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What Famous Novelists Would Say If They Knew You Stopped Reading Their Books

The literary world is always trying to find ways to reinvent itself. (After all, we do have the looming horror of Amazon drones to compete with.) One of the most recent efforts is Brazil-based Penguin-Companhia’s “smart bookmark,” which uses a light sensor, timer and miniature wifi-enabled computer to detect when you’ve been neglecting a book. That’s not all: If you have been ignoring your read, you will receive a tweet from the author encouraging you to pick it up again.

While its fun to imagine receiving personal tweets from your favorite authors, it’s also hard not to think about the disappointment each writer would feel receiving notifications about their life’s work being ignored. It also begs the question: What would some of our most celebrated authors have to say to you if you put down their books? We’re already imagining the possibilities:

Truman Capote:

This book scraped me right down to the marrow of my bones. It nearly killed me. What is it doing gathering dust, hmm?

Virginia Woolf:

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not read well. Don’t let the book just sit there.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez:

What is that ― the scent of bitter almonds? Must be the scent of unrequited love, my dear reader.


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Have You Failed as a Writer If You Aren’t Famous?

The most obvious answer could be: Yes, you have failed as a writer if you aren’t famous. What’s the point of writing if you know zero to three people are ever going to read your work? Try as you might to tell yourself that you’re doing it for yourself, it’s pretty evident that the aspiration to be a writer is nothing if not utterly narcissistic, with all those people out there who feel it’s essential to tell their story.

True failure, though, lays in surrendering simply because no one has any idea who you are if and when they see your name in print. And you’re not alone: Many renowned authors never thought their work would amount to much, and it frequently didn’t until after their deaths.

If you thought Moby-Dick was always considered a classic, you’d be mistaken. In Herman Melville’s lifetime, what is now considered his masterpiece was seen as the beginning of his end. Published in 1851, Moby-Dick received a resounding, collective negative review. His lament over what he presumed would be received as his finest work is best expressed in a letter to fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne in which he stated, “Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning of his great allegory — the world? Then we pigmies must be content to have our paper allegories but ill comprehended.” Melville’s situation poses a question as equally daunting as utter obscurity: Have you failed as a writer if your work is grossly misunderstood in your own time?

Possibly one of the few writers of pure intention (i.e. writing for writing’s sake) was Emily Dickinson, who remained little known until after her death. Her reclusiveness made writing the perfect “occupation,” though she never saw much in the way of money for her tireless work.

Continuing in the tradition of somberness was Edgar Allan Poe, another author who had a great deal of trouble finding interest in his work while he was alive. Although he tried to be a full-time writer without the burdens of a day job, Poe chose a tumultuous time in American publishing history to pursue his career. Pirating from European authors was common practice amongst American publishers, who were unwilling to pay for new material from unknown authors. This was compounded by the recession fueled by the Panic of 1837, which meant that paid work as a writer was hard to come by. Poe achieved minor triumphs, including writing as a literary critic for the Southern Literary Messenger, though he was fired for showing up drunk. Realizing the struggles of writing may have been greater than he expected, Poe attempted to secure a job in government, but his alcoholic tendencies prevented him from even getting to the interview.

Another literary legend who suffered from the common writer’s affliction of obscurity was Franz Kafka. With the occasional short story appearing in journals like Hyperion, Kafka never received anything other than a lukewarm response in his era, even when it came to his novels. Upon his death, he demanded that his literary executor, Max Brod, destroy all of his work, whether published or not. Obviously, Brod did just the opposite, helping to promote Kafka’s posthumous legacy. It is endlessly ironic that Kafka’s themes focused largely on futility and that, as soon as he stopped trying (very literally, due to his death), fame came in spades.

A more modern example of the “failed” writer is John Kennedy Toole, the now beloved author of A Confederacy of Dunces. Toole attended Columbia University and taught briefly at Hunter College. He started and completed A Confederacy of Dunces while teaching in Louisiana and began submitting it to publishers like Simon & Schuster in the late ‘60s. His incessant rejections from publishers fortified his ever-present state of depression, prompting him to end his life at the age of 31. His talent was vindicated after his mother presented the manuscript to Walker Percy, the novelist best known for writing The Moviegoer. Percy publishedDunces in 1980, and it won the Pulitzer in ’81.

I’m not saying that death is the answer to your fame problem (definitely, definitely not), merely iterating that a number of literary heavyweights suffered just as much, if not more, than you only to have their efforts go unrewarded. So peel yourself off the floor and get back to your desk. True failure doesn’t lay in being unknown, but ceasing to write.

Genna Rivieccio graduated with a degree in screenwriting and closely identifies with Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard. She has written for pop culture blogs, including Culled CultureThe Toast and Behind the Hype, as well as satire for Missing a Dick and The Burning Bush.

Fired up to write? Why not consider contributing to The Airship?

KEEP READING: More on Writing


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Speak, Memory: When Novelists Turn to Memoir

In 1951, Vladimir Nabokov published Speak, Memory, which guided readers through his life up to 1940. In the memoir, he detailed his aristocratic upbringing in pre-revolutionary Saint Petersburg. He talks openly about his family, his love for butterflies, his first crushes and his emigration to America. Four years later, Nabokov published Lolita; two years after, he published Pnin; five years later, Pale Fire. The trajectory begs the question: Is the memoir a necessary step towards literary legend?

Gary Shteyngart — a self-admitted fan of Nabokov — may be following in the classic Russian novelist’s footsteps. Shteyngart’s memoir, Little Failure, couldn’t be more different from Nabokov’s, yet Shteyngart references Nabokov many times, even within the first few pages:  “I’ve returned to St. Petersburg to be carried away by a Nabokovian torrent of memory for a country that no longer exists.” Speak, Memory is even mentioned in particular:

“As I am being tossed up and down by the many weak Oberlin arms, am I thinking of the book I have just read — Nabokov’s Speak, Memory — in which Vladimir Vladimirovich’s nobleman father is being ceremonially tossed in the air by the peasants of his country estate after he has adjudicated one of their peasant disputes?”

In an interview with Mother Jones, Shteyngart explains that his time had come to stop writing fiction based loosely on his own life: “I’ve been using this material as the sauce for my pasta, so to speak, and I decided to give away the recipe.”

Shteyngart isn’t the only novelist to come out with a memoir this year. Tom Robbins published Tibetan Peach Pie this May — but he refuses to call it a memoir. He told The Seattle Times: “My publisher calls it a memoir because they don’t know what else to call it. It’s as typical to a memoir as Dumbo is typical to an elephant.” There’s actually no doubt that when fiction writers turn to their lives, it feels like a totally different breed of memoir.

I wouldn’t call 2014 the year of novelists writing memoirs, but, so far, it’s been my year of reading them. I don’t typically gravitate toward memoirs, but considering that two fiction writers I love unconditionally were publishing them, reading each was inevitable. I wanted to know where all their stories came from and how things changed when those works were recognized.


Quote IconWhen I was in college, David Foster Wallace gave a reading. As a joke I asked him to fill out a dining hall comment card. I also asked what, if anything, he thought of skateboarding, thinking that this distinguished author might have something profound to say. “The little fuckers run into me in front of the library,” he said.

Joel Rice (via millionsmillions)

Another literary legend who suffered from the common writer’s affliction of obscurity was Franz Kafka. With the occasional short story appearing in journals like Hyperion, Kafka never received anything other than a lukewarm response in his era, even when it came to his novels. Upon his death, he demanded that his literary executor, Max Brod, destroy all of his work, whether published or not. Obviously, Brod did just the opposite, helping to promote Kafka’s posthumous legacy. It is endlessly ironic that Kafka’s themes focused largely on futility and that, as soon as he stopped trying (very literally, due to his death), fame came in spades.

KEEP READING: "Have You Failed as a Writer If You Aren’t Famous?"

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William Burroughs Ruined My Life

He didn’t stick the needle in my arm or the place the knife in my hand, but he put the idea in my head.

I started reading the Beats in a class taught on mid-century American literature by an ex-pat professor in the University of Denmark at Copenhagen. I never imagined that just five years later I’d be serving a decade in prison after being arrested for armed robbery across the street from the former YMCA where Burroughs lived from 1977 to 1980, on the Bowery in New York City. He had died on my birthday in 1997; I hadn’t even tried smack yet.

The class in Copenhagen was half internationals, half Danes, taught in English by a professor who had to leave the States after marrying a student. The Danes quickly dropped out; in their staid opinions, Neal Cassady was simply a criminal and Kerouac’s work was typing rather than writing. The other Euros stayed because they thought it was hip. The two American students were soon heroin addicts.

If anyone ever made me feel that it was interesting and even noble to do smack, it was William Seward Burroughs II. Kerouac I could bear in his precocious early stage, before he was conscious of his fame, and Ginsberg excited me with Howl then disappointed me with the rest, but Burroughs I fell in love with.

1941 edition of Junky published as Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict  by William Lee, Burrough’s pseudonym

From the appendix to Junky, Burrough’s “introductory” and most readable work: “When a junkie is really loaded with junk he looks dead. Junk turns the user into a plant. Plants do not feel pain because pain has no function in a stationary organism.” There’s more, from the prologue: “Junk is not, like alcohol or weed,  a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life.” Promising, no? More: In Naked Lunch, Burroughs describes how the junkie’s life shrinks down to the size of a needle, living from fix to fix. It took a few weeks of takings shots daily for this exact promise to come true for me.

Burroughs writes that  a junkie will crawl through a sewer for the privilege of buying. Every word is accurate. I paid for my pleasure, meeting criminals on street corners, getting arrested in SROs (Single Room Occupancy hotels) for possession, paying prostitutes to cop for me when I couldn’t, and that’s just the beginning. A year and nine months of addiction cost me my profession, my savings and, in the end, a decade of my life. Owing $5,000 to a dealer, I committed robberies with my pocketknife — desperate junky shit. Burroughs had warned me of all this and seduced me into it at the same time. How?

Naked Lunch is one of the greatest works of the 20th century. It is a hard read because it’s composed of routines that are only funny to those who’ve seen the grim side of life and realized that humor is the only antidote. Camus once claimed that the only real question in life is whether or not to kill yourself. After Dachau and the Gulag had been revealed, let alone the killing fields of South East Asia and Africa to this day, it might seem that there is some sense to this. In a world forsaken by a non-existent god and a life without purpose, why even go on? Even the Buddhists admit that life is suffering.

In his twisted, wry way, Burroughs is one of the few writers who answered the question of life’s meaning: As awful as the consequences are, the junky waiting for his connect has reason to live. It’s his next fix. This is a powerful idea to impress on a young man. If addiction is an artificial method of inducing life a reason, why not?

Many reasons, of course, but Burroughs took the thought a step further. As dastardly as this concept is, he found it extraordinarily funny! Naked Lunch, in which everyone is some sort of villainous addict (to roach spray, black meat, etc.), is a very funny book. “And hands move to disembowel the passing whore or strangle the neighborhood child in hope of alleviating a chronic housing shortage” — no worse than Swift suggesting the Irish eat their children.

1959 edition of Naked Lunch misprinted as The Naked Lunch

For most of my life, I have lived as a character in the novel of my own existence, often making the decisions which I imagine would be most interesting to “readers.” Strangely, this approach was quite useful in prison, allowing me to take it lightly and emerge from 10 years of witnessing murders and suicides with my wits and humor intact. In fact, I find horrors like Naked Lunch even more funny now!

Once I met Burroughs through his work, I explored his life as thoroughly as I could. It didn’t start with the smack, but it ended there. I read all of his writing, even the torturous cut-up novels. Then I read the secondary materials, the biographies and the letters. Then I talked with people who knew the man, once spending a surprisingly placid afternoon with Amiri Baraka (in the Hamptons, of all places). I visited where Burroughs had been, and when I started using dope and had to stand on subway platforms, sick as a dog and trying to get downtown with my bowels intact, the thought that Old Bull Lee had stood on the same cement, looked at the same tiles and suffered the same was a comfort to me.

If that was my apprenticeship to the man, it is over. The decade I served was above and beyond anything his comfort-loving soul could have borne. There were things about Burroughs that I willfully ignored but do no longer. He was willing to believe anything metaphysical as long as it was counter to what most people believed — Orgone, aliens, telepathy, Ayahuasca spirits, shamen, even Scientology for a spell. While he made sure to look the part of the Gentleman Junky, he bought the New Age ‘60s part and parcel. Perhaps he did not chant with Ginsberg trying to levitate the Pentagon or drink himself to death like Kerouac, but he did neglect his son, who produced a few novels (which I read as well; not bad) before dying of liver failure at the age of 33. John Giorno called the poor boy the last beatnik. I disagreed; I thought it was me.


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