Thursday, April 16, 2009

Revenge of the Nerds

The Berryman video brings to mind a highly engaging article by Amy Shearn in the March/April issue of Poets and Writers, entitled Revenge of the Nerds -- where are the badly behaved writers? Why, she asks, don't writers get to be barely functional, substance-abusing eccentrics anymore? She recounts that during her years in University of Minnesota's MFA program,

... my classmates were more egghead than cokehead. At our parties we played dominoes, complained about the school's administrations, and went home early so we could get up the next day and write.

She goes on to observe that "as a whole, today's eminent writers are not known for Keats-style stunts like boozy fistfighting. One is hard pressed to imagine John Updike or Jhumpa Lahiri or even Jonathan Franzen leaping Byronically into the Gowanus Canal for a swim ..."

Why are writers no longer glamourous, edgy, Big Personalities anymore? Some factors Shearn cites are the greater difficulty making a living as a writer; the fact that many have to teach to make a living ("you can't go around getting drunk if you're trying to get tenure" writes one; and another, "I basically work four jobs.... There's little time for me to indulge in anything rehabworthy"); that in today's professionalized literary climate, the heavy promotional demands require qualities of sobriety, control, and cheerful persistence more than ever before. Meanwhile, the public demand to know writers is diminishing -- vanished, even. As novelist and essayist Charles Baxter puts it,

It has to do with glamour, a despised category. But glamour is a quality of the aura surrounding someone, a sort of magical charisma: It reflects our wish to be that person -- Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, back then -- and our wish to tear that person to pieces, as the Furies ripped Orpheus to pieces. When an artist is no longer envied, the aura fades, as does the glamour. Rock stars still have the aura; they are gods, and gods drink and get drugged up and go wild and have sex with everybody and die young. Writers are no longer gods, and everybody knows that.

Pretty sobering stuff. Even if some writers are living lives of edgy, irresponsible chaos, Shearn writes, who is there to notice it?

If a novelist goes wading in the fountain at the Plaza and no one recognizes him, does it count as an irreverent stunt?

Lots of wading into public waters in this article. But to put it another way Shearn doesn't: To that generation of writers (especially poets) of the 50s and 60's, the ideal of the inspired genius, formed during the Romantic period, was still pretty prominent.The alienation that arises in an increasingly anonymous, stratified and indifferent society was rendered all the more painful by the prominence of that ideal... and many of those writers -- so many it became downright stereotypical -- responded in ways that unwittingly matched social expectations, at least for the Romantic, inspired geniuses they were or aspired to be. Nowadays, it seems, substance abuse, marital instability, moodiness and outrageous public behaviour have themselves become tiresome Romantic cliches. And I can't help but concur with Shearn's concluding words: "Whether this is a blessing or a curse I suppose time will tell, but one thing is certain: The next generation of literary biographers (if there is one) will have some pretty dry material waiting for them."

No comments: