What is “a Writer” and Who Gets to Decide?

If you post the phrase “if you write you are a writer” on social media you will get a lot of likes.

This is because writing as a career is more than difficult, the odds are stacked against you at every turn. It is almost impossible to make a living at it, and it keeps getting harder as publishers consolidate, professional book reviewers disappear, outlets paying in “exposure” replace the magazines that once sustained freelancers, and massive online retailers keep looking for ways to make books as cheap as dirt. On top of this you have the glut of self-published titles, all vying for attention, with few authorities to really sort out their quality. The ease of publishing means book stores and reviewers are inundated, and they are suspicious of anyone who shows up calling herself a writer. This makes marketing books much harder than it used to be.  (And it never was easy.)

So there is a great need for writers, at all stages of their careers, to get some reassurance that even though they have either decided to make writing a part-time job or have taken a self-imposed vow of poverty to pursue it full-time, what they are doing matters. I have had this existential crisis myself many a time, and over the years have found ways to cope with it. The solidarity and reassurance from fellow writers can be a balm, at least a temporary one. So I recognize what people are trying to express when they say “everyone who writes is a writer.”

I still hate the phrase.

I have ranted on this before.

I especially hate it when combined with the sentiment that “you are a writer if anyone reads your work or not.” (You can follow the link if you would like to read my reasons for that.)

These phrases make me seethe.

One of the things that is particularly difficult about assuming the mantle of “writer” is that it is not a career in which you get a diploma that qualifies you. No external authority bestows a title on you. And it has always been true that the most talented are not necessarily the ones who get the most attention. Many a great writer has struggled in obscurity. Moreover, a successful book doesn’t mean that your publisher will necessarily want your next one or your agent will get any interest in your next idea. Each new book is a fresh struggle to get published. It is a career where even some of the most prolific and busy professionals find they can not pay their bills from their labors, so making a living or not making a living is not the mark of a professional. Nor in an era of publishing consolidation is independent vs. traditional publishing a clear-cut way to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Some great writers and great books are indies. The question of who is a “real writer,” and who gets to decide, is complex.

That doesn’t mean that there is not a difference between the person who posts a pdf of self-indulgent poems about her break up on a blog (or even writes for herself and publishes nothing at all) and the person who has gone through all those professional hoops and who makes the decision to keep doing so.  The biography or novel that took a decade to craft, revise and market and someone’s unreadable attempts at self-expression are both are written, and therefore under the “everyone who writes is a writer” standard, both writers share the same title. I know of few careers where the aspirant, trainee or apprentice is granted the same status as the master in quite the same way. Not everyone who cooks is a chef.

I am paraphrasing another writer here, whose quote I cannot find at the moment: You do not have a novel in you waiting to get out, the novel is a peak experience that you are entitled to after a great deal of training and work. This, I will add, includes the work of rejections, revisions and even the frustrating marketing process of trying to get the book to its audience. As the uncredited writer put it, “I do not have a Boston marathon in me waiting to get out.”

To say that if you write, you are a writer is like giving the medal at the beginning of the race.

To continue with the marathon metaphor, this robs the person who has done all the training, suffered the aching muscles, hit the wall and kept going, of meaningful recognition. The struggle matters, and the persistence in the face of struggle matters, and that is what makes the medal matter.

When even the most accomplished struggle to make a living wage for their work, recognition as a professional is often the only real currency a writer has.

I do not think it does any favors for the passionate amateur either. If she is already “a writer” from the moment she picks up a pen, the same as a best-selling internationally renowned writer, there is not anything meaningful to work towards. There are no promotions if those at every level are granted the same title.

There is nothing wrong with being an amateur or writing for pleasure. The existence of professional ballerinas doesn’t keep people like me from dancing. I move my body to the music from time to time, I just don’t claim to be “a dancer.”

Everyone should feel free to dabble in art of all kinds for pleasure. Art is not owned by the professionals. No one should let the fear of making bad art keep them from making art. Nor do I have any intention of denigrating the work or efforts of those who are just beginning. Your efforts deserve respect. Keep at it, and good luck to you. It’s hard, and when the world fails to acknowledge your work (and it will) it doesn’t render it meaningless. It matters that you create, because you make it matter.

I imagine that there is a heaven somewhere where all of the unread literary works go. Their life of the earth is temporary, but their souls are immortal.

I have no doubt that the platitude about being a “real writer” no matter what you produce will continue to be popular. There are far more people in the category of aspirants than those who have successfully run our metaphorical race. I know that my views will get far fewer “likes” and retweets than the more reassuring and inclusive sentiment. I will continue to hate it.

Thus endeth my rant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Many Shades Between Vilification and Admiration

Today’s Times (London) features an article by director Dominic Dromgoole on his production of The Importance of Being Earnest being staged at the Vaudeville Theater.

Wilde has also shown us something beyond the chill of certainties. As he knew, people come to the theatre to escape certainty; it is the place for adventure and questioning and imagination. It has been a pleasure to watch our audiences relishing Wilde’s ability to balance several different points of view in one paradoxical sentence. Not for him the hammer-headed tweet, with its partial point of view. Theatre, as he knew, is in a constant state of searching for more complex moral judgments; it uses interrogation and empathy to reveal the multifaceted nature of human choice and human transaction. In an age when left and right search for new ways to express monochrome absolutes, one can feel the audience relishing a few hours’ holiday in a world of maturity and nuance.

Wilde knew that charity is more likely to be found among sinners than among the pious; and that kindness is more likely to be found in the free of mind than in the closed. He had lived with wolves and had lived out his own wolfishness. Each of his puritans discovers that those they thought of as all bad have reserves of the greatest kindness, and those they idolised as perfect are capable of meanness and clumsiness.

That sense of complexity and nuance is something that has always drawn me to Wilde. He uses paradox to show that opposites are not opposites, he resists polarization and easy judgment.

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to Matthew Sturgis’ review of Oscar’s Ghost in the latest edition of The Wildean. I mentioned the review earlier, but now that the issue has been out for a while, I think it is safe to quote it a bit more.

The joint review of Oscar’s Ghost and Nicholas Frankel’s The Unrepentant Years begins: “These two books are useful– and enjoyable–additions to the Wildean canon…They are both full of good things, novel insights and interesting asides…”

So you’ve got to like that.

“The intricacies and repetitions of the various court cases initiated by Ross, Douglas, Crosland and others can be fascinating, tedious, dispiriting and incomprehensible– almost all at the same time… There is much impressive research here and [Lee] lays it out with a light, sometimes humorous touch…Lee brings a certain freshness to her project.”

It is a detailed review of both books, thorough and knowledgeable, as one would expect of The Wildean. In all it is a thoughtful and balanced review.

NonameThere is one word of it, however, that has been playing on my mind. The word is “admiration.”

“Both Lee and Frankel are broadly sympathetic to Bosie, emphasising his eduring love and loyalty to Wilde at the time of his incarceration–and afterwards. It is a useful corrective,” Sturgis writes before discussing some of the questions of whether or not Wilde and Douglas only split because they were forced to by circumstances, or whether their romance had run its course.

My view is that they intended to have a future together but found it too difficult to live together given all of the external pressure. I also suspect they had a row over this just before they stopped living together in Naples, with Douglas wanting to keep fighting the world and Wilde not wanting to.

I also suspect, incidentally, that part of Douglas’s anger when Wilde insisted that he should set aside some of his inheritance to support Wilde post-Naples (see my previous post on the film The Happy Prince) derived from the fact that it was Wilde, not Douglas, who had given up on their living together.  Had they still been living together, they would have pooled their resources, and Douglas’s inheritance would have benefited them both. If Wilde did break up with him, then came back insisting that he should be set up financially for life, Douglas’s anger becomes quite a bit more comprehensible.

But given that their relationship was never exclusive, and that they continued to spend time together and to fall back into old habits, I’m not sure it is actually all that clear whether they broke up or not.  Beyond that, whether the relationship formally ended is a separate question from whether their feelings for each other ended. In essence, as with most things Wilde related, I don’t think it is a simple yes or no question.

And now we come to the point in the review where the word “admiration” rears its head: “An authorial admiration for Lord Alfred Douglas, moreover, has to be sustained in the face of much terrible behaviour…”

This comes in a paragraph of the review that does a good job describing the complexities of the battle between Ross and Douglas over Wilde’s legacy.  “Ross for– for all the personal and professional admiration that he enjoyed– could be a touchy and difficult character… not for nothing did Max Beerbohm dub him the ‘botherationist.’ But Douglas was far touchier and far more difficult.”

It is not entirely clear that “authorial admiration for Lord Alfred Douglas” is supposed to refer to my book, but it seems as though it is. So knowing my feelings better than anyone else, I will say for the record that “admiration” is not what I feel about Lord Alfred Douglas. There is a wide swath between “broadly sympathetic” and “admiration.”

Douglas has always been a polarizing character– it is part of his fascination. The polarization tends to create a “with him or against him” mindset where anything short of condemnation can be seen as approval or even admiration.

Here is my point of view on Douglas. I think that he has been too much blamed for some things and not enough blamed for others. I do not believe he deserves to be condemned as much as he has been for wanting to be loved by Oscar Wilde while having a difficult personality. (Wilde was often drawn to people with challenging personalities, judging by many of the other friends in his circle, including Ross.)

On the other hand, the way Douglas treated his good friend Freddie Manners-Sutton was appalling. (After Sutton refused to invest in Douglas’s literary journal The Academy, he dragged him into court to expose his personal secrets, bad behavior that it seems he had, himself, encouraged.) He had no excuse for it, and few have commented much on that aspect of it, focusing instead on what the libel trial revealed about Douglas’s relationship with Wilde. As I wrote in the book, I suspect that some of Douglas’s emotional and behavioral extremes were influenced by what we would today term mental illness, (Manners-Sutton’s correspondence with Olive Douglas suggests that even as he was being abused by Douglas, his former friend viewed him as not being entirely in control of himself and maintained a certain pained sympathy) but that is an explanation, not an excuse.

Facebook status: “it’s complicated.”

The more I dug into the characters of Douglas and Ross, the more I discovered contradictions and episodes that didn’t fit well with the polar views of these characters: Douglas as chaos, Ross as stability. Ross, like Douglas, was litigious. He seems to have been drawn to difficult people and conflict. Ross was probably as promiscuous as Douglas. Douglas, not only Ross, tried to find Wilde work after he got out of prison. Some of Ross’s efforts to help Wilde were as ill-conceived as some of Douglas’s, and so on.

But, indeed, Douglas was more extreme in his feud with Ross. He was more extreme in everything. He was a man who was hardwired with poor emotional control (call it bipolar disorder or something else) who was also pushed by extreme circumstances and the combination was combustible.

My view of Douglas is best summed up in the epilogue of Oscar’s Ghost: “Douglas was a class snob, capable of great selfishness, petulant self-pity and outbursts of irrational rage, but… [he] was a more complex, multifaceted individual than he is often given credit for.”

I do find Douglas (and Ross) fascinating, but I did not intend for this to read as admiration.

In any case, I am grateful for the thorough and thoughtful review in The Wildean, and if you have any interest in Wilde, I recommend subscribing.

 

 

 

A Crime to be Different

There is a question that has come up lately when I talk about my book. Rupert Everett’s new film The Happy Prince and Nicholas Frankel’s The Unrepentant Years as well as my own Oscar’s Ghost all explore the aftermath of Wilde’s arrest and incarceration in different ways. Why has this topic suddenly become of interest?

“Sudden” is, of course, not quite the right word. As I understand it The Happy Prince took 10 years to make. I spent 6 years on Oscar’s Ghost and I assume The Unrepentant Years was not written overnight. That makes it all the more interesting that, indeed, this story does seem of the moment.

I was thinking about this when I read a quote from the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov that came up as a Facebook meme. Baryshnikov said that this era of Brexit and Trumpism is one in which it is “a crime to be different.”

When we convict someone of the crime of being different what happens next? What happens to the person who was punished after the public has moved on to other worries? What happens to the people who love him? In an era like ours it feels important to stare this in the face.

For those of us who believe in an inclusive society these are depressing times. We have gotten through hard times before, which is in some ways comforting, but it neglects an important point: We got through it collectively, but many individuals did not.

The Wildean and Credit Where It’s Due

img_0203 The new edition of The Wildean is coming out this week. I’m pleased to have an article in it. (It’s on the relationship between some of the solicitors involved in the Wilde case and the blackmailers.)

There will also be a joint review of my Oscar’s Ghost along with Nicholas Frankel’s The Unrepentant Years by Matthew Sturgis. I don’t want to give any spoilers, so I won’t say much about my article or the review right now.

There was one small thing in the review that I did want to address because I believe in giving credit where credit is due.

In talking about my research Sturgis mentioned that one of the sidelights that I “opened up” was “the extraordinary transformation of Ross’s one-time lover and ‘secretary,’ Freddie Smith, into a novelist of independent means…..”

I feel compelled to say that I cannot take credit for unearthing the story of this fascinating transformation. It was Maria Roberts who spent the hours at the British Library in the challenging task of trying to document the life of a closeted gay man named Smith (if you will excuse the anachronistic phrase). She was the one who discovered Smith’s second career as a novelist. She even tracked down all of his books and wrote summaries of them. I just bought a copy of her Let Them Say and passed along what I learned from it.

Because it is an independently published book on a niche topic it is not well known or widely reviewed, but Roberts is an excellent researcher and if you are fascinated by the Wilde circle, especially how Ross and his friends carried on Wilde’s legacy after his death, you will find a great deal of interesting detail in two of Roberts books. I gained a great deal of insight into the Robert Ross circle through Roberts book on Smith and her biography of Christopher Millard, Yours Loyally.

I was also fortunate enough to have the benefit of Roberts insights through a regular correspondence. Maria Roberts is also the first person listed in the acknowledgments in Oscar’s Ghost because she was incredibly generous with her time and knowledge and her research help allowed me to see many more primary sources than I would have been able to otherwise. It was one of my greatest fortunes in researching Oscar’s Ghost that I met Roberts when I did. I am glad to have another opportunity to publicly say “thank you.”

If you’re not already a subscriber, I recommend The Wildean to anyone who can’t get enough information on Oscar Wilde. I hope you will also check out Maria Roberts’ books.

What Book Reviews Have in Common with Dating

In many cultures there is a tradition of incorporating a deliberate flaw into a work of art. This shows humility and a recognition that only God (or the gods, as the case may be) is perfect. In Japan they celebrate the concept of finding beauty in imperfection is called wabi-sabi.

To put in a flaw on purpose seems redundant to me. I am quite capable of creating work with flaws without making a special effort, thank you very much.

Still there is something comforting in the idea that art should be imperfect.

Putting your work out in the world has all of the anxiety and vulnerability of dating.

As I have often said, a book is a relationship. It is not completed by the writer but by the reader. So of course a writer is anxious for reviews: to know how the this thing she spent so much time and energy crafting has been received.

Some relationships are better than others. Some books and readers fall in love and others just don’t hit it off.

Putting yourself out there you open yourself up to rejection. Rejection hurts. It hurts in proportion to the amount of love you invested in it.

It would be flattering to hear “you’re perfect in every way.” That rarely happens, in love or literature–or at least in the context of dating, when it does, it doesn’t last. The best case scenario is when two people find each other screwed up in ways that they are willing to accept because they like each other so much otherwise. Relationships have a way of making you aware of your flaws and foibles.

Book reviews are like that too. The best of them say “This was a worthy book but…”

There are different kinds of criticism that show up in reviews. There’s stuff you simply disagree with. It’s a matter of taste and you wouldn’t change a thing. I find I am not bothered by this sort of review.

It’s the stuff where you read and think, “You know, I could probably have done that a bit better,” that tends to sting more.

The problem with a book review is that unlike a relationship, there is no way to work on it. Once you are getting reviews the work is done. It’s printed and set.

So there it is, with all your human imperfections on full display. The existential reality hits you that this thing that you love, that you made the best you could, fails to match its Platonic ideal. It will never be as good as it was in your head.

That’s the time it helps to think about those deliberate flaws in art. It’s not supposed to be perfect. Human beings made it. This wonderfully imperfect thing is beautiful.

How Big Are Pockets in England?

Last week I obtained a copy of the UK edition of the updated Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation. Besides the spelling of “tyres” I noted a few differences in the books. Most notably the prominence, or lack thereof, of the author’s name on the British book cover.

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Whereas the Americans were fine with focusing on life’s little vexations because it is entertaining, the British (who prefer Aaarggghhh to Ughhhhh!!) seem to be marketing the book (curiously to its author) as self-help.

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Also note the lack of an author bio on the back of the UK edition. (Did I do something to piss them off in England?)

The last little oddity is that the books are different dimensions. On the left (as you can tell by the prominence of the author’s name) is the U.S. edition, which is taller and thinner. The UK edition is shorter but wider. Does this point to some international variance in the size of pockets?

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Des Moines July 28: The Battle Over Oscar Wilde’s Legacy Discussion and Book Signing

If you live in the Des Moines, IA area, I hope that you will stop by and say hello on July 28. I will be discussing Oscar’s Ghost and signing copies beginning at 3 PM at Beaverdale Books, a great independent book store with a commitment to supporting authors.

Years after Oscar Wilde’s death, two of his closest friends, Lord Alfred Douglas and his literary executor Robert Ross ‒ both former lovers ‒ engaged in a bitter battle over Wilde’s legacy and who was to blame for his downfall and early death. The centerpiece of the conflict was Ross’s handling of Wilde’s prison manuscript, De Profundis. The furious struggle led to stalking, witness tampering, prison, and a series of dramatic lawsuits. The feud had long-lasting repercussions, not only for the two men, but also for how we remember Oscar Wilde today.

See you there?