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.