Friday, February 8, 2008

Literary Success ... in About Fifty Years


Shesawriter got me to thinking with her post on the meaning of success, and there wasn’t room to post all of the following as a response. So to wax philosophical …

I thought of all the famous authors who received little or no acclaim during their own lives, or who enjoyed initial success only to be swallowed by literary oblivion.

Herman Melville wrote many successful books before Moby-Dick, but his epic story of whaling—of obsession and evil—sold less than 3,000 copies in his lifetime and earned him $556.37. He then wrote Pierre, a dismal failure. His final manuscript, Isle of the Cross, was rejected by his publisher. For the last nineteen years of his life, Melville, now considered to have penned the great American novel, worked as a customs inspector in New York City, virtually unknown.

Emily Dickinson, the reclusive Belle of Amherst, published approximately a dozen poems while alive (the number varies depending on which scholar you consult). She wrote almost 1,800 during her lifetime. She died in 1886, and the first collection of her poems was published in 1890, though the volume is not considered a reliable text because it was heavily edited. The first collection to be regarded as a definitive edition of Dickinson’s work wasn’t published until 1955.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Victorian Jesuit poet who died in 1889 (and a personal favorite of mine), was a tortured soul, burning most of his early poems upon entering the novitiate. He took up writing again in later years but published few poems while alive, considering his efforts too egotistical in light of his religious vocation. His work was rediscovered by English poet laureate Robert Bridges, who published a limited Hopkins collection in 1918. Other editions (with additional poems) were published in 1930 and 1948.

The list goes on. Success, of course, doesn't just mean becoming a literary giant. It may mean reaching only one reader (an idea endorsed by C. S. Lewis). A single reading of a book may change someone's life forever, and the ripple effects spread out from there. Still, it gives me pause when I think about books buried in desk drawers—a dogeared manuscript, a floppy disk, a POD title—that will be discovered and read by an agent or editor in the distant future and given the audience it deserves. Indeed, what manuscripts, typed by our ancestors on an old Underwood, are, even now, sitting in dusty trunks in our attics?

I think success is "reaching an audience." How that happens is apparently out of our hands in many cases.

Picture of Emily Dickinson: Public Domain

17 comments:

Sarah Hina said...

Interesting post, Billy. I love these toiling in anonymity stories.

I think success is finding happiness in what you do. But most of us also want an audience. Which is why I think blogging is such a wonderful tool for exposure.

Is a writer any happier reaching a million readers than reaching ten? One's ego may improve, but I think at a certain point, the numbers just become an abstraction.

You're right: true literary fame is out of our hands. But I hope all of those wonderful writers still felt like what they were doing was worthwhile. At least on their good days. :)

Julie at Virtual Voyage said...

Sounds like there's the seeds of a novel in the final paragraph....

writtenwyrdd said...

I've occasionally reflected on this sort of thing, Billy. Not as a measure of success but as a justification for my preference to stay out of the limelight. I would hate being famous. Getting published is just proof that my writing doesn't suck!

Scott from Oregon said...

I decided that writing should be an enjoyable pastime, not an obsessive art.

I write stuff for the same reason I build stuff, sculpt stuff, design stuff and make up stuff.

Because its fun.

Marja said...

I do think writing is very undervalued. I agree with the ripple effect that's what keeps me going in my work with chidren and why I have a blog. If you change one child you change whole families in the future. If even what I write on my blog gets people thinking than I have set a step towards a better future.

Sandy Carlson said...

This is quite an intro to those whose success came posthumously. These folks teach us to write because we have to write because we have to write! Emily D. is the star example of this little truth, isn't she?

Knowing this and walking into a major bookstore and knowing books come and go is also a reminder to write well and let fame take care of itself!

Thought-provoking. Thanks for taking the time to do this.

Billy said...

Sarah, yes, success is indeed happiness, and I agree that blogging helps writers to connect and find their readers. That's why I like the C.S. Lewis sentiment so much--that a readership of one is perfectly acceptable.

Julie, LOL I was thinking the same thing. It would really make a great premise for a novel! I'm filing that one under "high priority" -:)

Written, I've been very happy to stay with small presses that have a print run of a few hundred to a couple of thousand. I'd be equally happy to print up something on POD and have my friends read it. It comes down to loving words and using them because we must. And yes, fame has a distinct downside! I new a NY Times bestselling author--Walker Percy--and he was always hounded to appear at functions and grant interviews and read other people's manuscripts.

Scott, people, myself included, get so caught up in running the agent gauntlet that it can drain all happiness from a soul that has labored over a work. It drove me to distraction at times, especially when agents requested my work and then never responded or thanked me for submitting a title that I never sent them. Yes--for pleasure more than anything, not that I frown upon anyone who wants to run the gauntlet. It's an individual decision. I can't swear I'll never try the major leagues again (and I have to help my clients do this), but I can be happy "as is."

Marja, the ripple effect is soooo powerful, as seen in the movie PAY IT FORWARD. After mentioning the ripple effect yesterday in this post, I decided to talk about it at greater length in my other blog (the off the wall "talk about anything" blog). I subscribe to the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation newsletter and am always uplifted.

Sandy, I believe in synchronicity. We write what we must and then let a higher power decide where it will end up, although our own time schedules are not always met. I believe that when we cooperate with a greater power--when we're open and have the right intention--then things fall into place. We have to take our own ego out of it. Yes, Emily had to wait a very long time :)

Lana Gramlich said...

FYI, I responded to your query about my art in my comments. I didn't see the "P.S." until I'd already responded.
(I also posted this in the comments on your other blog, fyi.)
Best of luck with your writing. :)

Billy said...

Thanks again, Lana!

Charles Gramlich said...

I thought I'd commented on this post yesterday but it didn't show up. I think it's amazing how much good writing talent I see around the blogosphere among unpublished or "gently" published authors. The same is true of art. Talent is definitely not enough by itself. It's nice to think of authors who finally did get recognition, but it would sure be nice if it happened to more of us while we were alive.

Billy said...

Charles, I will not turn down the whopping advance check the day it arrives in the mail, should that day ever materialize. A worker is worth his wages, as the Good Book saith.

It is indeed phenomenal to see how many good writers exist in the blogosphere. In a post last November (I think), I spoke of what I called "literary chaos theory." Major publishers may have downsized in the past five years, turning out fewer titles, but new technology is always coming online. Somehow, I think that new publishing paradigms will evolve, with POD just the beginning of a new revolution that we can't completely understand yet. I hope so. The alternative is Orwellian.

Monique said...

That was a very interesting read as I'm still trying hard to be recognised and keep on failing. Who knows ... After my death ... Yes, how many floppy discs indeed.

Billy said...

Hi, Monique, and welcome! Thanks for stopping by. I think failure goes with the territory, at least in the short term. I'd rather face a grizzley bear than send submissions to agents. I don't know much about screenwriting, but maybe your blog will teach me something :)

jason evans said...

I like the Lewis thought also. The internet is an unprecedented tool to create, and to experience what is created.

I have to remind myself that successes here are important. They can easily have the ripple effect we're taking about.

Billy said...

Jason, that ripple effect works in so many areas of life. And it certainly works in your blog. Your work is always thoughtful and provocative, both the content and the craftsmanship.

Shameless said...

I do like discovering writers that have been "swallowed"! :-)

Billy said...

Seamus, there are so many great writers toiling in obscurity, to use a cliche. Like Jeff Herman says in his agent directory, every year there are a thousand books published that shouldn't be, and thousand that aren't but should. Alas.