Lapsing Into Obscurity

Jessa Crispin laments what a lot of us lament:  the Facebook and Twitter-dominated Internet.  She began her blog, Bookslut, as a way to highlight underrepresented works by women of all races.  She found, however, that fewer people than she thought were interested in reading about such women and their works.  She fell prey to the trap that many have fallen into as they develop web enterprises:  the trap of having to create clickbait and write about things that the mass of people–women and men–are actually interested in.  If one wants to make money, and this is what Crispin wanted to do, this latter course is what one has to take.

At the risk of being insulting, obscure writers of either sex are obscure for a reason:  they are not writing on subjects compelling enough to interest the wide audience that might catapult them toward prosperity.  For instance (an instance I choose more or less at ramdom), the state of transgendered people in Western society might be an important issue for some writers, as surely it is; but most of us just don’t care.  It’s not at the core of our beings, and there’s no way to bring the subject close to that core.  We have too many other issues–jobs, bills, husbands, wives, children–that we must care about instead.  There are those writers who recognize this reality and write about transgender issues anyway; the subject matters to them, and money is not a consideration.  I’m all for such writers, and I hope that they can develop other means of support for their work.  But they have to understand that the capitalist marketplace functions like a machine, complete with a machine’s impersonality.  Just because we put a work into the marketplace, that doesn’t mean the market will care.

Many, many writers have labored long in obscurity.  Because I am a man, I’m most familiar with those obscure writers of my own sex.  Two I can think of right off the top of my head are Anthony Trollope and James Salter.  Before he became famous, Trollope wrote four or five quite unsuccessful books, teaching himself to write in the process.  Salter, who died last year at the age of 90, published only that many; six, I think; and he was never successful financially.  Yet, many regard him as “the writer’s writer.”  That’s not a bad way to be remembered, nor is it a bad internal standard to have as we sit at our desks each day.  Each of us must write about the things that matter to us.  We cannot do anything else.  But we must, at the same time, write for as wide an audience as we can, and we must write as well as we can.  It does not matter how sacred the subject is to us.  If we put it out there for the consideration of a wider, public audience, the subject also belongs to them, to do with as they will, including throwing it into the dirt.

Every published work involves the release of our hold on the freedom of thought we have exercised in creating it.  That, naturally enough, scares us.  But we release that thought because we believe it belongs to, and can contribute to, the wider stream of public imaginative discourse.  The risk, certainly, is that, while it might contribute, it might not.  No writer controls the reception of her own work.  Yet, most of us are willing to take the jump anyway, create the work and put it out there, even if our reward is nothing more than the poverty and obscurity with which we began.  If the work is any good at all, and if it’s been properly released to the public, it will find the audience for whom it’s intended.  And sooner or later, the world of writers and readers will take the measure of the author who has written that work.  None of us knows when that measurement will come.  Perhaps it will happen while we live; perhaps it will take place after we are dead.  But it will come.  W.H. Auden once remarked, “Some books are deservedly forgotten.  None are undeservedly remembered.”  He was correct on both counts.


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