Actually, Don't Write Like You're Dead

Jeffrey Eugenides's recent to advice to young writers is precious, derivative, and wrong.

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Public domain / Reuters / AP

Anthony Trollope's Autobiography was famously short on advice about the seriousness of the writer's task, and famously long on more practical concerns. Typical is his brief discussion of his novel The Claverings:

The Claverings, which came out in 1866 and 1867, was the last novel which I wrote for the Cornhill; and it was for this that I received the highest rate of pay that was ever accorded to me. It was the same length as Framley Parsonage, and the price was £2800. Whether much or little, it was offered by the proprietor of the magazine, and was paid in a single cheque.

There's a little more about plot and characters, but not much. Instead, what's given pride of place is where the book appeared, how long it was, what it cost, and how he got paid. At another point in the Autobiography, Trollope explains that he gave himself a certain number of pages to write a day—and if he finished a novel before his set number of pages were complete, he'd start another. It's almost like he thinks of writing as a job.

Trollope published the Autobiography after his death; the studiously unromantic approach revealed therein torpedoed his reputation. This is somewhat ironic in light of Jeffrey Eugenides's recent piece in the New Yorker, adapted from his speech to the winners of the 2012 Whiting Award. Following Nadine Gordimer and Christopher Hitchens, Eugenides encourages young writers to write as if they're dead. By this, he means that they should write without regard to popularity, or, as Hitchens says, "as if the usual constraints—of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and, perhaps especially, intellectual opinion—did not operate." Thus, in the one work that Trollope actually did write knowing it would appear after he died, the author did exactly what Hitchens says he should, speaking truth without regard to reputation. And that truth was that he'd spent his life writing for commerce and the public in exactly the manner that Hitchens said he shouldn't.

With Trollope's example in mind, then, Eugenides's and Hitchens's suggestion to ignore fashion, commerce, etc., starts to look less like tough-minded, clear-eyed individualism, and more like a ritual genuflection in the direction of fashion and commerce. Advocating contrarian individualism is actually an exercise in vacuous platitude—and just bad advice.

Certainly Eugenides's article does nothing to dispel the sense of the deep conventionality of that advice. After insisting that the young writers stay true each to their own uniqueness, Eugenides imagines for them a series of unique experiences sodden with the stale genre tropes of literary fiction. He tells them they started writing in "response to the wondrousness and humiliation of being alive," and then imagines them all standing by a river with a dog appreciating nature, and/or at college experiencing romantic angst. "That's what you were probably like. I know you guys. We recognize each other," he declares. And then, with no apparent sense of irony: "So what I'm saying is, this is what got you here tonight: your over-stimulated, complicated, by turns ecstatic and despondent, specific self." All the brilliant young writers have the same specific ecstatic, despondent self, it turns out—an ecstatic, despondent self that looks just like Jeffrey Eugenides.

Not that Eugenides's self originates with him or anything. His vision of the artist as imbued with a transcendent and yet desperately vulnerable idiosyncratic something—he didn't make that up. Instead, those ideas come from that world outside that he's so worried about. They derive from vaunting modernist artistic self-assertion a la abstract expressionism; or from vaunting romantic artistic self-assertion a la Byron; or, going way back, from the vaunting philosophic self-assertion of Descartes trying to figure out a way to exist in sealed skull with no world anywhere. "I think therefore I am" is less a statement of the way things are than it is an Enlightenment utopian fantasy, in which the ego gets to be the entire universe.

Outside of solipsistic day-dreams, of course, the world is pretty stubborn about not dissolving into your ego. It is full, as Eugenides says, with "intellectual and artistic viruses that...will be eager to colonize your system." But surely the fact that there are things out there that aren't the writer is not a threat, but a necessity. Language, after all, isn't a spontaneous effusion of the self like vomit or urine. Language is social; it's a form of communication. Descartes can insist, "Cogito, ergo sum," but before that "Cogito," there was some other person who taught little Descartes his Latin. Rather than "I think therefore I am," it would be more accurate to say, "Somebody else speaks, therefore I am," or, better, "Somebody else spoke first, therefore I can speak as well."

Eugenides says that fashion, or commerce, or opinion, or the "constraints" Hitchens talks about are "a deformation of the self." The assumption is that one has a solitary, beautiful self, untouched by commerce or fashion or opinion—a pure, virginal, wonderful self ever in danger of being violated. You're always in jeopardy of being someone other than who you are, of dissolving into a viscous, gelatinous mass like John Carpenter's Thing.

Personally, if forced to be someone else, I'd rather be the flamboyantly polymorphous Thing than the aridly predictable Eugenides. But, one way or another, everyone is, of course, forced to be someone else. You're going to care about money, like Trollope. You're going to follow fashion, like Christopher Hitchens ending his contrarian career by slavishly glorifying the jingoistic imperialist nonsense of the US president. You're going to adopt popular ideas, like Eugenides reflexively and unthinkingly insisting that you shouldn't adopt popular ideas. No matter who you think you are, the world is going to get in your head.

There's certainly something depressing about that, but there's something exhilarating too. After all, Shakespeare retailed royalist propaganda; Ezra Pound was an anti-Semitic idiot. And, for that matter, George Bernard Shaw wrote about the evils of vivisection and Richard Wright wrote about the evils of the Jim Crow south. They weren't beyond or outside their times; they were smack in the middle of them. And if you're a writer, your time and place will shape you too. What's so scary about that? Your parents, or someone, taught you the language you're using, and once you've begun in such a derivative manner, it seems silly to be embarrassed to go on with it. You can spend your existence constantly looking over your own shoulder for fear of contagion. Or you could instead assume that you are still capable of listening, learning, changing, making mistakes, and, if you're lucky, even of making a little money like Trollope now and then. Write, in short, as if you are alive, both because the alternative is cramped and stupid, and because you don't have any other choice.