the book is closed, something the reader wishes to share with others, something to learn about himself and about society.  That takes work, that takes discipline, and that takes time.  No one wants to work at writing when they can easily point to their bibliography of unread, self-published titles and proclaim a legacy.
     Yesterday is now a distant past.  I have too much pride to live in this world, to count myself among the self-chosen throngs of penmen.  I don’t know if I will be read after I am gone; I am content to know that while the opportunities still existed, I wrote with the discipline I learned from the masters.  I guess that will be my eulogy.  These young kids today, I don’t know what they’re going to say when it’s time for them to lie in their alleyways. 
     Yesterday, yesterday, yesterday…  The world has changed, my purpose is fading, and I am so very tired from my unappreciated pursuit.  My dying wish is that somewhere, huddled over a desk, there is another young, strong, writer who has learned that writing is more than putting words on paper.  It is building the foundations of society, behavior and truth.  I am spent, but I still have faith.  I let you come here with me tonight because my chase is over.  Maybe this thing you are doing will inspire some scribe to avail themselves of a college course.  Maybe they will be tempted by the glorious words of those who preceded him.  I hope so; just because I have given up, it does not mean society has to lose.
     I never asked you if you read.  Do you?  It will make you a better writer, hell, it will make you a better person.  The world needs more readers.
     If in your travels, you come across some wayward writer full of learned ambition, please don’t let him read your “Where Are They Now” piece.  Let him find his own way, mine didn’t work.
     I’m so tired.  I wish you the best young man.  Find something to believe in and never compromise.  Even now, as the stars begin to alight on my soul, I am proud I never gave in.  For what it is worth, I still believe and I guess I still care after all.
     You should leave now. 
     If you don’t mind, leave that other bottle. 

     It’s going to be cold tonight. 


  1. I'm sitting here drinking a bottle myself. And when I'm done with this bottle I'm bringing one your way. We could stay up all night over this stuff. Ah, Nabokov. My first real mentor. Wish I could sit him down with Faulkner. Can you imagine?
    I"m with you. I'd rather pick a crappy book off a shelf that had a crappy editor than read a free e-book that wasn't edited at all and is self-published by someone who then feels he/she can call him/herself and "author."

    1. Although I warned against reading this by unschooled writers, I have hope that the psychology of my caution might inspire at least one person to read and then Google the vague literary references. A reading of Thomas Mann's _A Death in Venice_ or Kate Chopin's _The Awakening_ might drive home the idea that a tory is not just a story; a truly entertaining read can be literary also. And one could only hope that some reader someplace might revisit the _Moby Dick_ of their youth and discover that the insightful first line (I am still indecisive whether it was penned by Melville or his best friend Nathaniel Hawthorne _my inclination that its arcane Biblical reference has its etiology in Hawthorne's religious upbringing_) is the key to understanding the novel is NOT about whaling.