The Successful Writer

The successful writer knew he was a success because the checks kept coming in and everybody told him that he was a wunderkind. He knew he was a success and he wanted you to know it too. Because this was what successful writers did. He knew this, even if nobody has passed along a manual. The curious bubble, once so spacious during his great climb to the top, involuted. The little people became littler. He had less patience for half-formed opinions, in part because they reminded him of the half-formed opinions that he had kept away from publicists, journalists, and, in particular, other successful writers. He believed that the time for growing was not at an end exactly, but certainly going to occur on autopilot.

Only his family and closest friends knew the truth. They tolerated the successful writer, and they were obliged to keep printing the legend so that the successful writer would remain successful. His innovations became derivative. His stories became more commercial. Book tours permitted him to work on his persona, to hide the disguise. He didn’t need media training for this. The gestation came naturally.

He had stopped challenging himself after the third novel. He had merely banged out sentences after the fifth, relying upon the editor to massage his copy. And who would know really? They didn’t print the editor’s name anywhere in the book.

His advances had accrued enough for him to purchase a home in upstate New York. And by the time his wife had abandoned him, losing patience and shedding tears over what had become of the ambitious young man who had dared to go into the writing racket, he had enough left over from his better half to finance a bacchanalian midlife crisis.

There was additional lucre in the public appearances. The offers by universities to teach. The publishers put up more money for hotel rooms and other expenses that they could write off. These were fringe benefits. He was enough of a successful writer to live off his books. But he took these ancillary gigs anyway. Because a successful writer doesn’t stop being a success.

Some young readers weaned on the successful writer’s early work met the successful writer and were seduced by him. But they begin to see through his incurious and almost mandatory bonhomie. And the successful writer soon saw himself parodied in literary circles by not so successful writers who would, in a decade or so, find this kind of success if they kept down the avaricious path and valued the small pecuniary rewards over the words.

When the successful writer died, there was a big funeral and many newspaper articles. He was declared irreplaceable, a legend, other words and terms of art often confined to the obituary page. But in ten years, half of his books were out of print. Aside from an occasional reference in a review, the literati stopped mentioning his name. A few writers — mostly friends of the successful writer — tried to restore his reputation. But the successful writer could not find the same success during his lifetime. The smaller people he scorned, who had real talent and who had thrown it all away on booze and heartache, were now the successful writers. It was a pity that they had not lived to see this.

It is a cycle that repeats over and over. There are, of course, exceptions. But this is why success should remain a fickle measure always in the company of skepticism.

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5 Comments

  1. And then there’s the unsuccessful writer, i.e. most of us. Poor. Spends more time agonizing over frustrated ambition than writing. No nice house. No wife, since no decent woman will be attracted to an impoverished loser. No blandishments from publishers, media, or anyone else. No offers for plush speaking gigs or celebrity teaching sinecures.

    Oh, but we can console ourselves that our integrity hasn’t been compromised by the requirements of success. Terrific!

  2. Nonsense, Peter. Things aren’t quite so amenable to your wounded irony. For one thing, the aviary boasts more than two species of bird (it’s not all eagles and titmice); for another, the day that “success” in Art becomes definable *exclusively* in terms of money earned or fame borrowed, The Fatfingered Vulgarians will have won the Kultcha War, and Ed’s post will become not a jealous rant, but a bittersweet little ode to another Era. I’m sure you’re not eager to see that happen.

  3. As a lifelong woman fiction writer, who’s abysmally unsuccessful and unpopular fame- and fortune-wise, I suggest you guys turn to the millions of comely young businesswomen with the soul and depth to appreciate any guy bold enough to attempt literary endeavors.
    Think that’s a dream? Try yoga. The gorgeous yoginis are all seeking enlightenment; they’re aching for holy guidance. (And, in case you need further persuasion, they’re fabulously flexible.)
    Not by any means a pat solution, of course, but since when is anything easy?

  4. “I suggest you guys turn to the millions of comely young businesswomen with the soul and depth to appreciate any guy bold enough to attempt literary endeavors.”

    I’m married to a *very* comely young classical musician (and I pay for my fiction by working as a professional composer), thanks, but yours is good advice. My experience was always that the more beautiful a woman is (all things being equal), the more likely it is that she’s fairly sick of suits who assume she’s a venal, shallow succubus conditioned to see the flat spot on the top of a man’s head as but one step on the staircase to serious real estate… erm, except in Southern California, of course.

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