Almost a year ago, an old colleague
from the days when I practiced law called to check my recollection
about a matter we had handled together. In the course of our conversation,
which included a lot of catching up, he announced that he had recently
written a novel.
In part out of politeness and partly because I was curious in
a competitive sort of way, I asked for a stray copy, which he proudly
and promptly furnished. As with so many of the books that I receive
with enthusiastic recommendations, or, indeed, with what feel to
me like reading assignments, I stubbornly put off even opening
his manuscript for the longest time.
I carried it around for months, lugging it back and forth on my
weekly trips to Southampton, out to Yellowstone, and up to the
White Mountains. There was always something better to read or to
do that got in the way. Nevertheless, last Saturday on an Amtrak
train to Washington with my wife, I pulled it out of my bag and
with some ambivalence dove in. I was pleasantly surprised and had
trouble putting the manuscript down when we arrived in Union Station.
I finished it on the way home the following day.
Don't get me wrong. My friend's book is not terrific. It includes
an implausible religious theme along the lines of demonic possession,
and suffers from being written by a lawyer. There is a little too
much exposition, the dialogue is occasionally wooden and it sometimes
sounds like a legal brief; but those would be soluble problems
in the hands of an intelligent and sensitive editor.
What impressed me was that my friend had cobbled together 107
pages of lucid prose. His plot was creative-it caught my attention
from the start and then twisted and turned as it marched on to
a satisfactory and surprising conclusion. From the perspective
of someone who can hardly assemble 1500 words four times a semester
for a creative non-fiction workshop, in my eyes my friend had accomplished
However, in an Author's Note at the end, he included an apologia.
He explained how he came to write the book, stated its intentions
and expressed what I thought was a timid hope that readers would
not think too badly of the time they devoted to reading it. My
friend sounded almost as if he felt himself an embarrassed trespasser
in the field of writing, a goat among the lions of the literary
establishment. I couldn't see any need for that. The story stood
on its own and was darn good for a first try.
The literary establishment takes a lot of fun out of life with
its high-minded seriousness and I suppose all non-members are intimidated
to some degree. Even Stephen King, who just received the National
Book Foundation's annual medal for distinguished contribution to
American letters, seems to have diffident feelings. When the award
was announced, The New York Times scuttled around trying
to stir up some controversy, anticipating that some of the literati
would be upset that this enormously successful writer of "popular" as
opposed to "literary" fiction was going to be given "their" annual
award. The ever-quotable Harold Bloom obliged in a mean-spirited
way by classifying King's books with the penny dreadfuls of the
19 th century and denying them any "literary value," "aesthetic
accomplishment," or sign "of inventive human intelligence." Some
other publishing notables were also miffed, but for the most part
the negative comments were meager and the Times was obviously
The result was sad, though. Instead of being able to just enjoy
well-deserved recognition for being a gifted writer, a creative
story teller and a master of the horror genre, this very decent
man felt the need to expend his acceptance speech justifying his
work and other genres of popular fiction to the assembled literary
I suppose it's really a question of how big the literary Queen
Mary should be, who should design it, and whether there should
be much room in steerage. Joseph Epstein, who is almost always
in the annual Best Essays anthology, wrote an op-ed piece
for The New York Times last year advising people who
think they have a book in them to keep it there. David Sexton,
Literary Editor of the Evening Standard in London, recently
rang in that time spent reading mediocre novels is time subtracted
But "Why waste everybody's time?"-especially theirs-is essentially
a professional's argument. They forget that it's our language too.
Writing is not just for high priests in sacred precincts. Writing
is everybody's right. It is one of the most democratic of activities,
not something best left to a professional class.
I cannot accept that amateurs should just sit in the stands, eat
hot dogs and watch the "pros" perform. Sure, an exciting football
game, a beautiful ballet, a well-acted play, a good painting may
be interesting or entertaining. But how much better appreciated
they are if the audience have themselves played, danced, acted
or painted. The effort, the nuances, the art and the technical
skill are so much more evident. So it is with writing. To read
and never to have written, or to have at least attempted to write,
is only half the experience.
In a sense, amateur writing is no different from gardening, woodworking,
or model airplane making. It is a choice about devoting time, making
a focused effort to do something creative and enjoying the process.
If the garden is beautiful, the cabinet true, or the model plane
flies, the amateur has achieved something. There may be better
pieces by others, but so what? The joy is in the doing, the problem
solving, the creative effort. It is not entirely in the end product.
Thus, even if my friend's first novel is an only novel, and even
if it is only the equivalent of a 19 th -century penny dreadful,
it is nevertheless a literary Everest for him, if for no one else.
I am not even sure publication is necessary, although it certainly
would be icing on the cake, recognition that he had something to
say and said it reasonably well.
Isn't recognition what most of us really want? Most amateurs have
no compunction about seeking it for things that they have thought
long about and worked hard to craft. There are others, however,
who for one reason or another have to be satisfied with the pleasure
of writing. In my own case, for example, my literary reach has
always been greater than my grasp. My aspirations have always been
too high. Rejection hurts. It always has and at this late date
in life I am seldom willing to risk what remains of my fragile
ego for the sake of publication.
Nevertheless, I still ask myself why should Joseph Epstein and
his buddies have all the fun? They announce what they think, skewer
people and ideas, turn out a few good phrases every day, and enjoy
the intellectual calisthenics of putting it all down on paper in
a reasonably organized and polished way. They exercise imagination,
disciplined thought, and verbal craftsmanship. Why can't I have
a little bit of that fun too?
So my friend wrote a book. What was the harm in that? He is one
of thousands trying to make their literary mark. He has organized
and developed his own thoughts and presented them for all to see
in a respectable way. He is no doubt better for it even if few
should read him. He probably understands himself better. In the
future, he may better appreciate another author's skill. He has
written something big.
Let others, like Joseph Epstein and Harold Bloom, fulminate about
whether work like that should be published. That's what editors
and publishers are for: to accept, reject, commission, and improve
the writings of others; to take the commercial risk.
The fundamental disorderliness of all these people having ideas,
trying to express them, and jockeying to reach an audience is part
of the human condition in a free society. It is wonderful, something
Harold Bloom and his cohorts on literary Olympus can't quash or appreciate.