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Most interesting comment thread of the day, courtesy Helen DeWitt

May 16, 2012 |  5:16 pm

Must a writer write?

Malcolm Cowley wrote, "a man does what he has to do -- if he has to write, why then, he writes; and if he doesn't feel the urgent need of writing, there are dozens of professions in which it is easier to earn a more comfortable living." That was in 1947, to aspiring writer Richard Max, grandfather of Rebecca Davis O'Brien, who writes about the find in the Paris Review Daily.

Cowley was a poet, novelist, critic and editor; much of his work focused on the writers of the Lost Generation. He knew many writers, including William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Hart Crane, E. E. Cummings, Thornton Wilder, and John Cheever. So he had a sense of what he was talking about when he replied to Max, saying that a writer must be deeply compelled to write.

That's accepted now as an obvious truism, but novelist Helen DeWitt ("Lightning Rods") strongly contradicts that in the blog post's comments. DeWitt writes:

The writer who is literally an addict, the writer who can’t help himself, the writer who HAS to write, can never be anything but an amateur, because the industry requires the professional to put writing on hold not just for a day or two, or a week, but for years.

Jonathan Galassi is on record as saying that Jonathan Franzen is the most important writer of his generation. Franzen says he has done no writing for TWO YEARS. Well, of course. Franzen is a pro. Freedom had to go through the machine that turns a manuscript into an artifact; Franzen then had to do a roadshow to shift copies of the artifact. The fact that his editor saw him as the most important writer of his generation did not mean that his editor thought his time would better be spent (gasp) writing — that a single appearance on Oprah, for instance, would suffice.

Jaimy Gordon won the National Book Award last year, because Bruce Ferguson submitted the ms of Lord of Misrule. Gordon is 65; she had been teaching full time. Making the finals got her a hot shot agent, an extra $100,000 if she won. She won. The prize, a chance to join the pros. Not to WRITE — only an amateur would expect to use the money to squander the anointed talent on a new book. No, being the Winner meant she could spend a year on publicity, shifting copies of the artifact.

That's a view that de-romanticizes the project of writing and posits it clearly as an industrial enterprise. Move the product, don't create an excess supply. "If you literally HAVE to write, you can’t be a pro," she writes. "The writers whose work is published are all writers who can somehow manage NOT to write for months, even years." That's a fascinating, if cynical, perspective -- particularly from an author herself.

As for Max, the hopeful writer of 1947? He was overcome not by the desire to write but by market forces. Instead of writing, he went into the family's diamond business -- which as Cowley predicted, was probably more lucrative.


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Photo: Fountain pen and writing. Credit: Urbanworkbench via Flickr