Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, January 13, 2014

the confidence of the elect

Right after I wrote my last post I came across an interestingly related one by Tim Parks:

No one is treated with more patronizing condescension than the unpublished author or, in general, the would-be artist. At best he is commiserated. At worst mocked. He has presumed to rise above others and failed. I still recall a conversation around my father’s deathbed when the visiting doctor asked him what his three children were doing. When he arrived at the last and said young Timothy was writing a novel and wanted to become a writer, the good lady, unaware that I was entering the room, told my father not to worry, I would soon change my mind and find something sensible to do. Many years later, the same woman shook my hand with genuine respect and congratulated me on my career. She had not read my books.

Why do we have this uncritical reverence for the published writer? Why does the simple fact of publication suddenly make a person, hitherto almost derided, now a proper object of our admiration, a repository of special and important knowledge about the human condition? And more interestingly, what effect does this shift from derision to reverence have on the author and his work, and on literary fiction in general?

But Parks’s key point is not that people generally change their attitudes towards a writer once he or she gets published — the writer changes too:

I have often been astonished how rapidly and ruthlessly young novelists, or simply first novelists, will sever themselves from the community of frustrated aspirants. After years fearing oblivion, the published novelist now feels that success was inevitable, that at a very deep level he always knew he was one of the elect (something I remember V.S. Naipaul telling me at great length and with enviable conviction). Within weeks messages will appear on the websites of newly minted authors discouraging aspiring authors from sending their manuscripts. They now live in a different dimension. Time is precious. Another book is required, because there is no point in establishing a reputation if it is not fed and exploited. Sure of their calling now, they buckle down to it. All too soon they will become exactly what the public wants them to be: persons apart, producers of that special thing, literature; artists.

Notice that this is another major contributor to the problem of over-writing and premature expressiveness that I mentioned in my post: the felt need to sustain and consolidate an established reputation.

And then there’s the sense that most successful people have — and, again, need to have — that their success is not only deserved but inevitable. Immediately after reading this essay by Parks I read an interview with Philip Pullman in which he plays to the type that Parks identifies:

Yet on one thing, Pullman’s faith is profound and unshakeable. He’s now in his mid-60s, and though he thinks about death occasionally, it never wakes him up in a sweat at night. ‘I’m quite calm about life, about myself, my fate. Because I knew without doubt I’d be successful at what I was doing.’ I double-take at this, a little astounded, but he’s unwavering. ‘I had no doubt at all. I thought to myself, my talent is so great. There’s no choice but to reward it. If you measure your capacities, in a realistic sense, you know what you can do.’

Note the easy elision here between “knowing what you can do” and “knowing you’ll be recognized and rewarded for it.” If talent is so reliably rewarded, then I don't have to consider the possibility that my neighbor is getting less than he deserves — or that I’m getting more.

These reflections aren’t just about other people. How I think they apply to me is something I want to get to in another post.