A Small Meditation on the Commerce, Relevance and Permanence of Writing in General and Poetry in Particular

I've just finished reading John Scalzi's Don't Live for Your Obituary: Advice, Commentary, and Personal Observations on Writing 2008-2017. He's an Ohio writer, always a plus for me, and I am a sucker for books on the writing life and I enjoyed most of the  465 pages, which read pretty fast, maybe because he writes pretty fast. ("Fifteen books in nine years"! the book flap notes.) And he makes a lot of money at it! An average of $100,000 a year for ten years, and, in the most recent year, $164,000, he reports in the first paragraph of the book.

There isn't a Table of Contents nor an Index here, and I don't remember much of the 465 pages, except that money seemed to come up a lot. But one blog post really stuck with me: "A Small Meditation on Art, Commerce, and Impermanence" from January 30, 2012. He begins with the list of best-selling books from 1912, a hundred years previously, to make the point that these books and their authors do not remain influential or even recognizable to readers today. And as far as I am concerned, he's right about that. I never heard of these 10 books, nor any of their authors either. And he goes on to say that writers shouldn't worry about permanence, but be concerned with being relevant here and now and maybe "make a living at it"  so they can remember in the end what fun they had.

In the 100-some comments that follow, many readers rise to the lack of bait (even though he suggest they not do this) and contend they love the work of Gene Stratton Porter, the top of this list, or one of the other forgotten best-selling authors of 1912. And in the loony way of blog commenters, several digress into the topic of how racist Moby Dick is. These are no doubt the same people who are horrified that Jonathon Swift wants to cook and serve Irish babies.

But I digress.

I am not a novelist. I am a poet. And while I am sure there must be some poets who earned $164,000 on their writing in 2012-- actually, I am not really all that sure of that, but there is always the "Comments" section here, if you'd like to weigh in, all you wealthy poets-- I am sure that it has been a long long time, maybe never, since books of poetry were on the list of best-selling books. There were none there in 2017, and of the top 20, only four were not novels. So it's not my wont to be very in tune with the best-selling novels. To be honest, I'm pretty oblivious to the top-selling anything. But I do read novels and nonfiction and poetry and lots of different gradations-- YA, children's, not so much genre, but my husband has that category covered for me and reports regularly.

And what Scalzi's list made me wonder was whether anyone kept track of memorable books of 1912. And what do you know, Wikipedia, among other sources did, and here are a few authors from their  list of literature first published in 1912. Among the fiction are books by: Joseph Conrad, Willa Cather, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Theodore Dreiser, Edna Ferber, Anatole France, Zane Grey, James Weldon Johnson, Franz Kafka (you've heard of him?), D.H. Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Mann, Katherine Mansfield, Saki, Tolstoy (though he died two years earlier), H.G. Wells, Edith Wharton, and P.G. Wodehouse. In poetry, there is Amy Lowell and Tagore, and in nonfiction John Muir and Carl Jung.

None of them made the bestseller list. Some made a living at it.  I'm not sure they remembered all the writing as "fun," though most, if not all, wrote because, like Joan Didion, their "most absorbed and passionate hours [...were] spent arranging words on pieces of paper."

My point, really, is related to Scalzi's: that writers shouldn't worry about permanence. They should worry about relevance. I personally like how Czesław Miłosz defined relevance, that the writer's work "could be of use to at least one person in the struggle with him[her]self and the world." That's the audience poets tend to be going for, that one person who needs us. As Mary Oliver so wisely put it, "It isn't easy to make a living as a poet, but it's the best way to live in order to have a life.

3 comments:

  1. On poets making the best seller list last year...didn't Rupi Kaur make the NYT list?...again, not arguing that she's written anything "memorable" or lasting, but those rarities do exist here and there. Here's to the rest of us doing it to communicate with the audiences who find us :)

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    1. She sold a LOT for what is called a book of poetry, but when I looked up the top 20 highest sellers last year, she was not on the list. It did say books and not novels...but maybe they forgot to look at the poetry column.

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    2. Her 2017 book didn't come out till October, so maybe it wasn't enough time. Also, what I looked for was the top 20 best selling books of the year, which is what Scalzi used for 1912.

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