Is Literature Disappearing Up It’s Own A-Hole?

Horace Engdahl seems to think so.

In comments to Le Croix, Horace Engdahl (of the Swedish Academy responsible for the Nobel Prize) criticized the “professionalization” of writing through financial support from foundations and educational institutions that allow writers to leave their “day jobs” to devote more time to writing. Noting that it’s particularly a problem for the “western side” of the world, he said:

Even though I understand the temptation, I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates an unhealthy link with institutions… Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard – but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.

If we set aside Engdahl’s hypocrisy — he’s a literary academic linked with an institution — there’s a kernel of truth in his words: experience matters. Real-life experiences inform fiction in ways that may resonate better with readers than fiction unmoored from the realities real people face everyday.

Vonnegut LettersAlong similar lines, Kurt Vonnegut (who, by the way, never won the Nobel Prize for Literature) once wrote to a young writer: “If you want to write fiction, then you must be patient, for you need experiences, and those take time to accumulate.”

A writer’s lack of varied life experiences can lead to over-zealous literary introspection and isolation. As Vonnegut mentioned in an interview with The Paris Review, “It can be tremendously refreshing if the creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.

Importantly, a day job isn’t the only way to accumulate meaningful experiences. Kurt Vonnegut’s experiences included being a soldier in World War II and studying chemistry at Cornell and anthropology at U. Chicago, as well as working.

In 1949, during his stint in public relations at General Electric, Vonnegut wrote in a letter to his father:

I sold my first story to Collier’s. … I think I’m on my way. I’ve deposited my first check in a savings account and … if I sell more, will continue to do so until I have the equivalent of one year’s pay at GE. Four more stories will do it nicely, with cash to spare (something we never had before). I will then quit this goddamn nightmare job, and never take another one so long as I live, so help me God.

Vonnegut was one of the lucky ones who was able to quit his job and “never take another one.” As nightmarish as it was, though, it certainly benefited his writing, informing some of his short stories and Player Piano.

What’s impressive is that Vonnegut was able to write at all while balancing so many other demands in life (which, as his letters show us, was challenging for him and his family). The balance is rarely an easy one to pull off. William Faulkner, for example, reportedly wrote portions of his novels while actually on the job as a postmaster at Ole Miss. His brief resignation letter in 1924 is deliciously acerbic: “… I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.”

Sadly, there are far too many people who harbor similarly negative feelings about their jobs. In the US, many workers struggle with relatively low paying so-called “day jobs” that seep into the night as well (and that’s if they’re lucky enough to need only one job to make ends meet). The situation is even more dire when we consider that retirement, when workers have supposedly racked up a lifetime of fodder for fiction, is practically a fiction itself.

With these workplace realities, it’s very difficult for anyone but the independently wealthy to pursue creative endeavors—unless, of course, a writer is lucky enough to receive one of those grants that Engdahl thinks is so detrimental.

*The two Vonnegut letters appear in Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (2012); For more of my thoughts on Vonnegut, see Vonnegut’s Literary Reputation: Evidence That American Culture Must Be In Decline.

24 thoughts on “Is Literature Disappearing Up It’s Own A-Hole?

  1. A post to make me delight in not having got a degree, (I have enough diploma’s to paper the bedroom wall). I have worked in a lot of low paying interesting jobs, hotels, offices, printers, picked mushrooms, minded children, and I can honestly say they have given me a lot of life experience. I feel life experiences is an aid to help creativity flow.

  2. Pingback: To Sleep, Perchance to Dream (If You’re Unlucky?) | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  3. Andrew M.

    I’ve been wondering about this lately. As Engdahl points out here (and as so many others have pointed out in the past), life experience makes characters richer and plots thicker. But I’d say this wisdom applies primarily to literature, and less to genre fiction, where imagination sets the scene more than memory does.

  4. I shutter to think one side of my mind knows exactly how experiences in one’s life help in writing. I have a son in college right now and I am encouraging him to look at degrees that will move him forward. He is interested in journalism. Everything in me unfortunately places that degree in a field that may not pay the bills. However, I also agree that working a daily job that you are not happy in will utterly make you miserable. I suppose we all must figure this out in our own way. Terrific post.

  5. Wonderful blog from the viewpoint of a fascinating writer. Indeed writing is nothing without experience, to become overly academic, scholarly, reclusive, is to be up your own arse. We all need a touch of Hemingway.

  6. Reblogged this on DAILYBOOKS.ORG and commented:
    A.M.B. at the Misfortune of Knowing addresses Horace Engdahl criticism of the professionalization of writing. Instead of having normal jobs, writers can now get support from foundations and educational institutions that allow them to write full-time. Engdahl thinks the failure of writers to get real jobs will rob them of the experiences they need to become good writers. She points out that there is a “kernel of truth in his words: experience matters.” Do you agree with A.M.B.?

  7. Excellent post. I agree life experiences are invaluable, and a day job isn’t the only way to collect them. Besides, the same obnoxious argument could be made against most professions – police might better learn to deal with people without relying on force if they had more non-enforcement life experiences. If teachers, chefs, scientists had more experiences to draw from they’d naturally have more to bring to the table. Maybe, maybe not. Stepping outside is a good defense against navel gazing, it doesn’t mean you have to punch a clock to have something to say. There’s only so much time in a day, in a lifetime. If they don’t have to, writers shouldn’t feel obligated to spend precious time doing work that doesn’t give them purpose.

    That said, I completely agree with Vonnegut. Lately, many of the books I’ve picked up and quickly put back down were by authors out of MFA programs. There’s a hollow polish to this style of writing that just isn’t for me. Other people like it. Maybe Engdahl should broaden his reading choices.

  8. Ah… a topic that is heavy on my mind and dear to my heart. Great post, and I do agree that literature has slipped up it’s own a-hole. I thought perhaps this was only happening in Canadian and British literature… so I am intrigued to see the same question arising on your blog, where I can always find an interesting perspective on the Americans. 🙂

  9. I slightly disagree. It most certainly depends on the psychology of the individual, as are a lot of things. As one commentator noted, many day jobs are quite destructive of the imaginative faculty, purely due to atrophy and the ensuing discouragement after returning home from work. Of course, most aspiring writers have to take a job of a kind, as writing is a terrifically hard profession to make a living on. Some noted individuals do have the gift to cope with any given predicament without losing the bloodymindedness required to produce fiction. But hey, there are cases where people live by a pond for most of their lives and still have rich and varied imaginations, or fiction written on travels in other countries without having set foot on that said country.

    I definitely understand Kurt’s concern (about Literature disappearing up its own A-hole,) but my experience has often been that many do have some tale to say, but haven’t tested themselves enough against writers who are much better than themselves, and thus the phrases and sentences often tends to fall flat.

    1. Yeah, it’ll vary from writer to writer. There are many talented young writers, but I suspect many of them will be even better writers when they’re older (whether it’s from living life or continued exposure to others in their field). Thanks for stopping by!

  10. Experience is vital, but you don’t have to have a job to get it. Simply being out and about in society and talking with people can give you terrific insight. That being said, I had the dreaded day jobs until I took early retirement this year. I use the word “retirement” loosely, as I still work as a book editor to make ends meet (social security payments, like middle-class wages, has not gone up appreciably in decades), and that often means putting in long hours and working every day of the week. Would I prefer not to have to do that? Absolutely! Editing is a difficult way to make money, as you are focused on words hour after hour. By the end of the day’s session, I’m often too tired to write; the last thing I want to do is look at more words.

    Day jobs stomp all over creativity. Long commutes, boring tasks, demanding bosses, and other stresses of life sap even the most devoted author of the energy to write. I’d love it if someone gave me a grant. Or I won the lottery.

    1. Yes, some day jobs extinguish creativity. I write all day long, but it’s usually dry, legal writing. I don’t mind it that much, but there are days when I am just sick of words.

  11. I disagree, to some extent. My 21-year-old daughter is in the process of applying to MFA programs. She hasn’t had much experience in life, but she has a wealth of it in books. She’s always been a story-teller. Soon we will know whether she can carve out enough time in her life to get enough of her stories written down and how she can make any money from that, but it won’t stop the flow of stories, just how many people get to hear them.

    1. Good luck to your daughter! You must be very proud of her. There are certainly talented younger writers out there. Many novels written by 20-somethings are wonderful. The question I have is whether life experience would produce an even better novel at 30-something and beyond. The answer will be different for each writer and for each novel.

  12. I was a lawyer, I am disability retired, and after dumping the legal mind set, I found my creativity flourished. I am hoping it will supplement my disability payments, and would love to be as successful as Vonnegut. As if.

    1. Good luck! There’s certainly a lot of overlap between lawyers & writers. Creative writing in my “off time” is one of the ways I cope with the dull IRAC/CRAC legal writing we are required to do.

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