Recently there’s been a ruckus regarding the blatant pursuit of literary fame, especially where the n+1 editors are concerned. In the current issue of Poetry, Adam Kirsch plumbs the depths of literary ambition and the desire for personal recognition, and classifies Keith Gessen’s All The Sad Young Literary Men as “a chemically pure example of the kind of literary ambition that has less to do with wanting to write well than with wanting to be known as a writer.” Kirsch uses Gessen’s blatant ambition, both the theme and the generating force behind his novel, as the springboard to consider the writer’s desire for acknowledgement. While Kirsch criticizes Gessen’s “naive directness,” it becomes obvious that if Gessen’s work is a vehicle for recognition and status, he has done well for himself. Not only was Gessen lauded at the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 soiree recently and a co-host of the New New York Intellectual series at the New School, but he continues to write for esteemed periodicals like the New York and London Review of Books and receive acknowledgement, if not praise, from established critics, Kirsch included.
Gessen is certainly not the first writer to wear his ambitions on his sleeve. He follows in a long line of writers, including Laurence Sterne. Sterne claimed he wrote Tristram Shandy, “not to be fed, but to be famous.” And become famous he did. Not only did he have a race horse and a country dance named after his novel, but he became a celebrity. His popularity did not wane with the less favorable reviews of the later portions of his serialized work, because, according to the Columbia History of the British Novel, his fans “wanted not just the book but the man behind the book (one reader said ‘I’d ride fifty miles just to smoke a pipe with him’).” Perhaps if Gessen were more honest about his ambitions, we could find something humorous, or at least endearing, in it all. Perhaps then his readers would write in that they’d want to have a smoke with him too.
And yet, despite all odds, there are the writers who seem indifferent to fame. Edward P. Jones is one of those. In his essay, “We Tell Stories,” he divides writers into two groups: those who aspire to “be invited to a lifetime of cocktail parties” and those who write because of some “bizarre compulsion.” If Gessen falls into the first group, Jones (by his own admission) falls into the second. This was apparent on Thursday evening, when Jones read from an enclave on Tenth Street known as the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House, in what by appearances was once a living room, replete with a fireplace and mantel, a multi-paned front window, and a crowd of attentive readers sitting on folding chairs. From his second book of short stories, All Aunt Hagar’s Children, Jones read about temptation (in the form of the Devil himself, appearing at a Safeway off Good Hope Road) and transformation (going blind, literally, in the blink of an eye).
In person, Jones is humble and unassuming, and he sounds calm and wise, if not quite comfortable speaking in front of a large audience. His voice came alive when reading the scene from the bus in “Blindsided,” where Roxanne first goes blind, a scene that deftly combines compassion, humor and desperation. One senses that Jones’s imaginative generosity would be constrained if he paid more mind to increasing his literary status than developing his characters and telling their stories. While speaking about writing The Known World, he posits that if he’d read forty books to research his novel as he’d initially planned, “the characters may have taken a back seat.” And this, to Jones as well as to his readers, would have been detrimental, because “the research doesn’t matter if the characters aren’t there.”
Jones’s humility and lack of ambition were enough to make the man sitting next to me comment in disbelief. Perhaps it is precisely this long gestation – Jones’s long periods spent growing and developing his characters – his willingness to stand back, and his lack of desire to conquer literary heights that has made his work so remarkable and the lives of his characters, even in his short stories, stretch far beyond, one feels, the pages they’re written on. While Jones hinted at currently searching for new characters, the only thing he admitted to working on was “getting back to Washington in one piece.” He spoke a few times of a woman in the desert, as if he’s tilling and planting the seeds for his next crop. We can wait.
Jones tramples the idea of literary celebrity. If Gessen worships at the altar of literature, and through writing hopes to elevate himself, Jones hopes to deflate such notions of becoming a literary chosen one. To Jones, writing is an act of compassion and communication, and his process not so different from any other task: “And we are not noble, just human. We get up to our day, however wonderful, however horrible, as they have been doing since there were white blank pages, before the blank computer screen, when there were only grunts and hand gestures, and we tell stories.”
Besides, good writing is timeless, and literary celebrity is often short-lived. There is backlash, capricious fashion, and the the vicissitudes of time. The quest for literary renown isn’t new, nor is praise from the literary world consistent. A little article entitled “Literary Fame,” appearing in the Buffalo Courier and reprinted in the November 12, 1890, New York Times, speaks of fleeting fame, specifically Herman Melville’s, and how easily one can slip from favor. A year before Melville’s death, so little was said of him that most people already thought him dead:
Forty-four years ago, when [Herman Melville's] most famous tale, “Typee,” appeared, there was not a better known author than he, and he commanded his own prices. Publishers sought him, and editors considered themselves fortunate to secure his name as a literary star. And to-day! Busy New York has no idea he is even alive, and one of the best-informed literary men in the country laughed recently at me statement that Herman Melville was his neighbor by only two blocks. “Nonsense!” said he. “Why, Melville’s dead these many years!” Talk about literary fame! There’s a sample of it.