Manjula Martin collected essays by contemporary writers claiming to shed some light on what it means to struggle as an artist. Each writer approaches the topic in a different way. Some, like the more famous Cheryl Strayed, Jonathan Franzen, and Roxanne Gay offer their thoughts in interview format, whereas others take creative liberties to capture their history as a writer, their journey, and relationship with books. The overarching topic is: money. How much money do artists get and what does it mean? For instance, Cheryl Strayed explains that even though she received a large sum of money as an advance for Wild, it was given to her in installments. She had so much credit card debt, student loans to pay, and two small children. The art world is the only case in which sometimes people expect you to work for free in hopes that “the love of the public” and “followers” is enough compensation, as if you owe the gallery and the publishing house for being published, rather than being paid for your labour and hard work. It’s the only time when you could wake up one morning and think: today I could make zero dollars, or get a $50,000 advance, we’ll never know. It’s hard to imagine that while being on book tour, Strayed’s check bounced when trying to pay the rent.
The opening essay by Julia Fierro for instance focused on the ways in which she felt inferior to her classmates in university as well as at the Iowa Writers’ workshop. How she started hoarding and collecting books she couldn’t afford so she could stay in the ranks of her classmates, and how subsequently this resulted in her avoiding reading altogether for a while. She writes:
“My loan money moved from my bank account to my bookshelf, and not once did I stop myself, look around my apartment at the stacks of unread books–several lifetimes’ worth–and think of Jay Gatsby and his library of pristine uncut books. My fear was too loud. Fear that I was inauthentic, undeserving of a place among my mostly Ivy League–educated classmates who, it seemed, were more well-read than even the gray-haired authors who were our professors.”
Colin Dickey wrote a very interesting essay that was more historical and academic in nature. He cites a lot of Karl Marx, but begins his essay with the way in which Charles Dickens’s work got immediately tainted for him the day he found out he was paid by installment. He writes:
“once we’d been introduced to the economy of writing, everything was tainted….how to trust each word from that point on…money taints everything, why not writing too”
Roxanne Gay discusses how she remains in academic circles at universities, and teaches classes, just because they offer her a steady salary and health insurance. When she broke down her income, she discloses that less than 30% of her income comes from her writing.
I also found that this collection poked at a strange can of worms regarding the Jonathan Franzen-Oprah Winfrey conflict, back in 2001. When it comes up in the interview, and reminds readers about the conflict, some women are referenced (like Jennifer Weiner) who used social media to point out that critics rarely pay the same attention to women authors, as they do to Jonathan Franzen back when this conflict was happening. Franzen responds here with:
“well, I am a male animal, and there’s nothing I can do about that. I can’t stop writing and disappear just because someone chooses to project onto me her grievance with a million years of sexist human history”
What I found strange was that Jennifer Weiner is also one of the essays in here, and it’s written in essay/memoir format whereas Franzen’s is in interview format with the editor. The interview is by far the longest and I felt as if the editor was swooning over Franzen whereas Weiner was “left alone” as it were. In her essay, Weiner writes conversations she never thought she would have to have with herself like
“big-name critics will call your work ‘subliterary,’ and big-deal writers will sneer at the notion that your books deserve even a smidgen of attention in the New York Times…History ought to give me some context. Women’s work has always been devalued, seen as less. ‘commercial’ she asks for what she doesn’t deserve, says the privileged white man, who gets both sales and respect–as if privileged white men haven’t always been the ones to make those judgement, and those judgement haven’t always been in their favor.”
It’s an interesting fight/argument (which let’s face it, it’s about posterity), but it wasn’t why I bought this book.
As a reader interested in the “nitty-gritty of the writing profession” which is what I came to this book for, I did not find those answers here. For one Cheryl Strayed, Roxanne Gay, Jennifer Weiner, and Jonathan Franzen are all best sellers who made money, got film deals, and some reached critical acclaim. The Franzen-Weiner “fight” was kind of central to me when I looked back.
My favourite by far was Colin Dickey. His essay actually focused on the topic. Cheryl Strayed’s article got my attention because of her success, but everyone else kind of fell through the cracks. For one, I didn’t find myself caring about authors I haven’t heard of, but if I did, I would have liked them to discuss the struggle more, rather than the details of biography. This was Spinster all over again, I got biographies I never asked for. I came to this collection looking for financial struggles, what did it mean, how much? What fees did you have to pay? Where did you live? How did you manage? One Goodreads reviewer put it best:
“the essayists tiptoe around pragmatic questions of money to instead navel-gaze about issues of privilege and class. Several of them explicitly repeat the problem this book was supposed to solve: they flatly refuse to discuss specific financial details.” – Amy Rogers
Books I read for Early Review
Literary Titans Revisited ed. Anne Urbancic
This work is a transcript of sixteen interviews conducted in the late 1960s by Earle Toppings with great Canadian literary figures. I received a copy for review from the editor and I think this is a great new primary source upon which to rely when conducting research in Canadian literature. Full review HERE.
The Biophilia Effect by Clemens G. Arvay
This book is a beautifully written work about humans’ connection to nature and the effect nature has on our body and our chemistry. Arvay follows medical studies showing how significant it is to live among trees and to be as close to nature as possible. This book will be coming out in January 2018. Full Review HERE.
Books I read for myself
Odd Type Writers by Celia Blue Johnson
This book covers the quirks of famous authors. It covers anything from the time of day they wrote, their word counts, or the colour of ink they preferred to use. I enjoyed it a lot and I thought it deserved a longer explanation immediately after I read it, so I wrote a review, even if it was a book I read for myself. Full review HERE.
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
This book was really not for me. I was surprised to see Martin Scorsese give a blurb on the back, so I picked it up. A trend on YouTube for lifestyle vloggers is to promote “morning pages” where you should brain-dump words on three pages each morning to clear your head and make space for creativity. This book is where the idea came from and then just spread online. Other than that, I didn’t find many other useful tips. A lot of the things here are journal starter sentences like “when I was a kid I missed out on…” and you’re supposed to treat it like a self-help/therapy workshop to journal your ideas. A lot of the pages here were either the author talking about her extravagant and adventurous life, or lists and lists of affirmations for yourself along the lines of “creativity is God’s gift to us.” It’s a lovely sentiment, and I think many of the ideas could have been easily summarized and made into a pamphlet (and that includes the affirmations). This book is 231 pages of the repetition (in different ways) of the three essential points I mentioned above. To be fair though, she does title the book “The Artist’s Way…a SPIRITUAL PATH to higher creativity” so I guess that one’s on me.
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
I never had the chance to study Trollope in undergrad so I thought I’d give the Barchester Series a try. The series is six books long and begins with The Warden. I read the first twenty pages and realized how lost I was because I didn’t understand Anglican terminology. I put together this Anglican Terminology PDF and printed it out (attached it to the book) and resumed reading. For the most part it’s a bunch of English men who are part of the parish discussing wages and minutiae around their roles, as a young doctor moves into town and decides to open a hospital. The text is mostly heated debate in town over where finances should go. Reading it I didn’t feel ‘entertained’ or even that into it, but as I put it down over the course of the month I kept thinking of that transition stage where those same Anglican terms I had to look up were dominant, and those were the main jobs that would be paid in society. There was a shift that occurred when medicine as we know it today started to be incorporated into actual health-care facilities, and a lot of these jobs were threatened and over time disappeared or became a lot less paid. I think I’ll give book two of the Barchester Chronicles a try because I’ve been told it’s much better but if it doesn’t hold up I think I will stop with Trollope there.
To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck
This book is about a man named Joseph whose father passes away and who begins to have a connection with land. So much so, that he strongly believes a tree up on a hill overlooking his newly-acquired land IS his father. There are fleshly desires, discord among brothers, and a character named Juanito who is from Mexico and not only is a worker-friend of Joseph’s but he does certain things in this novel that push the plot forward. Yes, “California,” “Bible Themes,” and “Saucy relationships” are the plot of A Steinbeck novel, but this one felt different than his other works. I read online that he spent longer writing this novel than any of his other larger works, and I think that struggle shows because it didn’t flow. I had most issues with the character of Juanito and I think they were accentuated by the current political situation between the things being said by the ‘leader’ of the United States towards and about Mexican citizens. His portrayal, way of talking, and overall presence felt like a caricature. I wanted to see more of the connection to nature, I wanted more from the presence of the tree. The tree was alluded to and discussed the same way we see the green flashing light in The Great Gatsby, but here it was such an important part of the plot that I wanted more from it. It’s evident how Steinbeck wanted to illustrate roots and the inability to leave a piece of land as if it was a person. That theme and the tree, as well as allusions to Biblical Joseph were all executed nicely, but the conversation and character development were truly lacking. The exchanges made between Juanito and Joseph almost put me to sleep, the conversation in general was so lacking and not believable…I don’t think people would ever talk that way. I thought about it, and I’m willing to forgive Steinbeck simply because it’s his third work. His first two works flopped when they came out and I think he was still working on his craft at this point. This is my second Steinbeck this year, and I will certainly keep going.
This Victorian Life by Sarah A. Chrisman
This is a work of non-fiction and a sort of experiment. Sarah A. Chrisman and her husband decided to adopt a Victorian lifestyle all the way down to the details. They both had advanced degrees and a life in this world, but decided to take things slowly, step away from technology and start living like Victorians with all the details. I said ‘details’ a lot but that is what is mostly discussed. The minutiae of corsets and other clothing articles, the stationary for letter writing and creating the draft of this book, the cooking methods…absolutely every little thing was slowly changed in their household to mimic a Victorian household. Chrisman kept writing how liberating it was so have things slow down and not be so caught up in this modern world of constant distraction and instant gratification.
I read this book in preparation for Victober and I think it’s nice in a Walden-type experiment kind of way. The whole time though I kept thinking about ‘choice’ and ‘consent’ because I think that was vastly overlooked when Chrisman wrote this. The whole time she would say “I didn’t realize how great this was,” or “how hard it would be to thaw the frozen toilet water” etc. but it makes a HUGE difference that she knows she has a choice. Not just over herself as a woman, but having the knowledge she has autonomy over her own body, that she can say ‘no’ to certain marital pressures, that she has rights as a citizen…but also knowing that should she get sick she would go to a good sanitary hospital where she won’t die of consumption, she won’t die in childbirth, that there are methods to prevent that….I think all the difficulties, the REAL difficulties of the Victorian period weren’t captured. What made those novels dark or that time period different was largely highlighted by the frustrations women like Jane Eyre would have for lacking status, money, autonomy, (or in Bertha Mason’s case good healthcare). I couldn’t bring myself to care of Chrisman’s experiments with stationary, Thanksgiving recipes, and bicycles when she kept repeating “I was trying to live exactly like a Victorian” and “it’s all down to the details” when the reality is far from it. I am not trying to be harsh here because I did enjoy reading this very much, but that thought was at the back of my mind the whole time. Being aware that at times she reminds readers that she has a B.A, and her husband has a Masters degree in Library Science, that she typed the manuscript of this book for publishers, and other details as such, I remembered what she said in the introduction and that was: this is an experiment. The reason I mentioned Walden before is because Thoreau is often criticized for not being too far away from the town when at Walden Pond, and being pampered by the Emersons, so people read his ‘experiment’ with a grain of salt. I think in that same way I’ve been reading This Victorian Life. It certainly is a fun read so I recommend it. I can see how for two people who love something like the Victorian period together this could be fun a fun project, but again: knowing that they can at any point CHOOSE something different and the idea of having a choice in the first place…skips over all the real life anxieties of a true Victorian.
I also re-read Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. Perhaps one day I’ll write a proper analysis of it, but since it is not a first impression I don’t think I’ll critique it much right now. I am currently reading Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland’s The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. I have been neglecting Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings since July and it’s not because I don’t love it, I actually can’t stop thinking about it, but for some reason I got caught up in other books. I think I need to give it the attention it deserves very soon. I also read some of the essays by Ursula K. Le Guin from The Wave in the Mind but I don’t have a strong opinion on any individual essay just yet. All I can say is that Le Guin is one of the most advanced and progressively-thinking writers out there.
This will be a relatively short review as most of its contents would be a ‘spoiler.’ Odd Type Writers focuses on the strange habits of famous authors. Each chapter has a different theme. For instance the topics vary from: authors who write early in the morning versus late at night, what each author’s daily word count for writing is, what preference of ink colour they have, whether they write sitting down or standing up, or how many cups of coffee they had in a day. Balzac for instance would have about fifty cups of coffee per day. This is the kind of book that makes you say a lot of “did you know…” after reading it. I wish the author went in further detail on each author and habit, but the listing at the back marks this as a “reference work” which explains its presentation and quick introductory remarks. The authors covered and the quirks they had are so vast that the amount of research Celia Blue Johnson did for this book is astounding. There are eleven pages of references/works cited at the back and most of them are from authors’ papers, personal letters, and additional secondary material. The work Johnson had to do to pick out the little quirks required hours upon hours of searching. Like I said, almost anything I say could and might be a spoiler, so I will cite a few excerpts from the back of the book that got my attention when I picked it up:
“To meet his deadlines for The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Victor Hugo placed himself under strict house arrest, locking up all of his clothes and wearing nothing but a large gray shawl until he finished the book.”
“Friedrich Schiller kept a drawer full of rotten apples in his study. According to his wife, he couldn’t work with out that pungent odor wafting into his nose.”
“Virginia Woolf used purple ink for love letters and diary entries…in her twenties, she preferred to write while standing up.”
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in fun facts and wants to know some of the quirks and odd habits of some of their favourite authors. It made me realize that there is no blueprint for being an author. While some have a disciplined routine and a precise daily word count, or worked only when inspired and late at night like Kafka did, neither dictated who was more successful, or the better writer. For that reason I would recommend this to aspiring writers, because I think in searching for answers young writers turn to writing clubs, seminars, and notes or vlogs from other authors. This book is a reminder that if your habits don’t match those of other writers it is perfectly fine. And if you have a strange little path let it be and own it! It’s YOUR strange little path.
Johnson wrote a second book called Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway : stories of the inspiration behind great works of literature which may be of interest to you if you enjoy this one or like the sound of it.