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The Writer's Woes

[whitespace] book cover Promising or pre-eminent, it's not easy being a novelist--just ask Hemingway's ghost

By Richard von Busack

NEXT YEAR marks the centenary of Ernest Hemingway's birth, and the occasion will be marked by the publication of the author's unfinished novel True at First Light. Some would call this event the literary equivalent of boiling Papa's bones for soup. It can't be coincidence that Hemingway's ghost has been seen walking at his old Finca Vigia estate in Cuba.

According to Reuters, three security guards so far have quit in terror of Hemingway's specter ("a tall, red-faced man, walking slowly, and dressed with Bermudas, a light, baggy shirt and leather sandals"). Here's hoping the guards gave the ghost the new address of Charles Scribner's Sons before they ran off into the canebreak.

During his life, Hemingway tried to protect the inner workings of his mind and the content of his filing cabinets. As just another dead novelist, he's vulnerable to plundering by publishing pirates.

Still more examples of how writers are mistreated can be found in A Dangerous Profession: A Book About the Writing Life, Frederick Busch's anecdotal account of the desperate, depressing side of the ink trade. Busch cites a line by Graham Greene that sums up the pessimism that afflicts even the happiest writer: "Success is only delayed failure."

A Dangerous Profession looks at the likes of Hemingway, Kafka, Dickens and John O'Hara in a loose grouping of essays, both critical and autobiographical. Busch is a medium-successful novelist and professor at Colgate University. He was a Brooklyn boy who moved to Greenwich Village and, after much struggle, now has a teaching position, a wife, two sons and a farmhouse in upstate New York.

All that was achieved even though two first novels had to be thrown away--unpublishable, at least until after his death, that is--along with a flurry of rejection letters containing "the usually polite and often graceful but always unambiguous no."

A born novelist, Busch argues, is obsessed with writing and writers--"His soles are sticky with Kafka, he tracks Cheever on the floor and he sips the broth of Roth." Yuck, salty. Busch's nerves are strained so acutely by his profession that while staying in a cabin in the countryside he fancies he hears the tap tap tap of a typewriter in the dead of night in the woods. (It's a woodpecker, Busch's exasperated wife has to tell him.)

Certainly, the careers Busch sketches provide cautionary tales for the eager-beaver young creative-writing student. Herman Melville's life, for instance, offers a sobering parallel to Vincent Van Gogh's own sad history of rejection and later reappraisal. In Melville's own words, he was "failed, poor, and cursed as a writer."

BUSCH'S CONCLUDING chapter, "Hemingway's Sentence," refers not just to Hemingway's glinting, inimitable way of arranging words but also to the life sentence of despair that comes from being a suicide's son. Suicide has been called the perfect crime: your father kills himself and leaves you to take the rap.

Since Busch's chapter on Hemingway finishes the book, A Dangerous Profession seems to be leading up to it. As an academic, Busch has to spend some time defending Hemingway. "It's not fashionable to praise the work of Ernest Hemingway. ... He is so very incorrect."

Is it that bad, really? During the author's reign as the Greatest Living American Writer, some of his excesses were ignored--his anti-Semitism, his cuteness and his coarseness. His deliberate public insensitivity eclipsed his private sensitivity.

To teenagers, Hemingway can be just another bearded author, to be endured as one would endure Shakespeare. When you're a seventh-grader, "Big Two-Hearted River" seems awfully much like Boy's Life magazine.

As a teacher, Busch faces the problem of making Hemingway relevant. He must be good at it, because he's isolated that special quality that one finds in Hemingway's work: how he learned "to announce pain and renounce it in the same breath."

Frederick Busch Novelistic Urges: Frederick Busch can hear the tap tap tap of a typewriter in the middle of the woods.

TO DELVE EVEN DEEPER into the dangers of writing, one needs to look beyond Busch. "As unemployed Americans of our time cry for jobs, good books out of print cry out for republication," Busch writes, and one book that cries out for republication is a far more specific diatribe about the dangers of the writer's life, the out-of-print 1938 Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly.

Enemies of Promise, a grab bag of criticism and autobiography, was written on the verge of World War II, and Connolly wondered if democracy would be overcome and whether independent art might be extinguished. Connolly's fears mirror our own--that publishers will merge and remerge, until soon only a handful of houses will control most of the market; that the continuing decline of the independent bookstore will mean that small writers (as Hemingway was, once) won't get their place amid the torrents of King and Clancy; that literacy rates are declining, and no writer of today will ever be as immortal as, say, Lara Croft or Crash Bandicoot.

Meanwhile, the grad schools disgorge plenty of young writers who vanish after a couple of books. Connolly explained the attrition: "Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make promising." Naturally, Busch won that tin award. "I was a very bad prose writer," Busch remembers. "Among the editors of magazines (and later books) in New York City I was nicknamed 'promising' and was rejected all the time."

Connolly lists all of the traps waiting for the promising: politics, too much success, sexual dissipation and journalism, along with "daydreams, conversation, drink and other narcotics." Avoiding all of these pitfalls for the sake of hearth and home can be just as dangerous.

The necessity to feed a family has pulled more than one soul into hackdom, and "there is no more somber enemy of creativity than the pram [baby carriage] in the hall." If a writer emerges from these traps, waiting for them at the end are the critics--"the old cats purring over the mouse hole of talent!"

By coincidence, Busch and Connolly quote the same two stanzas from poet W.H. Auden's "One Evening" (misidentified by Busch as "As I Walked Out One Evening"):

    O plunge your hands into water
    Plunge them in up into the wrist;
    Stare, stare in the basin
    And wonder what you've missed.

    The glacier knocks in the cupboard
    The desert sighs in the bed
    And the crack in the tea-cup opens
    A lane to the land of the dead.

The Auden verse suggests that mundane tasks give us a little taste of death while uniting us with everyone who has done them before, all the way back to the pyramids.

"One Evening" is the sort of poem that will be understood in a thousand years. If the world is about to go dark, it's especially important to create work that will last until the lights go back on again, no matter what the cost. The Roman poet Horace wrote, "I shall never die," meaning that his writings would be read for centuries. He was right.

Hemingway's ghost is a reminder that the suffering of an undying writer is not, as Busch writes, "selfless and priest-like but selfish and afraid." Despite the personal risks, the writer's task, both Connolly and Busch stress, is to stay wounded. And as Connolly observes, the writer's task is also, despite the wounds, "to celebrate the beauty which the rest of mankind will be too guilty, hungry, angry or arid to remember."

A Dangerous Profession: A Book About the Writing Life by Frederick Busch; St. Martin's; 245 pages; $23.95 cloth.

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From the December 10-16, 1998 issue of Metro.

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