Thursday, February 25, 2010

Wallace Stegner and the reality of publishing serious literature

I’m continuing my reading of Wallace Stegner’s book on writing. One of the most poignant pieces is an essay entitled “To a Young Writer.” I’m unsure of the date of the piece, but Stegner died in 1993 so it’s at least nearly 20 years old.

The young writer in question is a woman, and gifted at the craft. He makes it very clear to her that her chance of earning a living, gaining fame, and being successful in any traditional way through her writing are minimal even though her work is brilliant and sensitive and powerful. It will not speak to the masses, he says.

Should she write anyway, he asks? Perhaps. But only perhaps. Will she write and publish if she marries and has children? Probably not, for the kind of thoughtful writing she does takes everything from a person. But if she is called to do it, she must do it.

There are many readers out there who treasure the beautiful, the sensitive, the meaningful. But as every aspect of American culture becomes “busnified” (in my years as a college professor, I watched the transformation of higher education from an education model to a business model, where students were clients and the customer was always right), so too is publishing less and less about talent and beautiful writing and more and more about the bucks to be made.

Is it still worth writing great literature? Of course, but it is not worth pinning your life or your livelihood on. That is what Stegner is saying, I think, and it is worth considering.

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