Monday, August 1, 2016

The Ladder of Success

            In 1930 Allen Tate offered some words of wisdom to a new literary magazine. He advised the editors of The Sewanee Review to send five hundred copies to prominent writers, from Upton Sinclair to Andre Gide. He also warned them that they must use rejection slips very carefully: “You cannot afford to send a rejection slip to any writer who has the slightest claim upon editorial attention. It will ruin you.”
            The italics are Tate’s.
            His quote was in the Spring 2015 edition of The Sewanee Review. I was staying at a writers’ colony and came across the magazine in my cottage.
            One night I was invited to attend a reading. I had little desire to go, but I accepted as a courtesy to my hosts; they went because they were affiliated with the university where it was being held. I had never heard of the author, but I had been shown a flyer about him; he had credentials as long as my arm: a list of universities he attended (he had, needless to say, an MFA); grants and fellowships; publications and prizes; universities where he taught.
            These credentials affirmed that he had a claim upon “editorial attention.”  
            After a complimentary and chummy introduction by a writer on the faculty, the author took the podium; he was relaxed, entertaining. He began by presenting (on a screen) an exercise he gave his students. It involved taking a two sentence fable and gradually deepening it and making it relevant to one’s own experience. Then he read two of his stories; he read too fast (and in a dialect), so I didn’t get much of it. One was a humorous piece about a dog; the other had to do with a police officer stopping a black man (the author was black) and treating him in a demeaning way in front of his young son.
            After the reading the author asked for questions or comments; after a long (and awkward) silence, one man and one woman came up with something to say. The author then invited the audience (only two-thirds of the seats in a small lecture room were filled) to attend a book signing to be held nearby. The entourage I was with headed for their car; we joined others who were also departing from the parking lot. 
            So there’s the sad story. This author had his credentials, but he would get the money to keep the lights on by giving lessons to aspiring writers and critiquing their manuscripts.
            The situation that exists in today’s literary world is structured like a ladder. The bottom rungs are broad, but they grow narrower as they rise. Those who occupy the top rungs are the elite, and receive adoring respect. The author who gave the reading was near the bottom. Of course, ladders are meant to be climbed, and various tactics are employed to get oneself up a few rungs (mostly it takes the form of maneuvering for a hand from someone above you). Of course, you can go down (or completely off) the ladder, but this is rare. Often writers reach a certain position and stay there for the duration. But to get on the ladder is a necessity. You don’t want to be in the mud.
            Those who populate the literary world almost universally believe in equal rights and opportunities for all. They abhor the network of contacts existing in the higher realms of politics and corporations. They want a level playing field on which worth is the only criterion for success.
            Hypocrisy is not something people admit to (or even recognize in themselves). Those on the ladder proclaim an openness to “new talent” and they embrace their image as being big-hearted souls (take that chummy introduction). But these virtues apply only to those who are on the ladder. If you aren’t — if you have muddy feet — you’re treated with callous indifference. An inverse application to Allen Tate’s italicized sentence is now firmly in effect: Send a rejection slip to any writer without a claim to editorial attention. Openness and generosity are as rare as hen’s molars to those without the proper qualifications. And one of those qualifications is an MFA degree. For most it constitutes the bottom rung of the ladder. It’s in seminar rooms where one’s first credentials and contacts are garnered.
            Credentials and contacts in the highest realms of academia abound in that essay on the The Sewanee Review that I read in my cottage. Still, in the 1930s the pathway to publication was more open; four major authors of that period — Faulkner, Dreiser, Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter — either had no college or only one year (though all worked hard to establish relationships with influential people). Also, in pre-TV days writing was a marketable commodity; there were a dozen mainstream magazines that ran multiple stories in every issue and paid top dollar to the likes of Lardner, Marquand, Fitzgerald and O’Hara. What percentage of today’s literary authors make a decent living from their writing? Four percent? Yet many young people (or, rather, their parents) are willing to part with enormous sums of money (for the prestigious programs don’t come cheap) to pursue a craft that is non-lucrative.
            And can good writing be taught? Though it obviously can’t, that question will be argued in the affirmative by university accountants and by writers/professors who earn a salary (and get health insurance coverage) by teaching in MFA programs. In a rare exhibit of truth the editor of a well-known literary magazine wrote me, “Why the hell shouldn’t I publish all MFAers? They pay my salary.” This editor/professor was the author of a half dozen novels.
            In these culturally impoverished times the whole issue of literature — for both those in the mud and on the ladder (except for that gilded 4%) — is of no importance to a public that doesn’t give a damn. Even many of those who made an appearance at the reading I attended were there just to fill seats and make the audience seem respectable. And, when their duty was over, they headed for their cars and drove off in the night.

            Months after I posted this essay I was skimming through a biography of Katherine Anne Porter, and in the span of a few pages her relations with two young writers are described. One is William Humphrey. He was a professor at Bard College, and he sent her an invitation to speak there. She replied that her minimum fee was $250 with expenses (lecturing, she added, was her one way of making a living). They exchanged letters. He said that he when he was working on his fiction he had copies of her stories open at his favorite paragraphs, and that when he published a story he and his wife wondered “if She had seen it.” And so on. You know the drill. It’s called toadying, and it works, especially for a woman susceptible to flattery from young men. Porter accepted the speaking engagement for $50 and subsequently she both guided and encouraged Humphrey in his writing.
            The next in line is William Goyen, and this episode went much deeper than mere toadying. He visited Porter several times (he was a fellow Texan and knew members of her family). In his letters he expressed unabashed and total admiration. When his first novel came out he wrote in the copy he sent her that she and her “great work had been his guiding light.”
            Porter’s New York Times review of The House of Breath was adulatory. She helped Goyen get grants and awards (including a Guggenheim). When the two were at Yaddo, letters indicate that they became lovers. Porter was sixty, Goyen thirty-five.
            Eventually things would sour. In a letter to a friend Porter wrote, “He would call or come to see me very seldom, but always to say that he went nowhere, saw no one, did not answer the telephone and yet was so pursued and embarrassed by attention . . . then, of course, I would see other friends and it was plain that Bill was getting all over the literary territory, meeting absolutely every celebrity that hit town, for a modest, extra sensitive young artist of an unworldly heart, he has not missed one single trick on the tricky road to a New York Literary Career.”

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