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To a Writer, a Body of Work Is a Taunt

Wednesday 27 July 2016

Author’s Note

By ROGER ROSENBLATT

JULY 25, 2016

Years ago, I was on a panel with Russell Banks, and we were talking about “Affliction.” Russell was pleased with the novel’s reception, but he also said he’d hoped he was creating a worthwhile body of work. This was not said with a dismissive attitude toward the appreciative things people were saying about “Affliction.” Rather, it seemed that Russell was stepping back, surveying all he’d done to that point, and keeping a careful eye on the whole even as readers were concentrating on one recent part.

Readers and writers do not think of a body of work in the same way. To a reader, a body of work is a static totality by which a writer may be assessed. To a writer, it is something of a taunt. Writers think of a body of work as a movie tough guy whom we have popped in the jaw. We rear back and deliver our best haymaker, and the body of work shakes it off and says, That all you got?

For this and other reasons, writers generally do not like to read their work once it is published. We find mistakes. We find things that make us cringe. And the whole process kills whatever momentum we may be feeling. The body of work becomes a body of evidence in a case built against us. We find a writer we barely recognize, and who seems to want to pick a fight. See all our books lined up on the shelf. They are a museum, a graveyard. They are a chorus line, arranged side by side like the Rockettes. All that’s missing is the kicks.

Good or bad, a particular piece of work does not say anything lasting to us. We finish the poem, novel or memoir, send it into the public air, and think about what to do next. The collected work, on the other hand, says a great deal to and about us. It usually says we have been weighed in our own balance and found wanting. Collectively, our body of work is an expression of implied yearning. And while we may be full of ourselves while producing the poem, novel or memoir — drunk on the power of language or subject matter, and buried in laughter or fury or whatever we’re dreaming up at the time — when we come up for a breather, there sit the words settled on the page, unmoved and unmoving. Is that all we got? Hear us sigh.

Last summer, I lost two great friends, and the world lost two great writers, James Salter and E.L. Doctorow, both of whom created lasting bodies of work. Jim went first, having collapsed during a workout. We had dinner the night after his 90th birthday, and got soused on zombies. Edgar died a few weeks later, after fighting lung cancer for a year before pneumonia did him in. Not long before he died, he went for a checkup at Yale, where he was receiving an experimental treatment. Did you wow them in New Haven? I emailed him on his return. Not only did I wow them, wrote Edgar. I huzzahed them, I yippee-ai-ayed them and I mazeltoved them!

Shortly before his Yale trip, on a still, summer afternoon, I visited Edgar at his home in Sag Harbor. He talked about a piece he’d seen that called “Ragtime” the great American novel. Half playfully we inventoried his other novels to see if they deserved the title over “Ragtime.” (My candidate was “The Book of Daniel.”) Edgar wasn’t taking all this too ­seriously.

But it was interesting to rove through his body of work with him, because he did not wish to dwell on it. In fact, ill as he was, he had an idea for a new short story, the prospect of which put life in his eyes. The point is, he would not see his body of work as an adamant structure. Though monumental, it was to him a work in progress till the end, the perpetually evolving yearning of a monumental soul.

This statement of yearning may be why the term is applied equally to one who has produced a tremendous amount of material, and to one who has written only a few things. The difference between a minor and a major poet has to do with quality, not heft. Allen Ginsberg is a major poet for no reason other than “Kaddish.” Djuna Barnes, Ralph Ellison and Joseph Heller created a very few books, yet each produced a body of work. Elizabeth Hardwick could rest her case with “Sleepless Nights.” When a writer has said all that he or she has to say, or as much as possible before mortality intercedes, the body of work remains incomplete no matter the size of the output. The taunt persists: That’s it?

I don’t think longevity affects the relationship with output, either. I doubt that Wordsworth at the end of his long life was more satisfied with his body of work than was Keats, at the end of his short one. In a way, all writing is essay writing, an endless attempt at finding beauty in horror, nobility in want — an effort to punish, reward and love all things human that naturally resist punishments, rewards and love. It is an arduous and thankless exercise, not unlike faith in God. Sometimes, when you are in the act of writing, you feel part of a preordained plan, someone else’s design. That someone else might as well be God. And then one day you rear back and survey everything you have done, and think, Is this all God had in mind? But it’s all you got.

Roger Rosenblatt is the winner of the 2015 Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement. His latest book is “Thomas Murphy,” a novel.

A version of this article appears in print on July 31, 2016, on page BR29 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Is That All There Is?. © 2016 The New York Times Company

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