Every writer dreams of striking it rich, to make his or her mark on the world. Every writer hopes to develop a following and to become financially independent so that one can pursue one’s craft withoutthe distractions of rent and bills (and maybe to buy a yacht). One writer achieved this level of success. His name was J.D. Salinger, and he did it in 1961.
I’ve been reading Kenneth Slawenski’s newly released biography about J.D. Salinger. Simply titled J.D. Salinger: A Life, I try to digest it in my spare time. Over the last eight months or so, I became acquainted with Salinger’s success as a writer, learning about the literary world and the struggles he encountered on his way to massive success. Slowly, I developed an interest – one that came close to obsession – in finding a path of my own. Reading first in Paul Alexander’s 2000 biography (Salinger: A Biography) that Salinger had written for The New Yorker, I decided to subscribe to the magazine in the summer of 2010. I did this hoping to gain a sense of what it took to become a literary success.
Over the few months following my new subscription, I tore into The New Yorker voraciously, if selectively: I was interested strictly in the fiction that it published. I began to notice that most of the short fiction stories that were published had a common theme, and it was an upsetting one. You see, most of the stories were about immigrants. They discussed the uncertainties of immigrant life in a strange new land, the fears and challenges of being a foreigner. I was upset because this was not what I wanted to read, what I wanted to see; it was not what I expected from The New Yorker. I had expected clever fiction that discussed more universal themes. I wanted to read stories that weren’t framed within the confines of the tale of a foreigner. While I was aware that some of the themes that these stories touched on were to a certain extent universal, the more universal examination of the human condition would be better served by stories that didn’t have the massive distraction of being an immigrant story. The truth was that I wished to read stories that were more…Salinger-esque. There was no wit to the stories. There was nothing profound about them. They were touching stories, some of them. A few of them were actually somewhat interesting. But none of them were memorable. None of them were engaging enough that I wanted to finish them: they were simply distractions for my subway commute. They all seemed to have a certain lacking. I wouldn’t quite understand just what was missing from the stories until later.
Come the end of the year, I had read week after week of what I felt to be underwhelming fiction in The New Yorker. I had been taking a highlighter and ballpoint pen to the rustled quarter-folded pages of these pieces of fiction. I spotted with great ease the mistakes these writers made. Some of them would have too many commas: I spotted too many sentences where the writer was trying to say, inelegantly so, what with some rewriting and the application of deft knowledge of writing, which isn’t that difficult to obtain, could have been said in fewer words, and with greater clarity and precision (I hope you see what I did there). Some stories were just flat and lacked dynamism: there was no conflict, no emotion. There was nothing compelling about these stories. We have already heard the sob story of the poor immigrant family that must leave the States, the struggling immigrant who works hard to pay the rent while striving for the American dream and feeling lonesome all the while. Those stories are fraught with possibility for engaging fiction. Yet these authors did not take advantage of the framework within which they were working.
In time, I realized just what it was that these stories were lacking: polish. These writers didn’t have a sense of craft. There was, as Salinger once said of a fellow writer’s work, “no emotion between the words.” I could see with great ease that they fumbled with the craft of writing. The pieces of fiction published in the magazine were largely meandering pieces, written with no purpose or passion; drivel, really. They were boring to read, with no sense of individuality or uniqueness. The story of one week faded into the next. The settings were poorly set, the dialogue were at times contrived and unnecessary, and oftentimes there were random snippets thrown in for no good reason (and trust me, I searched for the meaning). The characters lacked clear definition and were easily forgettable. In sum, they just weren’t very good stories.
It was a massive disappointment to me to see that The New Yorker could go from publishing the intriguing and stories of J.D. Salinger to the utterly meaningless drivel that I had read over the last four months. I decided that I would not renew my subscription, and I gave thought to whether or not I should even try to submit my story to such a hack of a magazine.
And then it occurred to me that perhaps it was the simple fact that times have changed, and that the magazine is no longer the Mount Olympus of the creative world. In fact, perhaps there was no longer even a place for a writer’s success anymore. According to Slawenski, “Salinger had become a world-renowned author [by 1961].” Salinger was also reportedly paid $30,000 a year for a “first reading arrangement” (sometimes referred to as a “first look contract”).Thirty thousand dollars? Translated to modern figures, that’s a little over $200,000. Earning a six-figure salary as a writer? I find it hard to believe that, in this day and age, any magazine would retain a writer for that amount of money. As far as I know, there aren’t any writers who could justify such an arrangement. By any and all measures, that is the holy grail of writing.
But like all holy grails, such writing arrangements are nigh unattainable. Seeing this old world where a talented writer could actually make it served as the point of reference on which I contrasted the modern life of a writer. With nothing much but a cursory exposure to the literary worlds of J.D. Salinger and Truman Capote, I get the sense that modern authors don’t stand a chance of attaining such a level of success. But why not?
I suspect that, like all things creative, it is because the cost of creation has become so low that the creative world has become saturated. With the advent of modern word processors and the ubiquity of personal computers, as well as the introduction of the blog as a personal publishing platform, nearly anyone can fancy themselves a writer (just go to any Starbucks and you’ll see just how commonplace the writer really is). As such, publishers are inundated with a torrential number of submissions for their consideration, giving them less time and resources to truly dive into works to discover their true potential. In fact, publishers apparently use interns to review submissions. Interns, for chrissake.
In addition to this massive influx of so-called writers, all of whom are trying to ‘make it’, there is an intense competition for the attention spans of consumers. In this day and age, reading is becoming less common as a leisure activity, with television and motion pictures taking its place. As a result, there just isn’t as much money to be made in the world of fiction. Fiction now belongs in the realm of the visual. Rather than creating a world within the minds of readers, we have shifted towards creating a world in front of an audience’s eyes. The big money now lies in crafting stories out of images rather than words. Back in Salinger’s day, writers were the entertainers. I get the feeling that the golden age of writing has long since passed the world by. Salinger and Capote, literary superstars, gained traction and found their success during the 50’s and 60’s. This was a time before multimillion dollar movie budgets.
Following the money, it would seem that the value of a writer’s intellectual property has simply shifted from short stories to stories that can be translated into the visual medium of motion pictures. Instead of paying $200,000 to a magazine writer, a screenwriter is lucky to get $25,000 for an option on a completed screenplay. Should the screenplay be turned into a movie, he is then paid against that option, totaling $250,000 if one is lucky. And so with that in mind, perhaps my original aspirations of writing screenplays is not so far off-base. I believe that, if anything, publishing my novel will get my foot into Hollywood, which is arguably a much more difficult realm to break into.
But really, money isn’t important. I didn’t rebel against the commercialism of the Hollywood money-making machine in order to find my material riches in literary fiction. No…rather, I wished to have the space to create what I wanted, the freedom to craft a story as I saw fit, unbound by the one hundred and twenty pages of the formulaic screenplay. I don’t think anybody really writes literary fiction for the money. Besides, as Stephen Elliott said, “No one has ever been able to make a good living writing or publishing literary fiction.”
Enormous self-confidence and immense ambition are two traits Salinger and I share. Slawenski’s biography explained that when Salinger’s self-confidence fell, his ambition picked up the slack. And in this portrayal, I find comfort. Like Salinger, I too have a sense of destiny, almost an arrogance, yet not an unfounded one. There are times when I question my own talent and ability, much in the same way Salinger did. But then I remind myself that so long as I apply my critical eye to my own work as intensely as I do to others, I stand to create a work that is at the very least a step above the rest.
Even so, as I near the completion of my novel, I wonder if my ambition is misplaced. With this newfound disillusionment with my aspirations towards a career as a novelist, I am becoming a little worried for my future. Am I going to become irrelevant? Is my novel going to be misunderstood? Will my novel be stranded on the bargain bin page of the Kindle Shop? Am I going to ever be able to tell the story that I feel needs to be told? I worry that, in this day and age in which superior promotion rather than talent is what success hinges on, my novel will go unnoticed. I worry that, in this era of formulaic commercial fiction, my parable for the lonely hearted will be denied its day in the sun.
But enough worrying. It’s time to keep on keepin’ on. I’ve got to keep my head down and I’ve got to keep powering forward, crafting my novel that, deep down inside, I know will be recognized as a powerful allegory that is rich with symbolism and enlivened with deep running resonant themes that explore the dehumanizing diasporic ways of modern urban America.