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The Wealth and Splendor of American Letters

 

At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor they had a two-day symposium on a poet. Universities usually reserve this kind of thing for the dead, but this poet is very much alive. They were honoring her multiple contributions to poetry, the founding of a writing school, and her environmental and feminist activism. At the same time, over in another hall, there was a conference celebrating 25 years of a literary quarterly whose contributors were from a poetry camp inimical to the poet honored in the next-door building. Nobody from either gathering crossed over and if they crossed each other walking toward a restaurant in the bitter whipping wind, they lowered their eyes to their broganed feet. At the same time, at a bookstore on the very same campus, a popular author was scribbling autographs for people who had no idea about the conferees swirling all around them. Some of these people were fans, others were looking for autographed books to sell on eBay, others were just there to get out of the cold.

Prior to these simultaneous manifestations of hostile scribberly forces in the frozen Midwest, 1,300 writers had descended on New Orleans. At least two-thirds of those writers hated two-thirds of the others, and if the math makes no sense, just add alcohol, rivers of it, which writers, more than any other convention group, gulp in streams of run-on sentences. The writers belonged to grouplets and platoons divided by aesthetics, success, sexuality or body weight. At the same time, the major speaker to this snarling mob, who enjoyed a moderate and carefully negotiated esteem, received a scathing review of his latest book in The New York Times, which produced an audible mean snicker in every bar.

So much contention is only possible in a field in which success involves no objective measurement, such as money or physical output. In fact, among writers, anyone with the slightest bit of measurable success is roundly despised. A Washington Post writer and historian decided to climb on the bestseller lists by buying tens of thousands of copies of his own book and then returning them when his numbers shot upward. His contract with his publisher probably included, as many contracts do these days, bonuses for numbers sold. Busted, the writer tried to cast himself as a victim of the book business climate. Others applauded him for exposing that system.

Other writers who become too successful get their comeuppance when spiteful nitpickers discover plagiarized passages in their work. Thus busted, the successful writers blame their assistants who, out of sheer laziness or envy, omit the quotation marks around sizeable stolen chunks. It is quite possible that the stolen chunks themselves were lifted from others in the first place.

It is important to a writer, no matter how esteemed or how successful, to hold the moral high ground in the twisted land of letters. Otherwise, he or she might cease to care, in which case they would be no different than the general public, who read them not.

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