What Makes a Great Writer

An interesting article at The Guardian suggests that the late Philip Roth had a firm fix on the meaning of literary greatness—awards. Lots and lots of awards. The Guardian’s subtitle says it all:

Correspondence found in archives shows how ‘pushy’ novelist used ‘collusion, networking and back-scratching’ to win literary awards

In other words, his many awards reflected not the quality of his writing but the ethics-free tenaciousness of his self-promotion. The author of the article writes:

It might be assumed that his work spoke for itself in securing these plaudits, but previously unpublished letters reveal he was, in fact, a master of self-promotion, networking and mutual back-scratching.

And later, a biographer of Roth’s adds:

It was a bit disillusioning for me, as I thought – naively – that the great writer cared only for art, its integrity, its austere demands.

The obvious word that nobody in the article seems willing to use is dishonest. The simple fact that the activities of Roth and any number of editors and critics involved in these quid pro quos remained, for all intents and purposes, a closely kept secret until now, suggests that they all knew better. Why hide (or demurely fail to mention) something that one needn’t be ashamed of?

Of course, Dalya Alberger, the author of the Guardian article, quotes Berlinerblau as saying that Roth’s manipulations were “all the more surprising because Roth was such ‘a magnificent writer’”. But was he really? Doesn’t all this bring such claims into question? Is it any surprise that Berlinerblau would say this given that his forthcoming book is predicated on Roth’s “greatness”? (His book, The Philip Roth We Don’t Know: Sex, Race and Autobiography, is slated to be published by the University of Virginia Press this coming September.) So it’s fair to ask whether Berlinerblau’s praise for Roth might also be self-serving and dishonest. And given that many of those who colluded with Roth are probably still in the publishing industry, the argument could be made that it’s in Berlinerblau’s interest to rationalize his and everyone’s behavior as “in the service of a nevertheless great writer”. Why would Berlinerblue risk his connections by dissing Roth? Unfortunately, it’s fair to question any estimation of Roth (along with the currency of all those awards):

Berlinerblau also pointed to an extensive correspondence with a literary critic, which includes discussions about literature: “But mostly they’re talking about how they can help each other with this award, this position… It made me a little suspicious about the publishing world. There’s a lot of networking.”

In one letter, that critic – a close friend – congratulated Roth on receiving a prestigious literary prize, when he had actually headed the committee making the decision. Roth, in turn, helped him. The critic wrote to Roth: “I am also applying for another fellowship… So, may I ask you to dust off the letter you recently sent and send a version of it again.”

If you ask me, the damage to Roth’s literary reputation can’t be overstated (or the damage to the whole institution of literary prizes and awards); but it’s surely something all those involved in the industry would rather gloss over as “the game of publishing” (see below).

Sure, anyone can point to Roth’s readership and to the legion’s of readers who swear by him, but one can do the same for Danielle Steele and she (apparently for lack of having friends in the right places) didn’t win the Pulitzer. But why did Roth win the Pulitzer? Was it for the quality of his writing or because he effectively bribed the right people?

Roth understood, as any grifter and flim-flam artist understands, that if you tell enough people that your product is great (and in this case that you’re a great writer) they will read and treat you like a great writer. This trick of mass persuasion is especially pertinent in today’s political environment. The imprimatur of an award committee is little different than the sort of “trusted sources” that are used to manipulate the opinions of social media users. From the Scientific American article above, the same caution applies to any and all “Award Committees” including the Pulitzer:

[G]iven the lack of transparency, the privatized nature of these models, and commercial interests to over-claim or downplay their effectiveness, we must remain cautious in our conclusions.

Scientific American: Psychological Weapons of Mass Persuasion

So, what I’m getting at is this: How much of Roth’s readership like and admire him because he’s a great writer and how many like and admire him because they were told he was a great writer? Time will tell. And you have to wonder how many biographers and critics, like Harold Bloom, were taken in more by his reputation than his writing—and should have known better? Each generation is notoriously bad at distinguishing their genuinely great artists from their mediocre ones and that’s because the genius of the mediocre artist is, precisely, in their ability to speak to and celebrate the mediocrity of their era—which is why when the artist’s given era ends, so does their reputation. I confess that I haven’t read all that much of Roth’s writing, but what I have, I found mediocre. I expect we will see more estimations of Roth like this one. And those, we can be much more certain, are actually honest ones.

I have never submitted my writing, poetry or otherwise, to any kind of prize or award committee for all the reasons above and more. I don’t begrudge anyone who does. As Roth demonstrated, it’s a great way to shape your reputation and further your career. In certain respects, I’m the fool for not pursuing the same strategy. But the next time you come in second, third, or forty-third, it may not be because your writing isn’t up to snuff, but because the fix was in. The judge needed a letter of recommendation from the winning author and only a fool wouldn’t prefer and further their own career over something as trivial as your career.

All that said, graft, corruption and dishonesty in the publishing industry is nothing new (though hopefully limited). It’s just gratifying to see it exposed despite Roth’s wish (as suggested by The Guardian) to have the evidence destroyed after his death. The next time you read something like this:

Another leading scholar, Ira Nadel, author of Philip Roth: A Counterlife, said: “It’s absolutely true. He was a great self-promoter from the beginning. I’m not sure he didn’t need to do it. He played the game, the game of publishing. He knew self-promotion was the key to keeping your name out there and getting your books both published and sold.”

Ask yourself what leading scholar Ira Nadel got out of it. Why is he a “leading scholar”? Whose back did he scratch? Who scratched Nadel’s back? After all, as Nadel (the “leading scholar”) says: It’s all about getting your books published and sold.

A Writer’s Life: Update & Next Novel

There’s no news to report. I’ve written two new short stories, one being a Sci-Fi short story, but haven’t posted them at the blog mainly because many periodicals/journals won’t accept work already published “online”. I’ve also started my next novel. It’s takes place in the same nook of Vermont as Tiny House, Big Mountain. The main characters are new but some of the old characters reappear.

I’ve still gotten no responses from any agents as concerns Tiny House, Big Mountain. Naturally, we’d all like to think our works are works of genius. I thought my novel would be snapped up for all the reasons I love it: it’s uniqueness, it’s upmarket literary ambitions and it’s subject matter; but maybe those are the very qualities that make it less appealing. It’s also possible that my writing isn’t nearly as good as I think it is.

But rejection was always my experience with poetry. Just a couple years ago, I submitted a number of my best poems to journals like New England Review, just to see if anything had changed, and they were all rejected. One of the blessings of blogs and the world wide web is the ability to publish according to ones own artistic standards, for better or worse.

All that said, my next novel is a Romance and will be around 80,000 words—written explicitly for the market’s word-length and subject-matter sweetspot. That’s my concession to popular demand and why not? I’ve stated elsewhere that artist’s produce their best work when they are forced to meet the public half way—and that applies to me too. Isolate writers from the consequences of poor writing and they produce literature nobody wants to read—pretty much the lion’s share of poetry from the latter 20th century.

So, a Romance it is.

As with Tiny House, Big Mountain, there will also be poems. That, at least, I won’t concede.

I’ve already written the opening paragraphs. Just 79000 words to go.

And my short stories? My Sci-Fi short story was just rejected by Azimov’s Science Fiction. That doesn’t surprise me so much. I submitted my other short story to the New Yorker. Go big or go home. I’m also working on another longer blank verse poem written in the spirit of Shakespeare—just because I love the way he thinks. There’s no way that poem is ever going to be published in any journal.

It’s simply too original for the generic free verse preferred by editors, he wrote. Trolling.

And as for Tiny House, Big Mountain, time to send it out to a half dozen more agents. I keep reading articles on best practices as regards submitting material to agents—how to format ones fiction, how to structure ones query letters, how to write synopses: as if there were some magic phrase or perfectly written paragraph that would secure an invitation. I don’t think that’s the case though. At some point one can only do so much. The rest probably comes down to ones query letter being on the right desk at the right time and not much else. It’s probably a bit like playing the lottery or gambling. There are some ground rules but the rest is luck. And you can’t win if you don’t play.

And for your contemplation:

My wife making her block prints. You can find more videos and block prints here.

upinVermont | August 23 2021

Lutetia Sue Plover

  Lutetia Sue Plover
  Born 1862 - Died 1923

Whoever you may be, grieve not
Because my stone is small
Or seems thus but an afterthought.
What need have I for more than this?
I loved the world withal
And yield rather with a kiss.
Though we are passers-by today
(Bless you who’ve come to call)
Be in no hurry. If I may, 
Don’t think of me as being gone
Say rather: ‘Twas time that I move on.
  • Sorry I’ve been quiet these last couple weeks. I’ve been under the weather. Thought I’d post this little poem from my novel. I wrote it specifically for the book and deliberately drafted it in an antiquated style—something I thought might be believable for 1923. Around that time Frost was already underway and had returned from England. He had just taken up a teaching position at Amherst College, EA Robinson was widely read and Edna Saint Vincent Millay had just wowed the literary establishment with Renascence. So, I thought, what might someone, having read them, write for themselves around this time?