Sunday, April 7, 2013

Giving It Away


Perhaps a bit late again.  Life intervened, especially a rocky week with a flu-like cold.  Back at it now.

The burden of my comment this week -- don't groan! -- is close and dangerous to my heart:  the state of professional writing in America.  Perusing a recent  -- March 18 -- New Yorker I came across a Talk of the Town piece by Adam Gopnik.  Philip Roth is now eighty and appears to have decided to stop using his brain, and his home town of Newark gave him a celebration.  Roth's has been a long run of important literary accomplishment.  He deserves his party.

Halfway into his piece, Gopnik observes that "Happy as the birthday promises to be, it is hard not to worry that it doubles as a bon voyage party for the American writer's occupation itself.  The future of writing in America -- or, at least, the future of making a living by writing -- seems in doubt as rarely before.  Thanks to the Internet, the disproportion between writerly supply and demand, always tricky, has tipped: anyone can write, and everyone does, and beginners are expected to be the last pure philanthropists, giving it all away for the naches.  It has never been easier to be a writer; and it has never been harder to be a professional writer."

If anything, Gopnik underestimates the enormity of the predicament.  This has been coming on for a long, long time.  I made a living -- most of the way, a good living -- writing professionally starting in the middle sixties.  Even then there was a tendency, and even in the choicest markets, to reduce the writer of talent to a morsel, to attempt to flavor him up a little and then let the institution consume him.
I remember two long afternoons closeted with William Shawn, the reigning troll of serious magazine journalism and at the time the editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, while he worked me over in his winsome and indirect way in an effort to get me to sign on to the magazine's bondage system -- I would attempt pieces for the magazine, its staff of editors -- each with a different colored pencil -- would mark up whatever I produced, and after the results had been processed to everybody's satisfaction the piece would go into the magazine's inventory, to be recalled -- possibly -- for some future publication.  I would not be permitted to offer it elsewhere.  While putting in this open-ended apprenticeship I would have access to a draw account of $10,000 annually, enought to live modestly on in the Manhattan of the time. 

Without agreeing,  I tried one piece for the magazine, entitled "In Quest of Squalor."  I followed a group of lady commissars visiting from the Soviet Union all over town and did a rather tongue-in-cheek sketch about their repeated disappointment at not finding capitalism the wreckage they thought it was. The piece didn't make the cut; Shawn's assistant, Patricia Nosher, wasn't amused. So that was that.

I moved on.  As early as my senior year in college I had signed on with an excellent literary agent -- Curtis Brown -- and in time a piece I tried on spec got bought by Ski Magazine, where the acute editor, John Fry, signed me up for a series of features.  All expenses paid, several thousand dollars each.  Then I ran into the editor of Esquire, Harold Hayes, at a cocktail party in Greenwich Village and he asked me to stop by and talk.  My first treatment of the then-fledgling senator Edward Kennedy -- which the magazine ultimately anthologized -- was the result.   Esquire was hot -- major writers from Tom Wolfe to Norman Mailer were confirming their reputations there -- and my career was off and running.

I'm attempting to make several points here.  Even in those days, editors were looking to get a writer on the cheap.  Lock him or her up.  But there were also visionaries running the important publications who understood that they had to assist, encourage -- pay! -- talented people coming up, not muscle and confine them.  Literature in America flourished.  A significant career -- usually on the mid-list -- remained possible, although, more and more, academia was tempting away talent.

And now?  In literary terms, we are living in Dresden on the morning after.  Adam Gopnik should only know.  Gopnik to the contrary, everybody can't write, with or without a computer.  Real talent is very rare, our survival as a civilization depends on people who know the difference, and once we parch out completely it will be like sacrificing rainfall -- the end of the experiment.

Next time I'll be more explicit.

Burton Hersh

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