A fair-minded person reading the personal parts of De Profundis naturally wonders what the other guy has to say about it all. Lord Alfred Douglas, it turns out, had a lot to say. He wrote a series of autobiographical works that all, in one way or another, responded to De Profundis. He also engaged in a heated battle with Wilde’s literary executor Robert Ross over ownership and interpretation of the document. After reading Douglas’s account of the feud with Ross, a fair-minded person has to wonder, once again, what the other guy has to say about it. So I read biographies of Ross.
Some time ago, probably after the release of my second novel, I wrote a post called Published Writers in Pain about the phenomenon of post-publication depression. Today I came across another quote on the subject from a 1985 Washington Post interview with John Fowles.
After you finish [writing a book], you are intensely depressed. It doesn’t much matter whether the reviews are good or not. You feel empty, a field lying fallow, and you must let it stay fallow for a while. You love a book when it’s being written. You are so close to it. You’re the only person who knows it and it’s still full of potential. You know you can improve it. Then, suddenly, there’s the dreadful day when you have the printed proof texts. You get a feeling of ‘That’s it. This is the final thing and I shan’t have the chance to change it.’ It’s a feeling of death, really.
If you don’t already, I recommend following Lit Hub. Today they featured an interview with Dani Shapiro in which the author muses on whether or not she would have written her memoir if she’d had the instant gratification of social media at the time.
Most interesting to me was her theory on the origin of powerful writing:
Dani Shapiro: “Adrienne Rich once said that it is that which is under the pressure of concealment that explodes into poetry. So if you’re on Twitter and Facebook and sharing there, there’s no pressure of concealment. And I think good memoir comes out of that place, it comes out of it can’t be said, it can’t be said, it can’t be said, so now I want to try to say it.”
Adrienne Rich’s observation struck me as another version of Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”
Does the pressure of concealment fuel all art? Probably not, but it can be a powerful engine.
“Make some sacrifice for your art and you will be repaid but ask of art to sacrifice herself for you and a bitter disappointment may come to you.”-Oscar Wilde
Wilde wrote this to an aspiring author in a letter discovered in 2013. Like a lot of Wilde’s observations, I suspect this one is more artistic than true. It contains, I notice, a rare Wildean hedge “disappointment may come to you” rather than “will come to you.” That disappointment will come if you ask art to sacrifice herself for you is not the part that I doubt. It is the assertion that if you make some sacrifice for your art you will be repaid. On this, interestingly, Wilde does not hedge.
Yet there is no guarantee that your artistic efforts will be rewarded in any meaningful way. Make some sacrifice for your art and your art will be created. That is the only real promise you can make about art.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit as I have finally delivered the last corrections on Oscar’s Ghost, a book that I worked harder on than anything I have ever written, and which will be released by Amberely Publishing in August. I would like to believe that Oscar was right and the effort will have been worth it. I guess we will soon find out.
As a professional writer, I am exposed to more than my fair share of literary journals, blogs and writers writing about writing. There is one common refrain that I find bothers me more and more as I continue in this profession. It is the idealization of “writer” as an identity. I encountered it today in the comments on Jaime Clark’s article on Literary Hub “Why I Quit Being a Writer.” Clark wrote about what he calls the “dissipation of (his) literary ambition.” Clark no longer feels driven to write novels, although apparently still feels driven enough to write an article or two.
When I was in college, I majored in theater, and had the notion that I was to be an actress. My drive for that career dissipated to the point that my current, introverted, self can’t imagine wanting to go on stage. What was once a drive is now the memory of a drive. People’s goals do change. There were a number of commenters, however, who replied with variants on “once a writer, always a writer.” “You are a writer whether you have anything to say or not.”
Well, no. Not really.
There are aspects of this point of view that are true. There are people who have an aptitude and desire to write and who will prioritize that above common sense things like earning a living wage. Sometimes a writer finds herself in a dry spell or in one of the almost constant career crises and needs a bit of encouragement to continue. What annoys me about the rhetoric of the writer as a (glorified) type of being is that it obscures the most important thing that a professional writer does– work. If you are a “writer” whether you write or not then what exactly does being a writer mean?
Years ago, I had what was to me an epiphany. After reading all of those books about finding your muse, books which called themselves guides to “creativity,” it dawned on me that the main aspect of the word “creativity” is “creation.” It is not “idea having” or “inspiration.” Those are part of the process, as are fallow periods, and churning out material that may not ever be used in its initial form. But to be creative is to create. Creating a literary work, whether a poem or a novel or a biography, is much more than being a special kind of person who has an artistic temperament and great ideas. It means revising. It means editing. It means being open to criticism. It means seeing the work through to publication. It means, in short, doing the work.
There are two problems I see with the blurring of creativity and inspiration and the notion of the writer as a personality type. The first is that it persuades a lot of people that their rough drafts and diaries do not need to be changed at all to be considered art. The second is that it devalues the work that professional writers do by making it somehow equivalent to those rough drafts and diaries. No wonder no one wants to pay those noble creatures who go about naturally churning out sonnets.
The book on Gill had been my first full-length biography. I began it in a state of naivety, imagining my only loyalty lay with Gill himself and the truth relating to the bizarre contradictions of this single human life. What I had not been prepared for was the fact that in searching out the truth, especially the truth of a near contemporary, you impinge on other interconnected lives as well, stirring emotions, resurrecting memories. In the dangerous complexities of writing a biography, the book on Gill was my baptism of fire.-Fiona MacCarthy, The Guardian
“To some degree, I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition.”-Catherine Nichols.
This quote, by author Catherine Nichols sums up in a more concise and personal way what I took hundreds of words to say in an essay about the different “happy ends” for stories aimed at men and women.
(Actually, I was tempted to shorten the quote so it read “…I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition,” but I decided that the hedging, equivocal version demonstrated its own point.)
The Guardian yesterday ran an article on Nichols essay for Jezebel in which she reported on the different level of success she had sending queries with a male pen name over her own name. Spoiler alert: George was taken much more seriously than Catherine.
What is particularly insidious, however, is how differently writing is perceived when it comes from the pen of a man or a woman and what story we–and men and women are equally guilty–expect the writer to tell.
Responses from agents to Catherine Nichols included comments such as “beautiful writing, but your main character isn’t very plucky, is she?”; responses to her male pseudonym, whom she imagined “as a sort of reptilian Michael Fassbender-looking guy, drinking whiskey and walking around train yards at night while I did the work”, were “polite and warm”, even when they were rejections, describing the work as “clever”, “well-constructed” and “exciting”.
I ran into this wall of expectation a couple of years ago when I was trying to find an agent for my novel Identity Theft and later when I was trying to get reviews for it. Identity Theft opens essentially like a romantic comedy in which you have a woman who longs for romance with an exciting and glamorous man and you have an unglamorous man who comes into her life through fate and a bit of deception.
A potential agent read the opening chapters, which introduce the characters, and felt that he knew exactly where the book would go. He was ready to represent what he viewed as a well-written version of the female story. The agent did not like my ending, which he had encountered only in the synopsis and outline. He did not realize that the book actually subverts the “love through deception” romantic comedy trope and turns into more of a thriller than a romantic comedy at its midpoint.
The agent was convinced based on the opening that there was only one right ending and that the female protagonist should end up living happily ever after with the unglamorous man. In the end I did make some changes to my original concept to make the work more in line with audience expectations, although I did not simply turn it into the romantic comedy the agent assumed it to be. Thus this quote from the Guardian article resonated with me:
“A small series of constraints can stop the writer before she’s ever worth writing about. Women in particular seem vulnerable in that middle stretch to having our work pruned back until it’s compact enough to fit inside a pink cover,” she believes.
After Identity Theft was published I booked a “virtual book tour” to promote it and one of the potential reviewers read about as far as the agent had and gave up on it because she deemed the book to be “predictable.” That is to say, she had guessed at where it was going, deemed the book “one of those” and decided she didn’t have to read any further. Reviewers who finished the book, whether they liked it or not, universally found the ending surprising.
This experience led me to think about reader expectations and gender and to conclude that there is a different happy end for “male” stories and for “female” stories and that there is a much larger social effect to this. Boys and men are being primed to do things in the world where as women are, as Nichols said, conditioned against ambition. In my essay two years ago, I used The Devil Wears Prada as an example.
In “The Devil Wears Prada,” the main character is dumped by her boyfriend because her demanding job does not allow her to devote enough attention to him. As an audience we are expected to take his side and to agree that she is going the wrong direction.
This same type of conflict is quite common in films with male protagonists. A man becomes obsessed with a mission of some kind– winning a legal case, catching a killer, saving the world from aliens– what have you. At some point he argues with his wife who feels he is shirking his family responsibilities. In this case, however, the audience is expected to understand that his mission is vitally important. We do not want him to decide that catching the killer isn’t that important after all in the greater scheme of things and that he should walk away to focus on his authentic emotional life. What generally happens, instead, is that against all odds, with no one backing him, the hero completes his mission winning the admiration of his wife in the process.
Prada is not an isolated example of the “female happy end” where the woman shuns worldly status. One of the most popular films of all times is “Titanic” in which bold and feisty Rose realizes that her upper class life is empty after she meets working class Jack Dawson on deck. She walks away from a life of riches and even throws a priceless gem into the sea.
The female protagonist has a happy end not when she has status in the world, but when she transcends the desire for status.
No one ever taught me this in so many words, but I learned it all the same. When I looked back at my own writing, I found that my early fiction, written when I was in high school and college, almost all fit the female happy end model. The female protagonist faced a difficult challenge and reached a resolution not by overcoming the odds and succeeding but by learning to accept herself just as she is. Success through self-esteem! In the real world, this leads to a culture in which we try to “empower” girls by making them feel good about themselves, whether they actually achieve anything or not.
As women, we are all “conditioned like lab animals against ambition.” There is no “to some degree” about it.