Steve Almond has a funny and honest piece in The Rumpus (“The New Yorker’s One Over 40“) about his reaction to the New Yorker’s much talked about list of 20 writers under 40 who will be known as the most important of their generation. Almond explains how he was both excited by the work of writers on the list, and how the list depressed him in a narcissistic way by reminding him that he is a writer who he will never be The Next Big Thing. He had one piece of insight that stuck in my mind and was highlighted by a few of the people who commented.
But the real life of a writer resides in showing up at the keyboard every day, with the necessary patience and mercy, and making the best decisions you can on behalf of your people. It’s a slow process. It often feels hopeless, more like an affliction than an art form.
Most of us will have to find our readers one by one, in other words, and against considerable resistance. If anything qualifies us as heroic, it’s that private perpetual struggle. [Emphasis mine]
This reminded me of an essay by Michael Ventura titled, “The Talent of the Room.” You can find it on his website here. I was handed this essay by a fellow classmate in a workshop when I was in my early twenties. Among many other wise things he said,
Writing is something you do alone in a room.
That sentence encapsulates the task, anxiety, solitariness, and struggle of writing. You want to be an artist? Ventura has this to say,
As for whether it [writing] becomes your art – that isn’t really up to you. The art can be there in the beginning, before you know a thing, or it may never be there no matter what you learn.
Pretty daunting and humbling…If you want to write, read the essay. If you want to understand what writers go through, read the essay. Almond touches on some of the things in Ventura’s essay, which is to say that the task of the writer hasn’t changed since Gilgamesh.
I think lists like the New Yorker and Granta put together are interesting places to start. I have doubts about their comprehensiveness. It’s only through 20/20 hindsight with a generation or two behind us that we can often identify with certainty Who Wrote What Matters Most. Would the likes of Faulkner, have shown up on a similar list like this created in their eras? Faulkner’s works were out of print in his lifetime, which is what forced him to go to Hollywood searching for work (if I remember correctly). When Fitzgerald (who most certainly would have made such a list put together in the 1920’s) died there were copies of The Great Gatsby from its second printing still in Scribner’s warehouse. It was a full decade after Fitzgerald died that Gatsby began to rise in reputation among readers.
Even with the Internet, and all its powers of bringing attention to millions of tiny corners of the world, I still think we flatter ourselves into thinking that we can successfully look at our artists now and say, “Yes, this one and this one will stand the test of time. That one won’t.” But it’s fun to speculate in the meantime.