If I thought I would have more chutzpah in my old age to seek out agents and publishers, that I wouldn’t care about my critical notices, I soon found I was as demoralized by all of it as I’d been at 20. About half way through my ’60s (I can be slow), I also discovered that books as I’d known them were on their way out. As Elisabeth Sifton puts it in the “The Long Goodbye? The Book Business and its Woes,” The Nation, June 8, 2009:
…. Over the past twenty years, as we’ve thrown ourselves eagerly into a joy ride on the Information Superhighway, we’ve been learning to read, and been reading, differently; and books aren’t necessarily where we start or end our education. The unprofitable chaos of the book business today indicates, among other things, that slow, almost invisible transformations as well as rapid helter-skelter ones have wrecked old reading habits (bad and good) and created new ones (ditto). In the cacophony of modern American commerce, we hear incoherent squeals of dying life-forms along with the triumphant braying and twittering of new human expression.
While the printed book can still be found, the world that fostered the talents of the writers I’d grown up wanting to emulate, seems to be gone. Maxwell Perkins (the editor who nurtured Fitzgerald and Hemingway) won’t be coming back. Of course, the publishing industry has always been mostly about making money, not literary excellence. It’s a business. I understand that. But somehow, while I wasn’t looking, the situation seems to have grown worse. Now, an unpublished writer might do better to look to self publishing, or maybe just blogging. Maybe, just maybe, once I figured out how to do it—making a whole digital book. Or, what the heck, not worry about it at all. Just do it.
Back in the ’60s a bunch of us went to the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village when it was where writers and artists hung out. It was the later Cedar so the most famous of them were no longer there, but people like Jerry Shore, an aspiring painter, still haunted the place. I remember seeing something he’d done and it seemed to me that it was very good. I thought I might hear of him someday, alongside de Kooning and Pollack. I never did.
But I did hear of him in a recent New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik. It seems that most of his creative life had been given to advertising. After that career dried up, he tried and failed at directing in Hollywood. When he returned to New York, he hadn’t many more years to age. He died at 59 from alcoholism. Sometime after his death a collection of 4,000 photographs was discovered in his New York City apartment. Only a few friends knew anything about them. For more than a decade, he’d haunted the streets of Manhattan, taking pictures of his own peculiar vision of the city. He’d sold one photo during all those years. Today, more than a decade later, his work is recognized as fine, and can be found in galleries and even, in 2006, on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Who knows? Maybe someday they’ll find a stack of my unpublished books in a closet. Anything can happen.
Looking at blogs from visual artists, I’m astounded at how devoted they are to their craft, how much they revel in the sheer joy of creating. No matter what their age, they don’t seem as desperate for public recognition as writers are. Writers’ blogs are filled with advice about getting published. Is it because most of them are philistines who expect a living wage and the applause of an audience? Or is it because there is no audience without publication? Is it because a book can’t just be looked at like a painting-the reader has to open the covers (or download text to her e-book), and commit to a few hours of life in another reality? Maybe. What is certain to me is that visual artists, writers, composers-all of them-feel compelled to do what they’re doing, even if they’re not Henri Matisse, Jane Austin, or Dimitri Shostakovtich. Which, of course, many of us hope to be in time.
Unless we’ve only been working for a few years and just turned seventy years old. We probably don’t have as much time as all that.