Competitive Writers

October 17th, 2009

By Dwight Allen

In an appreciation of John Updike that appeared in the New York Times not long after his death last January, Lorrie Moore (BIRDS OF AMERICA, A GATE AT THE STAIRS) wrote that “literature, of course, is not a contest.” She made this seemingly self-evident claim while noting that the Nobel Prize had eluded Updike–who won every other prize there is to win–and suggesting that if life were fair, he would’ve won that one, too, and that Updike (who regarded himself as–and who in fact behaved like–a hard-working lower-case writer rather than a big-deal upper-case one) surely would’ve been pleased with the honor himself. In a piece about Updike that ran in The New Yorker a week after Moore’s Times essay, Roger Angell, who had been Updike’s editor for three decades, said that he could get Updike’s juices going by telling him that he ought to read a certain sharp young writer whose work was soon to appear in the magazine. And it wouldn’t be long before Angell would receive in the mail a manila envelope containing a new Updike story. In other words, Updike was competitive (if not in a bared-teeth kind of way) and apparently did to some degree regard literature as a contest.

One reads of a major American male fiction writer (generation of Boyle and Moore and Wolff and Smiley) putting a bullet hole through another writer’s book–or perhaps it was merely the bound galleys–because the other writer had the audacity to give one of the gunman’s books a less than favorable review. (Apparently, the major writer’s wife put a bullet hole through another copy of the reviewer’s book first, perhaps in order to show her husband how it was done.) One reads, too, alas, of the same gunman-novelist spitting on another writer at a literary gathering a couple of years after the younger writer gave the gunman a harsh review in the New York Times.

And one reads of an outraged female novelist (same generation) twittering her followers about a negative review that appeared in the Boston Globe, a tweet that included the reviewer’s home phone number in case any of the twitterer’s followers wished to complain personally to the reviewer.

Of course there are also writers who are generous and gracious, unobsessed with their status in the literary world. To take an example (from Canada): Alice Munro, who asked that her new book of stories be pulled from consideration for a $45,000 prize that she has already won (twice), so that other writers’ books might have a better chance at it.

Literature (or whatever it is that most of us write) may not be a competition when we are in the process of writing it, but once it is out in the world, it becomes something that competes with thousands of other pieces for space in magazines big and little, for praise, for money from book publishers, for reviews, for prizes. It becomes something that will either help or not help its author get a grant or a paying job or entree into certain editors’ In boxes or an invitation to a book festival. It becomes something that will either get or not get the attention of book page editors–and if the book has money behind it, even a modest sum, it is more likely than a book with little or no money behind it to get the attention of a book page editor–and then perhaps a review that your mother can tape to her refrigerator.

A poet friend has referred to the world in which we striving writers–not to mention much of the rest of humanity–do our work in as “the cesspool of late-capitalist society.” Which brings to mind a scene in the 1970 Peter Sellers movie THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN, in which people dive into vats of shit for the dollar bills that have been set adrift there. On the other hand, most writers, absent financial remuneration, will settle for attention of one sort or another.

And yet, when we are writing our stories or novels, we don’t care about what anybody (mentor, editor, father, fellow writer) might think about what we’re typing, do we? We don’t care–do we?–that when we are four years into writing a novel, one of our least favorite fellow writers (but admittedly a talented one) is on the verge of publishing something that will make our prose look like drivel, if drivel can be said to look like anything?

When I am writing my fiction, I don’t care what other writers are doing or how my writing will stack up when it’s done. (I do, to be honest, sometimes imagine, during the editing process, what my ideal reader–a composite, made up of friends and a couple of ornery critics–might make of a word, a sentence, a scene, the whole damn thing.) I know that I can do what only I can do, and that, if it’s any good, it will at least be somewhat different from what anybody else does–different not necessarily in the “what” but in the “how.” I know, too, that there are a lot of living writers who are smarter than I am, more clever than I am, wiser than I am–in short, I know that there are many writers who are better than I am. When I was younger, the knowledge of my limitations bothered me to the extent that I often asked myself why I bothered to hover above my typewriter like some obsessive talking bird saying the same sentence over and over. But I continued to bother. I wrote, in part, to get better, to write sentences (or paragraphs or stories) that I didn’t know I could write.

It is only when my writing goes out into the world that I feel competitive–a point at which, it could be noted, the game is already over. In fact, it seems almost unremarkable that a writer would feel competitive (or, if things go badly, driven to jealousy or spite) as his or her work jostles for a little space in the so-called literary marketplace with hundreds of other (good, not so good, brilliant, boring, overpraised, faintly praised) books. But not many writers admit–publicly–to having those sorts of feelings. It’s as if the feelings are beneath us, dignified, humble servants of art that we are. Now and then a writer will come clean, as Pete Dexter, the author of the estimable and prize-winning PARIS TROUT, did the other day in the New York Times, when he said to a reporter, regarding competition with other writers, “Jealousy’s the wrong word for what I usually feel. It’s closer to hoping they get hit by a car.”

Writers are, broadly speaking, ordinary creatures who have the usual array of emotions and whose egos are no grander (or any more modest, for that matter) than those of other people in better-paying lines of work. It’s not clear that the egos of those of us writers who work (for lack of a better term) at the margins are any less demanding than the egos of those celebrated authors who put bullet holes through other writers’ books. We all have our needs and hopes, ridiculous as they sometimes are. Praise (or a good review) is the one compensation that we all probably hope for, and when it doesn’t happen, we sometimes lose our minds and throw a hissy fit or drink too much of the Pisco that our son brought us from Chile for occasions celebratory and otherwise. And then, after we go through our period of anger and despair and grief, and after we give thanks to our mothers and sons and spouses and siblings and friends and others who have have taken the time to read our stuff, we go back to writing, though not necessarily because we feel competitive with each other.

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