Writers on Writing #87: Joan Frank
What Would John Williams Do?
It's a beautiful party on a beautiful hillside, a soft, midsummer afternoon's dream. The ranch-style home commands expansive views: golden countryside spreads below, warm and busy with a faraway highway's ant-like movement of two-lane traffic, seeming to imply—for those of us lucky enough to standing here, looking out at it with our drinks and food—a kind of master-serenity. We happy few.
I'm pleased to spot an author I know, amid the chatting guests.
I present myself, glass of sparkling water in hand.
How're you doing, I ask.
Half an hour later, I wonder how soon I can get home to swallow a handful of the Valium my husband keeps in his suitcase, for when he takes plane flights.
This author begins at once to report—to itemize—rampant success. Travel, publication, money. Most recently, this person's latest novel has snagged a top-tier agent, who has wasted no time selling it to an excellent publisher, for a cool high-five-figures.
"I wanted six figures," concedes the smiling author. "But my agent tells me that after foreign rights are sold, I'll have my six figures."
This person's prior novel is still selling. There's still money coming in from it, "not a lot, but it is still coming," another achievement of which this author is proud.
Finally, after the nonstop barrage of seamless triumph, the author pauses: "So what're you doing?"
I swallow. Feeling as though I'm in a Kristen Wiig film, thinking, Oh, why not just let this go where it's clearly heading, straight to the heart of hell, I tell the truth. I am completing a new book while trying passionately to place (never mind "sell") the prior book, which was finished three years ago: a work continually declined with lavish, rueful compliments, because it is, according to the decliners, too quiet and interior.
This person shakes a shiny, attractive head.
"Joan, you're a beautiful writer. But you need to write more commercially."
The author locks eyes with me, smiling.
"Have a male protagonist. That's the secret." The author's brows bear down.
"And more stuff happening. Lots more stuff."
"Write a book that anyone can recommend to anyone," adds the author.
Desperate to peel myself from this scalding surface, staring like a skinned rabbit into the dare-you-to-deny-it of that smile, I change the subject. I know this author organizes a writing conference every spring. I bring up the topic of that conference, offering to speak there as a guest panelist, or presenter.
The author shakes the same shining head, explaining that it is necessary to invite Pulitzer winners as guest speakers, both to attract applicants and to justify charging an application fee (which pays the speakers' airfares).
"I'm sorry. You're not famous enough," murmurs the author.
Here's a word that, among writers, is spoken softly when it's spoken at all.
It's a bomblike subject. Tim Parks argues, in a blog for the New York Review of Books, that writers write as if to win a game. That's one premise. Lee Upton, in her brilliant essay collection Swallowing the Sea, offers a more complicated, multi-pronged study, suggesting that ambition keeps us alive and fertile as artists, audacious as explorers and adventurers. I can't pretend to have ever finally settled the questions: What kind of ambition drives me? How much—if any, ever—is too much?
And the toughest corollary: Why?
Many writers style themselves as larger or deeper than the forces of ambition—as if we're listening to a nobler music, with eyes on the higher prize of pure artistic integrity.
This effort comforts us, intermittently. But it's always under attack.
We see that some of the best artists since forever, exempting a remarkable few, remain fiercely ambitious. "I've sacrificed everything. Everything," intoned T. C. Boyle.
I tend to believe him. The commerce of art makes it so.
Ancient news. Yet we seem to keep needing to unpack it, to figure it out. The late, tormented, too-soon-gone Lucy Grealy wrote:
I once thought that truth was eternal, that when you understood something it was with you forever. I know now that this isn't so, that most truths are inherently unretainable, that we have to work hard all our lives to remember the most basic things.
I sometimes find this reality soothing. It means writers have to start again, daily, from scratch. We have to re-make the covenant with ourselves, revise the mission statement. We have to drop the noise and gestures and square off with the tasks:
Work hard to make art.
Work hard to get art seen, and taken.
Work hard, at the same time, to remember why.
Maybe, perversely, I also hope that ambition can mean seizing as many chances as possible to be generous, to help those whose work we admire and care about. Why? Because one does as one hopes, sooner or later, to be done to. Because artistic solidarity has power. (Think of The Authors' Guild, or PEN.) And because this mind-set reverses and elevates what can otherwise start to feel like the walk and talk of a roving mob of thugs.
The best artists made you feel that the best of them was at stake—didn't they?
A New Yorker profile (by Nick Paumgarten) of the much-lauded James Salter, now nearing 90, noted that Salter had once made lists of those names he felt to be "ahead" of him en route to—well—the level of greatness he meant to attain. Until then, I'd never imagined the tight-lipped Salter capable of brooding over that kind of calculation. Later, I understood it better in terms of the life Salter has led (and described in his writing), mandated to experience the best of everything: women, friendships, food and drink, travel, real estate, physical-spiritual transport (rock climbing, skiing, sex, piloting fighter aircraft during war). Though few of us maintain a to-do list like his, it calms me, oddly, to think that even the mighty Salter once smarted and chafed like ten trillion other writers on the path. Even the giants, I reminded myself, nurse an all-too-human need.
But while that awareness can console—it does little else. The rest is up to us. Again and again, each of us must finesse, revisit, and re-finesse her own mythology.
How we came to it. Why we stay.
After many years it seems clear to me that to write literary fiction, remain relatively unknown, and still have ambition, is not at all an unusual combination. It's just a statistically doomed one. And yet, strangely, no matter how often we've reasoned them out in the past, the same questions flash into our faces like paparazzi bulbs—Why do I do this? How should I do this? What does the former mean for the latter?—hounding us around the clock, sometimes fanned to a firewall in scenes like mine with the blissfully monomaniacal author at the fancy party.
I can only guess that the answers writers dig for, each time, have to feel real to us. They have to come from the no-escape, all-makeup-scrubbed-off, 3:00 a.m. dark of us.
My own personal measure for the realness of that answer—and let me emphasize the scorched-earth pain that drives the unsparingness of this search—is to ask myself how the late John Williams, author of the now-classic-but-once-unknown, quiet, perfect, devastating novel Stoner, might have answered if someone had locked eyes with him at a party and told him that he needed to write more commercially in order to become better known, and to make a pile of money.
Never mind that the protagonist of Stoner is a man, or the fact that quite a lot of "stuff" happens in Williams' heart-spearing novel—from Stoner's journey as a farm boy to the cataclysmic sea-change wreaked in him by a poem recited in a college English class, to a soul-killing marriage, estrangement from a beloved daughter, a hexed-but-vitalizing love affair, and finally a silent, self-aware, unheralded death. The novel's arc feels—like all our very greatest art—inevitable. Its particulars shine with the relevance of the universal. It is timeless.
What would John Williams say to my wealthy and self-satisfied interlocutor?
I'll bet he would say nothing at all. He might nod slightly. Then he would immediately excuse himself (as I finally summoned the wits to do), and vanish. (I don't know that Williams would go looking for Valium, or its then-equivalent. I skipped that option, too, and wound up having take-out dinner and renting a movie with my husband.)
Williams would carry on with his life, and with the writing he felt he had to write. Like his own, stoic William Stoner, his work might be ignored, even mocked. He most certainly would have mulled his own motives now and again, perhaps doubting, even despairing. He would carry on. I don't know how much money Williams made. I'm sure he liked money fine when it came, as we all do. I'm sure he liked paying bills, buying food and books. I'm sure he was never fooled about the money's significance.
It's of course easy to idolize artists like Williams—and by now you'll have realized that for Williams' name we may substitute the name of any writer we've revered across the years, who quietly persisted at making work that matters. The idolizing, and the little disturbances which prompt it, must also ultimately fall away, become part of the noise and the gestures. The only choice left is to live—to enact, to embody—hour by hour, what writers like Williams knew. As Lucy Grealy noted, so shockingly simply, you have to work hard, every day, to remember.
Joan Frank (www.joanfrank.org) is the author of five books of fiction and a book of collected essays. Her last novel, Make It Stay (2012), won the Dana Portfolio Award; her last story collection, In Envy Country (2010), won the Richard Sullivan Prize in Fiction, the Gold ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award, and was named a finalist for the California Book Award. Her book of essays, Because You Have To: A Writing Life (2012), won the Silver ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award. A MacDowell Colony Fellow, recipient of many other awards and grants, Joan is also a book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.