Writing and the Joy of Obscurity

Editor’s Note by Martha Nichols

"Have I Heard of You?"

 


From the time I could hold a pencil, I knew that doing creative work mattered. “The work is the point,” my mother would repeat like a mantra.

“The True Immoral” © Rune GuneriussenShe was a painter—a very good one—and when I came home from school to find my mom swirling bright acrylics on a canvas, I believed her.

But I also remember why she needed that mantra. Her lack of success colored much of my early view of what it meant to be an artist. When she’d start in on another tirade—say, about a gallery owner who’d ignored her—my brother and I would intone, “Toulouse! Toulouse!”

At least this reference to absinthe-soaked Toulouse-Lautrec made my mother laugh.

She was not a great role model for an aspiring writer, however. I spent years trying to do something else, until I finally gave up and enrolled in a creative writing program.

I’ve long since realized that the solitary, incandescent joy of creativity clashes with the desire to have my work recognized. As a child, every visit I made to a bookstore or local library sparked fantasies of seeing my own titles prominently displayed. My name would be in the card catalog! My novel would be stacked on a table by the front door!

Yet, well into adulthood, I was nervous about showing my work to anyone.

This tension between the creative process and the need to promote oneself is ever with us—and that’s why TW’s Winter 2013 issue is devoted to literary fame.

Part of the fascination with famous writers is obvious: Their exploits can be instructive and just plain fun to follow. But while a love of gossip is part of the human condition, there’s another aspect to contemporary fame that’s raised the stakes for all of us. The rise of 24/7 celebrity culture is changing what it means to be a successful author.

So, have I heard of you? Where have you published?

Writers attract such questions whenever they confess what they do. Still, “Have I heard of you?” has taken on a new edge. For most of us, the answer remains “Uh, no,” regardless of where we’ve published. What we’re really being asked is “Did they make a movie of your novel? Has your face been plastered all over the Internet?”

"Twentyfourseven" @ Rune Guneriussen

 

My old-fashioned notions of being a famous writer—publication by a noteworthy press, praise by critics, a discerning audience—now often conflict with the public view of literary stardom. My dreams of fame have never run to notoriety. When I think of the media feeding frenzy over Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I shudder.

Then there’s Patricia Cornwell, who is suing her former financial managers in federal court. Cornwell’s very public trial began last week, generating a long feature on the front page of the Boston Globe. The story abounds in ironies for the author of a bestselling detective series, but the Globe goes into loving detail about her personal problems:

Cornwell, who has been open about her struggles with depression and bipolar disorder and the abuse she says she suffered in foster homes growing up, has had her share of real-life drama.

A romantic affair in the 1990s with then-married FBI agent Margo Bennett made headlines after Bennett’s estranged husband sought to kill the agent and her church pastor, enraged over what he termed her lesbian affair.”

This is the stuff of tabloid journalism.

On the highbrow side, there’s J.K. Rowling, whose first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, was released with much fanfare last September—only to generate a storm of criticism. Here’s Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times:

It’s easy to understand why Ms. Rowling wanted to try something totally different…. Unfortunately, the real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that ‘The Casual Vacancy’ is not only disappointing—it’s dull.

I liked The Casual Vacancy. It’s far from dull. Rowling applied her page-turning skills to a big fat social novel, one that hooked me far more than any of her Harry Potter tales. But for awhile, I actually felt sorry for her. She seemed to be the Leonard Nimoy of contemporary literature, forever doomed to play the equivalent of Mr. Spock.

Then, last December, I learned that The Casual Vacancy will become a BBC television series. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Rowling has also been named to its “inaugural list of the 25 most powerful authors in Hollywood.”

Joanne is doing quite well for herself, thank you very much.

"It's Common Knowledge" © Rune Guneriussen

Indeed, for many TW writers in this issue, success is something to be sought and reveled in. For example, in “A Shy Writer Learns to Market Herself,” literary author Kelcey Parker recounts how she went from an anonymous blog to hawking handmade books out of a suitcase to promote a forthcoming collection of short stories.

And as our resident paparazzo Emily Toth demonstrates in “Celebrities on the Loose,” famous writers get up to plenty of entertaining antics, both in what they say and do.

Stephen King, Elizabeth Bishop, Neil Gaiman, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Connie Willis, Junot Díaz, Dorothy Allison, Ian McEwan, and Hilary Mantel are just some of the well-known authors who appear in the pieces in this issue.

Meanwhile, in “What Are Creative Writing Programs Good For?,” Fred Setterberg reviews We Wanted to Be Writers, the compiled recollections of an Iowa Workshop cohort that included T.C. Boyle, Sandra Cisneros, Joy Harjo, and other illustrious alums. The outcome of the most prestigious writing program isn’t guaranteed fame and fortune, Fred notes. But for working writers, it could be something ultimately more important.

In addition to essays about celebrities, this issue of Talking Writing spotlights prose poetry. We’ll feature nine terrific poets, with a new one publishing every Wednesday in January and February.

As TW Poetry Editor Carol Dorf writes in “The Big Bang of Prose Poetry,” her introduction to the spotlight section, “[I]ntermediate forms like prose poetry—a hybrid of fiction and poetry—concentrate the energy of language to surprise and delight the reader.”

There are many ways to define creative success, after all. Authors write for a variety of reasons: to surprise themselves, to purge their sorrows, to fill the existential void.

We also write in the belief that our work is worthy of being seen, something the shyest among us may have a difficult time acknowledging. But many brilliant famous authors have managed the tension between internal creative fire and writing for an audience. Reading about their lives can inspire us.

In fact, “the joy of obscurity” is a hypocritical pipe dream, and I know it. These days, when I’m asked, “Have I heard of you?,” my answer often sparks a different response.

“I run an online literary magazine,” I say.

“Really? What’s it called?”

Talking Writing.”

“How cool!”

Table of Contents for Winter 2013

 

[Correction 2/28/13: We have changed the name of this issue from "Jan/Feb 2013" to
"Winter 2013"in order to accommodate an extended publishing schedule through March.]

 


Publishing Information

 


© Hadley Langosy

Martha Nichols is editor in chief of Talking Writing.

This year, she’s been struck by how fickle fame can be, especially after seeing obituaries for Gore Vidal and Maeve Binchy on the same day last August. Vidal loved picking fights, and his celebrity status overtook his writing. Binchy was a crowd pleaser, but, in the end, her novels may last longer.

“Emily Dickinson is our ‘Zombie Mother,’ as Legault invokes her: an undead goth girl. Or my middle-aged contemporary, facing mortality yet lifted by a sardonic desire to dish with God.”
“Emily Dickinson, Zombie”


 

 

Comments

Dear Martha,

I love this! Toulouse, Toulouse. Hysterical.

I am thrilled to be in the company of the writers and photographers and artists at Talking Writing. It is beautifully designed, careful, spare, elegant. And the writing is quirky, stimulating, and real. You speak to issues I have faced for years. And now, in my 60s (how did this happen?) the pleasure of being part of journals like yours is more than enough to satisfy my creative desires.

All the best,
Liz

Oh, I know! Awards! It's like a college BA now being the equivalent of a high school diploma. Everybody's got one--just as everyone is now supposed to be a celebrity--and, Lord knows, the world seems to believe that anyone can be a writer. It's true that "Where have you published?" now seems quaint. And from this perspective, that's really too bad.

John, indeed you are right about celebrity worship so often trumping the joy of creativity and art. Thank you. And as a coda, I must note that my wonderfully creative mother passed away a couple of days ago. When I wrote this Editor's Note, I meant it as a tribute to her, knowing she'd be gone soon, and that she'd struggled much, but that she'd created an extraordinary body of work. I am immensely proud of her. The fact that she found no worldly success in her lifetime doesn't truly amount to that famous hill of beans.

Thanks, Mom, for all you gave me.

Truly excellent. Unlike in your mother's day, writers and artists get to be obscure in ever new ways. We can blog and post and tweet and have those be ignored too.

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