A Sea of Words


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In the week it takes me to read five different books on how to be a writer, approximately 30 books are delivered to my Berlin apartment. This is a decline from the 15 to 30 that used to be delivered every day, and I’m grateful for the barrier of costly international postage that keeps these numbers down. I will immediately discard about three-quarters of the books. Some of these, I would say maybe eight percent of the books I receive, are self-published. Under their bios the writers dutifully list the writing programs they attended. Now they have landed here, with a clip-art book cover, a cheap binding, and a $12 stamp to send it to a book critic who doesn’t even really review fiction anymore. I feel bad for these writers, and the years of effort and money they spent on a writing education, and all of that boundless optimism that had to be required to get to this point. I do not, however, feel bad enough to read their books.


  • Art and Madness: A Memoir of Lust Without Reason by Anne Roiphe. 240 pages. Nan A. Talese. $24.95.
  • Is Life Like This?: A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months by John Dufresne. 314 pages. W.W. Norton & Company. $15.95.
  • Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing by Roger Rosenblatt. 176 pages. Ecco. $13.99.
  • The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long. 360 pages. Wallingford Press. $17.95.

I remember a story buried in a book. The skeleton of the story burned itself into my brain, even if the details didn’t. There was a famous writer (male). There was a fan (female). He was a 19th-century genius; she was a teenage flibbertigibbet. She weaseled her way into his life with flattery and “oh my goodness”es and that teenage flesh that has trapped so many male writers throughout time. She got in so far that when he died, she was left in control of his literary estate. And she edited and transformed and changed as much as she liked, because only she truly understood him and his intentions, thereby creating a scandal. She never did produce anything of her own, but she managed to carve her name into indexes and footnotes the world over.

Maybe the reason I can’t remember the 19th-century girl’s name is because there are so many women through history just like her — editing manuscripts, sending out invoices, fighting for royalties, responding to correspondence. There are all new kinds of ways to get lost to history these days, though: where once there were only empty rooms, lost potential, and would-be writers intimidated by the task of breaking into the conversation with a woman’s voice, there is now only din. A loud, swarming noise of hundreds of thousands of books published each year, one almost indistinguishable from the next. Here are three new biographies of Coco Chanel, published almost simultaneously. A giant stack of memoirs about being sexually abused as a child. A dozen or so fantasy trilogies that begin with a poor girl who, upon the death of her mother, discovers she’s actually heir to the throne and must fight off usurpers. The books disappear as quickly as they are released, unable to cut through all the noise. And there are those who might not even bother anymore. Does one dare to raise one’s voice above the commotion, try to draw some attention away from those taking up the spotlight? Who gets in that rarefied space is still determined by the writer’s gender, connections, beauty, nepotism, youth, or “platform.” Not even the most idealistic among the cultural critics bother to argue that the system is merit-based.

A book making a lot of noise right now is Anne Roiphe’s Art and Madness: A Memoir of Lust Without Reason, a woman’s account of the years she didn’t feel she had permission to be a writer, and so she just slept with any male writers she came across in order to gain access to the literary world by proxy.

Art and Madness is making a lot of noise is not because it has profound things to say about how for centuries many women have felt shut out of the art world. They were considered not-writers, not-artists, not-composers, and so to participate at all they spend their time facilitating the production of art by men. They nurture their lovers’ genius instead of their own — they pour their potential into their partner, and his success is their success. Kinda. No, the reason people are reading and talking about the book is because they want to know what George Plimpton was like in bed.

Roiphe details the female hangers-on to the New York literary scene of the 1960s. They were mostly there as decoration, as secretaries, as sad wives who paid for the booze and prostitutes and rent so their husband’s could concentrate on writing their great American novels. Roiphe herself married a failed playwright who she took to Paris for inspiration, and when he couldn’t produce she slept her way around the other geniuses on the scene. Plimpton, as he’s leaving her in the morning, tells her he probably won’t remember they’d slept together if he runs into her again, but Roiphe remembers every fuck and flirtation and rubbing-against incident in her wild years.

But perhaps her account is most remarkable as a yardstick to show how quickly things changed. Roiphe eventually found her voice — and used it to write some decent nonfiction, eight forgettable novels, and four mediocre memoirs about every stage of her existence. Not only that, her daughter Katie Roiphe used her feminist-famous last name to write books that appeared to be in direct response and opposition to her mother. Mother writes a book of feminism, daughter writes a book telling women they weren’t raped — they just didn’t want to admit they wanted it. Mother writes about how happy she is with quiet domesticity, daughter writes a book about how fulfilling unconventional, tumultuous, and abusive relationships were in other eras. Mother writes a book about how degrading the 1960s literary scene was, daughter writes a New York Times op-ed saying how glamorous it all seemed. If Art and Madness captures the New York world of martini-and testosterone-fueled genius, the dynamic between Anne and Katie illustrates the current culture even better. What should have been an awkward conversation at Thanksgiving after the fourth glass of wine is now printed on paper and bound inside a book, available on the open market. We’ve gone from silence to oversharing in one generation.

The deluge of writers is not new. The widespread publication of them is. There have always been the hobbyists, the men and women who scribble out their life stories for the benefit of their children or grandchildren, the poems hidden in the bottom drawer, the screenplay the banker works on before bed. Tell someone in a bar that you’re a writer and within seconds they’re telling you an idea for a novel they’ve been mulling over and asking you for tips. Telling stories, constructing narratives out of the chaos of our lives, fantasizing about what could be — they’re all in our blood. Putting it down on paper is an act of optimism. It’s willful, and it helps us make sense of things.

The difference is that now whatever you can scribble on paper or type on your computer, you might as well publish as a book. What was once fantasy — becoming a published writer — now can be reality. Sorta. You and your book have to face that din and most likely will get lost in it. All that respect, glory, and laurels you expected would greet you in your new life as a writer is still in the realm of the fantastic. You’re met instead with silence, just of a different sort.

Storytelling may be instinctive, but book writing — whether novel or memoir — is not, and because everyone is now invited to be a writer, we have an industry built up to teach writing to the masses. I’m not alone in thinking of the MFA industry as predatory. For every fresh-faced graduate of Iowa extolling how the program gave her the time and space she needed to write her coming-of-age novel about a girl and a horse, you’ll find an article excoriating the system for being too expensive, impractical, and harmful to the quality of American letters. Graduate school programs have increased more than eight-fold in the past 30 years, charging tens of thousands of dollars for ostensibly teaching hopeful dreamers how to be “real writers,” usually without bothering to teach even the basic practicalities of being a professional writer. The traditional writing apprenticeship of reading, reading, reading, followed by writing, writing, writing, has been replaced with workshops and classes on building realistic characters, structuring your novel to build tension, and mining your personal experiences to mould a memoir.

And these thousands of students, graduating manuscript in hand, what is their motivation? “I admire their brash impracticality,” Stony Brook University writing teacher Roger Rosenblatt writes in his new writing guide Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing, “and wonder if, in some way, their reckless enthusiasm for art, conceived and nurtured in an increasingly money-driven age, represents their unconscious protest against the age… They turn to the power of their powerlessness, not unlike Vaclav Havel, Milan Kundera, [and] Ludvík Vaculík.” Havel, Kundera, and Vaculik lived in Soviet Eastern Europe, where everyone was expected to sacrifice their own individual desires for the greater good — a sea of faceless workers with no personal right to speak. They put themselves at great risk, facing jail and exile, to break through the anonymity. They led revolutions and then nations. They faced their time’s great evil with humor and an unwavering stare, and through that created works of great beauty.

It’s a noble thought, that modern day MFA students are fomenting revolution in their workshops, fighting against the menacing capitalism that exploits our artists’ fantasies of fame and fortune. What these MFA candidates are really doing is forking over tens of thousands of dollars to Stony Brook, all in the hopes of attaining a lucrative book contract. They are not protesting against our age, they are actively participating in it.

I’ve been reading books on how to be a writer, a process that is the poor-man’s MFA. Whatever their purpose, they make me feel decidedly like a not-writer — because for as many ways there are to be a writer, these instruction manuals I read seem pretty in agreement that there is only one: you should write a shitty first draft and then revise until perfection; you should avoid adjectives and adverbs as much as possible; you should only use the word “said” and not ”groaned,” “sneered,” “exclaimed,” or “sighed.” They are all pro-“throat-clearing,” also known as The Artist’s Way journaling. Style is king, and not content (although they each have tips on how to use your own life as the model for your novels and memoirs), and so they’re much more in favor of close reading than wide reading. “Reading is knowledge,” writes Rosenblatt, “and it is possible to have too much of it.” And, of course, you should publish, publish, publish. “Work never sent out is never finished,” sighs Priscilla Long, author of The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life.

I wanted the books to tell me why one would want to be a writer, especially since all appear to agree that it’s not a love of reading that fosters a love of writing. (Perhaps proving how prevalent this idea that you don’t have to read much fiction to learn how to write it has become, the trashiest of the manuals, John Dufresne’s Is Life Like This? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months dissents: “If you want to be a novelist, you have to read novels. You’re kidding yourself if you think otherwise.”) Reading Roiphe the elder’s memoir, it’s almost possible to see the appeal of the writer’s life. Her boozy tales of alcoholism, infidelity, misogyny, and brutality are tinged with that dreamy sigh of someone who follows too many rules. But today, what could the appeal possibly be? Writers are the social embarrassment in our culture, generally portrayed on television and in movies as sexually hapless, overweight, balding, constipated bores who can’t even dress themselves properly. Ah, the life of the mind. I can see why writing classes are swelling.

The New Yorker named its list of the 20 best writers under the age of 40; of the 20, 16 graduated from an MFA program. Graduate school is no longer simply an accepted way to become a writer, it’s expected. As a critic, it’s getting hard to tell one writer from any other in his demographic, or see any more urgency in reading one book over any of the others. As a reader, I’ve mostly retreated into classic work, written by men and women whose pathways to becoming writers were as distinguishably different from one another as their books are. Does being a writer mean being a wunderkind like Jonathan Safran Foer, studying under the mentorship of a writer like Joyce Carol Oates and going on to teach writing himself while living in Brooklyn? Certainly it’s easier for the guides to use him as a role model than advocating that writers drop out, become gun-runners and torment your loved ones until they shoot you — which is how Rimbaud found his writing life.

When things are so uncertain — and the publishing industry is nothing but uncertain these days — people look for someone to tell them what to do. Those taking their money probably aren’t going to do much to question their motives, or clue them into all the other ways to go about things. Certainly not when excising all their adjectives, replacing their libraries of novels with guides, writing their memoirs or maybe a vampire trilogy, and submitting to agents seems like a such a sensible, tried-and-true pathway to becoming a writer. Whatever that may be. • 30 March 2011