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Weekend Read: “Not a bad way of making a living”


This week on Sentences I’ve shared my enthusiasm for the essay generally and for those by Arthur Krystal specifically. Reading Krystal on on beauty, sin, typewriters, laziness, death, duelling or reading itself is to find oneself in unusually good mental company.

As Krystal said in conversation in my previous post: “Sometimes I think that I never think except when I write essays. They exercise the mind. Writing about beauty, God, sin, or the aphorism is like going to a mental gym; you firm up muscles you don’t use in your daily life.” Krystal’s essays provide a reader with similar exercise, beneficial reminders of the necessity and utility of thinking things thoroughly through.

Below, as your weekend read, I propose the title essay of Krystal’s latest book The Half-Life of an American Essayist. It offers a clear look at the qualities that make Krystal such good reading: lightness of touch, fineness of mind, depth of engagement, and a resourceful, flexible, rigorous style. The essay also provides an uncomfortably practical answer to why so many readers and writers lately complain that literary criticism just isn’t happening.

With thanks to Arthur Krystal and to David R. Godine, Publisher, for permission to reprint.

The Half-Life

By Arthur Krystal

Somehow, without ever intending to, I’ve ended up a freelance intellectual. Not quite a man of letters, not really a critic anymore, but a sort of literary mule–a cross between haphazard journalist and restive seminarian. And it’s no fun. Magazines that actually pay for the sort of things I write can be counted on the fingers of a hand that’s encountered a sharp piece of machinery. I write, as it happens, essays with a literary bent, and though there are plenty of small periodicals that welcome such pieces, they pay honorariums of three hundred dollars or less. And since I’m unwilling to write, and probably incapable of writing, about more trendy subjects, I can forget about all the glossy magazines that pay quite well by a writer’s standards.

Even a “successful” essayist, one who regularly places his or her work in the New Yorker and the Atlantic, will have a tough time getting a book of essays published. An essay may create a stir in a magazine, as Tom Wolfe’s “Stalking The Billion-Footed Beast” did in 1988 when it appeared in Harper’s, but essays in book form tend to cancel each other out. No one buys a book because it contains a famous essay. This, of course, does not dissuade essayists from wanting to see their pieces collected; it just makes publishers leery of collecting them. Only if you’re an established literary figure with a sizable fan base, whom publishers want to keep happy, will your scattered pieces rise and converge. No one, let me assure you, wants to keep me happy. Collected literary essays, especially, do not sell. They are hard to market, they receive very few reviews, and little, if anything, is spent on promoting them.

That said, I decided some years ago to publish a book of essays. My agent at the time wished me luck and washed his hands. So I did what all writers do when they start out: I made phone calls and I wrote letters. Editors at a number of publishing houses asked to see the work, but lost interest once they received it. “Hey, these really are literary essays. What was I thinking?” is what I imagine they said to themselves. In the end, Jonathan Brent, the editorial director of Yale University Press, decided to take a chance, and Agitations: Essays on Life and Literature found its way into the bookstores.

Bear in mind, these are, once again, literary pieces. None of this “creative non-fiction” nonsense, which is just a pretentious term for memoiristic writing. Although, commercially speaking, essay writing is a sucker’s game, memoirs remain a draw; and if you’ve had the good fortune–from a writer’s point of view–to have been abused as a child, survived a shipwreck or cancer, spent time in jail, or been addicted to Internet porn, your chances of getting published are better than average. Memoirists simply write personal essays–period. Their work is no more creative than any other kind of essay; quite the reverse in fact. Writing interestingly about Jane Austen requires more imagination than confessing to having slept with someone named Jane Austen from Beaumont, Texas. And if I may say so, literary essayists have to rely more on their strengths as writers than on their imperfections as human beings–though I like to think I’m just as flawed and miserable as the next person.

Goethe, in an unusually pithy phrase, once summed up the literary life in this way: “Experience is only half of experience.” I assume he meant by this that no experience is complete until it has been put through the intellectual wringer, which extracts every nuance and shade of meaning from what happens. As a writer, I believe that, temperamentally, I am better suited to the first half of experience. That is, I am disinclined to obsess over experience or write revealing essays about it. The end result is essays that book publishers don’t want to touch–the essays in this volume, for example.

These particular pieces cover a lot of ground, ranging from laziness and physiognomy to the cultural implications of the typewriter, from boxing’s appeal to writers to the growth of the Holocaust industry. Just try to get such pieces published in book form. Undaunted, I handed them over to my agent who, after glancing at them, was properly aghast. Publishers, he said, would think him “daft” for showing them such a book. He also informed me that I needed to get serious about what I wanted to achieve as a writer. Evidently, I needed “to write a real book,” not just something that would flatter my vanity. All books, it strikes me, are vanity, but he was right about this particular book’s prospects. Trade publishers turned it down right and left; always with misgivings, always with words of praise, always with best wishes. Only David R. Godine, an independent publisher who apparently likes bucking the tide, embraced the book’s contents. Something about the voice of the essays made them seem more of a cohesive work than a collection of disparate pieces.

How does one end up being a professional writer without a book, without a sustained narrative of fiction or non-fiction? It’s not that hard. All you need is a strong stomach for cheap food and a good education without a specific area of expertise. And let’s not discount temperament, which is what people mean when they say you make your own luck. As luck would have it, I am not a writer of books, but of essays. Why essays? Well, for one thing, the essay seems to suit me. Unlike books, an essay has a perfect length, depending on the nature of its subject, and there is something eminently satisfying in finding that length. Moreover, an essay obviously takes less time to write than a book and it can do the job almost as well. Raymond Chandler once claimed that he would stick to essays if they paid enough.

And because the essay form is how I convey thoughts and impressions, I write pieces that journals and magazines sometimes publish, but that book publishers shy away from. Welcome to the wonderful world of the freelance writer. Although most writers know early on that the writing life is for them, none, I imagine, ever said to himself, “Please, God, let me be a freelancer.” Freelancing is something you back into, usually because temperament and circumstance helpfully shove you along. One might even say that the very reasons one becomes a freelance writer are the reasons that make being a freelance writer so difficult: the desire to be independent, a hatred of authority, an aversion to regimen and, of course, the inability to play well with others. None of this matters when it comes to the actual writing, but it all, unfortunately, comes home to roost when dealing with editors, agents, and publishers.

Nobody really writes about the miseries, indignities, and small humiliations of being a marginal, albeit published, writer. Yes, writers are always bitching about how tough things are, but they rarely voice their complaints in print. Maybe they’re worried that magazine and book editors won’t like what they read. Or maybe writers feel it’s pointless to put into words what words cannot change. Well, I have no problem about grumbling out loud; I like to grumble and I’m too old to care if publishers take offense–which is highly doubtful.

There are more than a few things wrong with being a freelance writer, but let’s begin with the obvious: money–there’s not enough of it. While not all freelancers are hopelessly in debt–writers who cover fashion, fads, pop culture, sports, celebrities, and politics make out all right–those predisposed to write about books or ideas had better have a teaching gig or full-time job. Then there’s respect–also not enough of it. Magazine and book editors don’t go out of their way to make life miserable, but neither do they go out of their way to make it pleasant. Calls are not returned; letters remain unanswered; work lies unread. Finally: lag time–too much of it. To wait three months before hearing about a submission is not only annoying, it’s draining fiscally and emotionally. If the article is timely and deals with a recent event or recently published book, you lose the chance to sell it elsewhere. An editor not liking my work doesn’t bother me; an editor waiting three months to tell me he can’t use the piece does. Do I feel rejected? No. What I feel is inconvenienced.

Writers who scrabble for a living come in three denominations: the midlist writer who generally writes better than the big-name writer but has a much smaller following; the even less well-known experimental writer who refuses to sell out and publishes in out-of-the-way journals with names like Egg or Behemoth; and the somewhat successful writer who publishes in all the “right” places, but never really breaks out. To fall into any of these categories is to encounter neglect, rudeness, and indifference.

It’s toughest, of course, when you’re just starting out. Writers take jobs as copy editors, fact checkers, waiters, and receptionists. When they’re not marking up manuscripts or answering phones, they’re scratching, hustling, and networking. It’s not enough to have one’s work out there, the body must be out there as well. And though you’re hearing this from someone who never attended a writing school, writers’ conference, or artists’ colony–from someone who, as it happens, has burned bridges with a wet match–I know whereof I speak. My advice is: Be nice. Be nice to people with more power than you have, which means just about everyone. Get into the loop as soon as you can and befriend as many other writers as possible, since one of them may make it big one day. Never refuse an invitation to a book party and always show up wearing an Hermes tie and Carol Channing smile. And if you review books, be gentle as well as judicious. I know of at least two established writers who, when young, not only wrote well of other writers’ books, they also wrote fawning letters to writers already famous. Slippery, but smart. But… slippery.

Not that any of this will protect you from a simple truth about publishing: you may win an agent’s or editor’s respect, but common courtesy is extended only to those who fill the coffers. And for those who prefer courtesy to respect, this can be a problem. So what do you do? Well, the smart thing is to roll with the punches. A wrong step, a wrong word, and you will be cashiered out of the literary life for conduct unbecoming an unaffiliated writer. Of course, if you’re a prickly individual who feels like punching back, you’re in trouble. I may not get into a fistfight with a midget, as John O’Hara once did, but I’m quick to take offense and more than happy to return it. Anyway, you’ve got to admire a man who’s not too big to fight a midget.

It also pays to know what editors want and give it to them. Madonna has taken up the Kabbalah? Astonishing! Five thousand words would barely cover it. An ex-ballerina has written a book about the pleasures of sodomy? By God, it’s time to burn the midnight oil. But what if you can’t muster the enthusiasm? I, for one, don’t see why more editors aren’t interested in essays on death, despair, solitude, or Herman Broch’s excellent study of Hugo von Hofmannsthal–but that’s just me. That’s another problem with being a freelance: you’re never sure whether you’re writing what you want to write or writing simply to pay the rent. For example, I wrote about the evolution and significance of the typewriter, but what if every editor I approached had thought it a dumb idea–would I have tackled the subject? Probably not. Then there were essays I wrote because of some fatuous statements made by Joyce Carol Oates about boxing and Raymond Chandler. Had I been rich, I might simply have written Ms. Oates a snide note or just ranted to friends. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to have written these pieces, but I wrote them because there’d be a payday at the end.

There are, it should be said, some good points about being a freelance writer: You can sleep late, set your own hours, work at your own pace, and not worry about someone looking over your shoulder. On the other hand, you tend to sleep late, you have to set your own hours, you work only when you feel like it, and there is no one looking over your shoulder. Lest you think I’m cranky, let me say that I don’t mind writing; I just mind writing for money. Yes, I’m aware that Dr. Johnson thought that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” But I take a different view. Writing for money is work even when you’re writing what it is you want to write. And if you’re writing only for money, even a lot money, it’s a tough way to make a living.

And maybe because writing seems to me both so important and so transparent (in the sense that it’s demonstrably good or bad), I wonder how writers can go public with their work before it’s ready. It’s not journalists with deadlines I’m thinking of; they’re like professional musicians who perform night after night–you expect a mistake now and then. Novelists, biographers, and historians, however, should be held to the same standards that apply to musicians during a studio recording. The tempo or interpretation may not be to your liking, but there’s no excuse for dropped notes or extraneous noise.

The essayist has an advantage here: it’s far easier to write a good essay than a good book. Most books–not just the ones identified by Henry James–are loose, baggy monsters. I can’t go after monsters; I have neither the desire, nor the equipment, nor the sitzfleish required to do the work. But that doesn’t mean I’m trying to get away with something. Quite the opposite. Because I don’t like to work, I insist that whatever work I do be perfect. I’m not saying it is, but if I’m going to work at writing, then I ought to be happy with what I write. All of which makes me irascible–not because editors meddle with my work, but because I’m never quite satisfied with it.

Furthermore, because I am dour by nature, I can’t help wondering if what I do is actually worth doing. I am, as I’ve written elsewhere, a veritable lazybones. And it occurs to me, as I write this, that laziness is a symptom of some deep-rooted pessimism, a feeling that, ultimately, actions don’t matter–at least one’s own actions don’t. Optimists, of course, go forth into the world and tweak or chip away until the world, bit by bit, changes. Indeed, the world is buoyed by the enthusiasm and energy of such people. I seem to be talking about “such people” as if they comprised a different species. In a sense, they do. The lazy and the energetic, or the pessimistic and the optimistic, do not carry the same electrical charge. One acts, and the other watches (if it’s not too much trouble).

In the days before psychiatry took the onus off melancholy (and the lazy are melancholic), virtue was equated with the work ethic. In such a world, the lazy were actually considered subversive. G.K.Chesterton went so far as to recommend the slammer for the hopelessly unhappy. In The Man Who Was Thursday, he imagines a “philosophical policeman” whose job “is at once bolder and more subtle than that of the ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; [philosophical policemen] go to artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists.”

I may be exaggerating my own laziness, but I can tell you from long experience that being an aimless, melancholic, bumptious freelance writer is not conducive to producing a large body of work. I may jump over many hurdles in publishing (or, more accurately, knock them over), but one thing I cannot always do is find things to write about. In thirty-odd essays, I’ve written about everything that has ever interested me. So why continue? Certainly if I had more money, I would write less. Maybe I’d write an essay with the title “Show Me Your Precursors,” and–who knows?–maybe I will write a piece on Hermann Broch and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. On the other hand, there’s a chance I’ll just hang it up, or perhaps turn that hand to writing haiku; seventeen syllables and you’re out.

That said, I believe in the essay, particularly the literary essay. I believe that in the right hands–those extending from the sleeves of Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Sir Thomas Browne, Samuel Johnson, Hazlitt, Orwell, Cyril Connolly, Virginia Woolf, Lionel Trilling and a dozen or so others–the literary essay, although it may begin by addressing books, always ends up being about the interaction of society and culture. And because language and thought are inseparable, I believe that the essay remains the artistic form in which consciousness achieves its fullest expression. All in all, not a bad way of making a bad living.

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