How to be Good

It was the beginning of a time when it was almost as if the novel itself didn’t matter anymore. Publishing a shiny booklike object was simply an excuse for parties and glamour and goodlooking authors reading finely honed minimalism to students who would listen rapt with slack­jawed admiration, thinking, I could do that, I could be them. But of course if you weren’t photogenic enough, the sad truth was you couldn’t. – Bret Easton Ellis

John Berryman is supposed to have said that a writer never knows if he’s any good. He asks himself this throughout his life and dies without a satisfactory answer—no matter what prizes, money, publications, or objects of social approval have been tossed his way. It’s easy to conclude that this is just an egotistical hangup for celebrities with enough time and money to fish for validation. Am I good? Tell me. Really? Tell me again. But what Berryman didn’t say was that these doubts seem to come to every person in every field. And insofar as nothing in this world is ever finished or static, such questions must always remain open.

In fact, most things a writer may ask herself about writing (usually in a fallow time when she isn’t writing and feels hollow and dead inside) have no real answers. There is no objective standard for writerly success. You’re never going to know, quoth Berryman. Perhaps because of this, the path of a developing writer is fraught will all kinds of psychological pitfalls, uncertainties which emerge in the space between creation and judgment—writing the thing and then deciding whether it’s worthy.

Consider the luminous transcendent moment when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature. Let’s be honest: she fucking deserved it as well as anybody else. Do you mean to tell me she isn’t a skilled writer? That she hasn’t led the life? That she doesn’t deserve to get paid? Sure, the Nobel system is a politicized, public relations hype-sandwich. In that, it’s no different than the Pulitzer, the MacArthur Genius Grant, the Stegner, or any of the other smaller awards that function as patronage for writers.

Still, I had to laugh when Bret Easton Ellis—who is also great but very different—commented that “Alice Munro was always an overrated writer and now that she’s won The Nobel she always will be. The Nobel is a joke and has been for ages.” After the inevitable social media backlash, he added, “The sentimental hatred for me has made me want to re-read Munro, who I never really got, because now I feel like I’ve beaten-up Santa Claus.” That one kept me laughing for about a week. But the truth is a lot simpler than whether or not Ellis beat up Father Christmas: Munro might not be his cup of tea. But nobody can say definitively that she is “completely overrated” because nobody actually knows. Not even, I will venture to say, Alice.

Young writers (in years and / or in terms of artistic development) especially try to fill this gap with metrics designed to quantify success and banish their excruciating doubts. But most writers have to fight this battle, some throughout their entire careers. Over the course of many years in the writing life, one sees it all:

  • the hack machine who puts out a formulaic novel every three months like clockwork and points to this as the ultimate sign of achievement;
  • the bitter self-publisher, who has completely dismissed the Manhattan book industry as a hive of scum and villainy, and who now only writes direct-to-Lulu ebooks because nothing else matters anymore;
  • the one who can tell you any any minute of the day or night how much money his books are making and exactly why other writers are so jealous of his commercial prowess;
  • the defensive YA-ist (Young Adulterer? Young Adulterator?), who started out trying to be Pam Houston but after the first orgy of rejections turned to Harry Potter the way an abused housewife turns to brandy—it takes the edge off in the middle of the day, helps her convince herself that writing about fairy children with super powers is her true calling, and makes it possible for her to stop experiencing those week-long fugues of black existential dread in which she used to compare herself to Pam;
  • the lost soul in the MFA program, trying desperately to clone herself into Alice Munro or Donna Tartt or Jonathan Foer or Gary Shteyngart or whoever else is currently receiving the publishing industry’s golden shower du jour (Look how closely I can imitate X! Can I get a cookie? Do you love me? Why won’t anyone love me? You promised me a cookie. Where’s my cookie! I’ll be over there, cutting myself, until you bring me my cookie.);
  • the lost soul after the MFA program, trying desperately to justify himself to his drunk brother-in-law at Christmas dinner by mentioning all his literary journal publications (I just put a story in Bumfuck Quarterly! It’s my fifteenth publication! And fuck you, you philistine.);
  • the lost soul who got the two-book deal early on, enabling her to worm her way into a tenure track position at a small liberal arts college, and who behaves outwardly as if this validates every word she has written and will ever write (but who continually asks, Is this it? when she’s not buying cases of gin at the package store because maybe Gilbey’s is the only answer);
  • others, many and various.

I know. I’m being cruel. Although cruelty does come standard with the writing life, these are stereotypes and we all have a little of this inside us.  So pointing fingers is a bit hypocritical.  Call it the pathology of trying to be a writer in a system that presents itself as a meritocracy but functions via medieval power games and nepotism. And we can be as angry as we want. We can shake our little fists at the heavens or spend hours upbraiding ourselves in the mirror. But we’re never going to know how to be good. We’re only ever going to know that we want to be.

 

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About Michael Davis

Writer. Reader. Appreciator of corgis. View all posts by Michael Davis

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