Monday, February 04, 2013

`A Vow of Ego-Chastity'

Driving home from work one evening last week I listened to an interview on NPR with a writer who has just published her third novel. Her voice is soft and modulated, well suited for radio, a medium that encourages an impression of intimacy with people we will never meet. She gamely answered the interviewer’s questions, acknowledged her plot was inspired by a real crime committed several years ago, and credited her young son with several of the best lines in the novel. The impression she gave, whether the real thing, artifice or some crafted mingling of both, was favorable. I might enjoy a conversation with her, I thought, yet the performance, which consumed more than eight minutes during “drive time,” left me with a mild aftertaste of disgust. 

Why this novel and novelist? Probably because of the book’s origins in “true crime,” a father’s kidnapping of his daughter in 2008. Did the interview merit eight minutes on the same day the American embassy in Ankara was bombed, Ed Koch died and the suffering of Syrians surpassed understanding? No. Does the author have a right to hawk her wares as she wishes? Of course. So what’s my problem? 

Two of the worst writers of their generation, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, famously sparred on The Dick Cavett Show on Dec. 15, 1971. The poet L.E. Sissman in his Atlantic Monthly column published a few months later, agreed with another guest on the show, Janet Flanner, who said “a writer has no business going public [while going public herself, of course].” Always diplomatic, Sissman even has good things to say about Mailer. However, in “Going Public” (Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the 70’s, 1975) he compares a writer to a baseball pitcher or concert pianist: 

“He must practice; he must work hard; he must sacrifice mere pleasure to the demands of art; he must be, in a sense, both single-minded and monastic. Unless he is a polymath of the most formidable proportions, he cannot afford or support a second career as a public figure.” 

Sissman adds: 

“In a word, the serious writer must take serious vows if he is to concentrate on his chief aim. A vow of silence, except through his work. A vow of consistency, sticking with writing to the exclusion of other fields. A vow of ego-chastity, abstaining from adulation. A vow of solitude, or at least long periods of privacy. A vow of self-regard, placing the self as writer before the self as personality.”
The rest is marketing.

[See David Myers' elaboration here.]


George said...

How much of the day can the writer write? Baseball pitchers work these days to a pretty limited pitch count, and might make 30 to 35 starts in half a year. The pianist, less subject to arm strain, can work that much longer. Yet the pianist is working from somebody's scores. (And I'll note that the Polish Embassy here in Washington has a statue of Paderewski out front.) The Goncourts give an account of George Sand as nearly a writing machine, but how many can do that?

"Did the interview merit eight minutes on the same day the American embassy in Ankara was bombed, Ed Koch died and the suffering of Syrians surpassed understanding?"

American newspapers ran sports sections throughout World War II, didn't they?

seraillon said...

My impression of Mozart is that he was not particularly monastic.

There are so few grand personalities these days; it would be shame to have only personality-free writers populating our literature - or our culture.

In any case, I'd be hard pressed to believe that Sissman's model of the ascetic, abstemious writer fits all sizes, or is inherently better than other models. As that grand personality Isak Dinesen wrote in Seven Gothic Tales, her narrator quoting a bishop, "...there are many ways to the recognition of truth...Burgundy is one of them."

Anonymous said...

I heard this same interview, driving through Houston, on my way to pick up my kids. This author -- Amity Gaige -- is not my usual cup of tea, but there was nothing stupid or offensive in the interview whatsoever.

But this blog post is really something else. Instead of being grateful that NPR is interviewing an author rather than a sports figure or celebrity; an author of nuanced fiction rather than a guru of nonfiction social science airport best-sellers; no, rather than feeling grateful or humble, Patrick Kurp feels queasy. He isn't sure *why* he feels queasy, but he devotes a blog post to telling us so anyway, bizarrely using Mailer and Vidal as figures in a non-argument about why, if this author were really worth her salt, she wouldn't be on the radio in the first place.

How juvenile. It's ironic that Kurp paints himself as such a literary grown-up, when his nausea at the bread-and-butter reality of the writing life would be worthy of Rilke. (Irony upon irony: I can't imagine Kurp giving Rilke the time of day.)

You know what that queasy feeling is called? Envy. That's what envy feels like. But high-minded people such as yourself can't actually put a name to such feelings, can they?

Doctor Singularis et Invincibilis said...

There’s long since Kurp merely vituperates; which is a thing of the fake prophets. He sounds embittered and nasty, envenomed and puffed—up, always giving lessons, dismissive and patronizing; I am quite unconvinced of the quality of his literary choices—to an European, they seem parochial and all—Americana. There’s something very unpleasant, resentful and rancorous about Kurp’s remarks, an unmistakable nastiness, the righteousness and sternness of a legislator—he merely gives edicts, etc.. Hence the moralism, and the risible indignation of his stern vituperations. He is dismissive and inquisitorial, eager to spot the heresy, and to reprove.
I do not think Kurp was alluding to Hillel, but to an overused cliché of rhetorical punch—‘the rest is silence’, etc.. It’s an usage of a very dubious taste, but it shows the nature of Kurp’s self—image—the prosecutor, the one who dismisses with a jarred grimace. His touch is heavy with bitter resent; his knowledge, parochial and very uneven.
Unlike Hillel, Sissman can’t sum. He merely indulges in a low—brow sermonizing, to comfort the feeble—minded. He sets, indeed, the precedent for Kurp’s posturing. That the ‘serious writer’ dislikes marketing is a petitio principii.
And the ‘mere commentary’ is still within the Torah, I believe; useful and interesting.

Doctor Singularis et Invincibilis said...

More annoying is that Kurp obviously misunderstood Sissman, who only wrote against the writers who made ‘a second career as a public figure’, like the two novelists; they marketed not only their novels, some of which are remarkable, and others, good or very good—instead, they marketed themselves, as entertainers, as shock characters, etc.. Is this also the case with the writer whose probably bland interview disgusted Kurp? Sissman meant the novelists who become public entertainers, media stars, etc.. He said nothing about giving radio interviews.
The two novelists mentioned with disdain were public figures unlike most other authors; they both had a taste for histrionics, and indulged in it freely. Whether they merited the astringent sermonizing of Sissman, it’s another matter; yet they certainly didn’t deserve Kurp’s.
If two novelists weren’t the greatest, it doesn’t follow they weren’t very good. There are degrees, but Kurp is too busy holding the tables of the Law!

Dave Lull said...

Terry Teachout sees writers' marketing of their work "as part of being a professional writer":