Kerouac: 'Life is too sweet to waste on self propaganda'
Among the items sold at the literary auction at Bonhams and Butterfields on Monday was a 1961 letter from Jack Kerouac to two friends, Jacques Beckwith and Lois Sorrells. Kerouac had been typing on the page, got a letter from Sorrells then switched gears, abandoning his thought (mostly) to write a letter to them. This is what he typed at the top of the page, before the letter:
I can just see the shabby literary man carrying a "bulging briefcase" rushing from one campus to another, one lecture club to another, nodding confirmation with his hosts that he is right, hurrying to the next town ... a whole gray career of proving himself to others, to as many as can hear him, that he was right ... till finally people say: "Here comes the self-prover again, O dear ... bring out the papers and the canapes." This my friend is what I will become if I accept all lecture offers, TV appearances, radio interviews and start arranging with reviewers and critics who want information and my books through me, a great long lifetime in a briefcase proving my work and my work itself stopped dead at the level where I took to proving myself. So, I say, life is too sweet to waste on self propaganda, I quit self promotion, I enter my page.
This was four years after the publication of Kerouac's greatest work, "On the Road." None of his other books would have the reach or impact of that book -- few do -- but he'd been publishing regularly in the years after. There was a 1958 follow-up, "The Dharma Bums," and "Lonesome Traveler" in 1960.
If you know Kerouac's biography, you know that in 1969 he died of internal bleeding associated with cirrhosis, brought on by years of excessive drinking. It is easy to look back at this refusenik Kerouac, the one crying against self-promotion, as the one who would hear the call of self-destruction, who was resigned, miserable, dissipated.
As Kerouac wrote the letter, he was working on another book. He was undertaking the trip to Europe that would become the basis of "Satori in Paris" -- another disappointingly received novel, but a book nonetheless. In 1961, he couldn't see his trajectory: He was just trying to write. In the letter, he continues, "I really wanta dig into my art like a maniac and pay no attention to promotion (which everybody wants me to do ... what a waste of sweet life!)"
Although it's clear that Kerouac is no role model when it comes to a writer's lifestyle -- big hit at 35, death from alcoholism 12 years later -- his thoughts have got to resonate with today's authors.
Nowadays, it's not just lecture offers, TV appearances and radio interviews that keep authors from authoring. There are also blogs, Twitter and Facebook, author videos, GoodReads and the rest of the great wide Internet.
Publishers encourage their authors to do any of these things, all of these things, as many as they can manage. Writer Luis Alberto Urrea ("The Hummingbird's Daughter") is on Facebook and Twitter because his publisher suggested it. (In a tweet he explained, "Found out I liked this after early reluctance.")
Where there might once have been a staff on hand to promote a book, now the more an author does, the better publishers like it. Simon & Schuster has an online marketing guide to help its authors get started.
What with the Facebook friending, the tweeting, the commenting, the blogging, the GoodReads reviewing -- and, with any luck, the lecture invitations, the radio interviews, the television appearances -- when is an author supposed to write? Can anyone dare, these days, to quit self-promotion and enter the page?
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Jack Kerouac in 1962. Credit: Associated Press