Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Friday, January 13, 2006

Written Any Good Books Lately?

[gary daily col. 37 October 13, 2002]

“A book calls for pen, ink, and a writing desk; today the rule is that pen, ink and writing desk call for a book.” -Nietzsche

So what’s it going to be-a novel, a nonfiction work, a self-help book, a cookbook?

Survey results of people wanting to write a book found that the subject matter chosen by hopeful authors-to-be was just about evenly divided among these four categories. Another report indicates that Americans to the tune of 81% are convinced that “they have a book in them-and that they should write it.”

Let’s give this a local, albeit hypothetical, dimension.

Picture this: 20,000 fans fill Memorial Stadium (I said I was being hypothetical, didn’t I?) for an ISU football game. Tiered in row after row above the pseudo-sod of the field are 16,000! wanna-be authors.

I have this vision of these sisters and brothers of the pen mystically sorting themselves out into affinity groups.

Novelists who take the omniscient point of view sit high up in the stands; self-helpers edge as close to the inspirational coaches and the cheerleader support groups as possible; the mavens of the menu mill around the refreshment stand to check out the taste, color and texture of the mustard being served; and the nonfiction hopefuls fill the seats on the fifty-yard line, taking in all points of view and filling cards with copious notes.

Imagine the 16,000 (and the 4,000 sadly/happily bereft of literary ambition) trudging out of Memorial Stadium as the public address system drones: “Thank you for supporting the Sycamores! Drive safely! Get thee to your word processors!”

Why is all of this so depressing and so exhilarating?

The facts and quotes in the surveys mentioned above come from a Joseph Epstein article that raised some hackles among readers of the New York Times a few weeks back. He provocatively called his essay, “Think You Have a Book in You? Think Again.”

Epstein, who has published fourteen books, drops another interesting figure into his piece-80,000. This is roughly the number of books published in the United States each year. He summarily judges many of these third-rate. In his view, these brute numbers have the lamentable effect of encouraging more of the same. It’s the “I can do at least as well as that,” response. His parting advice hits would-be authors where it hurts most, in their egos and their dreams: “Misjudging one’s ability to knock out a book can only be a serious and time consuming mistake. . . . Keep it [your book] inside of you where it belongs.”

That’s cold. It’s not kind to slap highly vulnerable people in the face with quantity versus quality realities.

Sure, 80,000 books may be 50,ooo, 60,000 or, in a bad year, 79,900 too many. And, returning to the hopeful authors at our hypothetical Sycamore football game, it’s just possible none of the 16,000 will ever produce a real page-turning novel, a truly helpful self-help book, a definitive something-or-other nonfiction work, or a darn good cookbook to be thumbed through by greasy thumbs for years to come.

But perhaps, and this is the exhilarating part, one of those would-be authors will defy the bounds of inspiration, work and luck. It is possible that one dedicated writer will pry that book inside of themselves loose, shape it and groom it to perfection, and miraculously find a publisher and an audience to read and appreciate their blood and bone efforts. Let’s admit the chances of this happening match the possibility of kicking a 63-yard game winning field goal into strong and swirling winds. But talent and hard work, even in the arts, sometimes reap just rewards.

After the Epstein piece appeared, letters flowed in. Many took an “all we are asking is give (MY) book a chance” line. Equal numbers indignantly sounded a “Who are you, Mr. Fourteen Published Books, to tell me I should ignore the bright flame of creativity burning within” note. These views are heartfelt, understandable.

But my favorite letter was from an unpublished mystery writer. She took Epstein to heart, admitting that she motivates herself by reading the over-hyped pap that infects this genre. "Wow! I'm doing much better than that!" she would tell herself.

But here’s how she concludes: “Mr. Epstein reminded me that . . . perhaps it would be a smart idea to read a good book for a change. So I dug out my copy of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye. Oh-oh.”

In the ripe days of the late 1960s, manifestos and banners announced with joy and much determination: “Everyone an Artist.” The authors of this slogan probably read some Marx and picked up on his utopian dream of workers finding joy in their day jobs followed by evenings of creative and intellectual fulfillment at home.

What I don’t remember seeing or hearing was a proclamation claiming, “Everyone Is an Artist.” I do seem to hear more and more of that today.

Oh-oh.

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