Surrounded by timeless books and long-dead people, I feel as if I’m not alive. Knowledge has been passed to me through the letters from Birmingham’s jail, the empirical questioning of ancient philosophers, and the jumbled proverbs of Sancho Panza. I have acquired only a modicum of knowledge about the world through my own experiences. Yet, I am certain that this is the only redeemable form of intelligence.
When I was younger and more precocious and actually had time to read for myself, I made a foolish, ill-fated attempt to read the classics: the Rimbauds, the Pounds, the Baldwins, the Faulkners, the Woolfs, the Hemingways, the Morrisons, the Twains, and the Lessings. I moved from these authors to the rousing oratory of the Kennedys, the Kings and, of course, the Xs. At one point in my self-education, I even enjoyed the physical expressions of art found in the Jordans, the Cobbs, and the Van Goghs. Usually, I was dazzled. Yet, I often found myself disappointed by the stories of these individuals. Does every great artist also need to possess a great flaw?
I don’t think this theory works in accordance to great women because, for a woman to be considered great in this world, they must also be perfect. I would argue that women are immediately disadvantaged due to an entrenched power structure. But this makes my question all the stranger: If Doris, Virginia, and Toni had it harder than William, Ernest, and Mark, then why were they without the noted personal flaws of these men? I have been led to believe that hardship breeds shortcomings. But, perhaps, I’m looking at it wrong.
Great artists are often remembered by their vices: Insanity and immaturity (Rimbaud), anti-Semitism (Pound), alcohol (Faulkner), alcohol and a whole host of personality deficiencies (Hemingway), cigars and cynicism (Twain), infidelity (MLK/JFK), gambling (Jordan), general meanness (Cobb), and depression (Van Gogh). To be someone of letters, must I also have a towering flaw? Without controversy or myth or scandal a name may be respected, but it is certainly less memorable. In the business of art, this expectation rings true. Yet, should I give the outside world another reason to discredit writers? First it was frivolity; now it is irresponsibility. How is the New Writer known? We’ve already experienced the Gonzo Journalist, we’re tired of the Man’s Man, we’ve stereotyped The Alcoholic Writer. Must they be suicidal? Comedic? Both? When people ask what type of writer I am – I have no answer.
Will people listen simply because there is something to say? Historically, the answer has been “no.” Popular opinion can be traced to journalism’s collective treatment of a subject. The more titillating a subject becomes, the more treatment it will receive. Think of it this way: this year we ignored 400 of our greatest living scribes when they collectively signed a petition warning against the election of Donald Trump. But those Coastal elites – am I right?
Now that there is something to say, why is nobody listening? The New Yorker published 16 essays from America’s most highly esteemed writers. However, is the lack of excitement surround these pieces because these authors are not America’s most influential writers?
Now, I’m not saying we have to go out and get ourselves some flaws. However, what I am saying is that we’ve gotta join the fight and write. Writers can’t just sit back and hope for book deals – there’s no benefit in being comfortable. Norman Mailer was arrested protesting the Vietnam War and wrote a book about it (he also stabbed his wife nearly to death, he definitely left that part out (as he was able to for most of his career)). People listened! That’s a genuine world experience shining through. That’s like Hemingway crashing a plane and living to tell about it.
While we ponder our place in the zeitgeist, it is important that young writers do not forget the folly and racism of our past. The sins of those foregone ages must be remembered, not only so that similar crimes are not committed, but to prove that one’s existence – one being not just the individual but what individuals are able to collectively create – has meaning beyond the here and now.
What I am trying to tell you is this: if us writers become all talk, no one will listen.