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.

When Writing Interferes with Life (and Vice Versa)

Quote from Kurt Vonnegut Letters Book edited by Dan WakefieldThese days, Americans lucky enough to have jobs in this dreadful economy are working long days, taking little vacation, and retiring late in life, if at all. To make matters worse, many employers are requiring employees to be connected to the workplace outside of the office: checking work email at home, using personal Twitter accounts and Facebook pages to further their professional profiles, and responding to work-related phone calls on the weekend and after-hours. Employers often require these additional duties without providing any increase in pay or job security.

Under these circumstances at work, there is little time left to engage in the activities that make up the “life” part of the work-life balance equation: raising families, maintaining intimate relationships, and participating in hobbies… Oh, and sleeping and doing household chores, but I don’t know anyone who still has much time for either of those.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American (gender neutral) between the ages of 25 and 54 with children has only 2.5 hours a day of so-called leisure time, which is hardly enough for the unlucky writer who isn’t able to quit his or her day job. For these folks, writing isn’t just a hobby. It’s an investment in a future career; at least that’s the hope, even if the dream rarely becomes a reality. Considering the importance of having time to write, what is a writer to do when someone encroaches on the few hours of the day available to spend on their craft?

I’ve been thinking about this topic ever since this Google search led someone to my blog: spouses who interfere with writing time.

I wonder whether the person who googled these six words has a selfish partner who takes up his or her precious writing time, or whether the googler is the selfish one because s/he lets their writing interfere with their household responsibilities, making the partner pick up the slack. In either case, it’s tough to fit in family life and household responsibilities when (presumably) working a day job and writing (with the hope that it will pay off down the line).

This topic reminded me of an amusing “contract” between Kurt Vonnegut and his first wife, Jane Cox Vonnegut, from 1947, a time when few women worked outside of the home and few men were expected to perform household responsibilities (the balance remains uneven in many households today). I’m not sure to what extent Kurt, if I may call him by his first name, was writing at this point in his life — I believe he was still an Anthropology grad student — but this letter suggests his willingness to engage in household matters under certain circumstances. While his wife was expecting their first child, Kurt agreed, if his wife promised not to “nag, heckle, and otherwise disturb [him],” to:

Scrub the bathroom and kitchen floors once a week, on a day and hour of my own choosing. Not only that, but I will do a good and thorough job, [which means] I will get under the bathtub, behind the toilet, under the sink, under the icebox, into the corners… [and] while I am undertaking these tasks I will refrain from indulging in such remarks as ‘Shit,’ ‘Goddamn sonofabitch,’ and similar vulgarities, as such language is nervewracking to have around the house when nothing more drastic is taking place than the facing of Necessity… [among other chores]

The editor’s note to this contract in Kurt Vonnegut: Letters indicates that Jane took on a supportive role in her husband’s writing career, including editing his manuscripts. While their marriage didn’t last the duration of the Vonneguts’ lives, at least in the early years, it seems they had worked out a pretty good work-life balance for themselves.

In my case, I’m lucky to have a flexible full-time job, support from my extended family, and, most importantly, an extremely supportive husband who also works full-time while shouldering an equal share (and sometimes more) of the parenting and household responsibilities. Insomnia and caffeine help, too.

For those of you who are writers, how are you balancing work, life, and writing? (for those of you in other countries, I’m curious to know whether my description of the American work-life (im)balance fits your country, too).

*Today, over at Litigation and Trial, Max has written about employer encroachment into our personal time in When an Employer’s Social Media “Encouragement” Becomes an Overtime Wage Violation