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Writers Old and Young: Staring Across the Moat

Saturday 11 April 2015

MARCH 26, 2015

By CYNTHIA OZICK

A moat? Then is it no more than the venerable if tedious question of the generations, the superannuated versus the vernal? Or is it a more principled divide? Somewhere among the profusion of his essays Edmund Wilson describes the life span of magazines, how they mimic human life itself: they rise to their prime and gradually decline, until in their undeniable irrelevance they give up the ghost — after which they fade from discourse altogether. Where now is the American Mercury, where now is Partisan Review? And where, after its posthumous transmigration into a “vertically integrated digital-media company,” is The New Republic?

The parallel is seemingly impeccable. Old writers are taken to be as nonessential as old magazines that long ago expired: they are repetitious and out of date, they fail to be of interest even to themselves, they are worn out. A very few have been known to admit to this crisis of confidence or exhaustion, as when in a burst of self-extinguishment as shocking as the unforeseen resignation of a reigning monarch, they submit to abdication. Admittedly, old writers tend to be cut off from their desks mainly by dotage, disability, or death; they do not voluntarily accede to unnatural stoppage. Such instances of self-erasure are rare, and may apply only to those old writers who own the immaculate status of literary popes. More typically, the banishment of old writers derives almost ritually from external sources. How do old writers learn that they are, after all, old writers? By being told, named, classified.

Yet it has long been a credo among old writers (and perhaps among old readers too) that the idea of generations is facile and false; that yes, old writers are either remembered and read or not, and that the young in their turn must begin again the inborn progress of will under pressure of rapture. What unites writers (or so old writers believe) is not a common time frame — a contemporaneous cohort — but an affinity of temperament, an affinity that defies the present and the local, and can journey across the borders of time and geography; and is, most particularly, unconcerned by the imaginary moat touted by birth certificates. And though the tragic predicament of mortality, which makes Dostoyevsky a comrade-in-arms with Don Quixote, and Sholom Aleichem a shipmate of Conrad, can never be undone, inherent mutualities of intuition and understanding can soften nature’s relentless decree. Serious old writers (and often the more comedy, the more seriousness) belong, body and soul, irony and metaphor, to word and thought; and also to aspiration, that metaphysical yearning for the literary sublime.

Aspiration is not the same as ambition. Ambition forgets mortality; old writers never do. Ambition wants a career; aspiration wants a room of one’s own. Ambition feeds on public attention; aspiration is impervious to crowds. Old writers in their youth understood themselves to be apprentices to masters superior in seasoned experience, and were ready to wait their turn in the hierarchy of recognition. In their lone and hardened way of sticking-to-it, they were unwaveringly industrious; networking, the term and the scheme, was unknown to them. In their college years, they might on occasion enroll in courses in “creative writing,” though unaware of the vapid redundancy of the phrase: courses presided over by defeated professors who had once actually published a novel and were thereby rendered reverential, but afterward were never heard from again. Old writers were spared (by the nonexistence of such things) the institutionalization of creative writing M.F.A. programs in the universities, taught by graduates of M.F.A. programs — a cycle of M.F.A. students becoming M.F.A. teachers teaching M.F.A. students who will in turn become M.F.A. teachers: a Möbius strip of job-­manufacture. Old writers in their youth were resolutely immured in their first novels, steadfastly enduring unworldly and self-chosen isolation; they shunned journalism, they shunned coteries, they shunned parties, they shunned the haunting of magazines for review assignments, they shunned editorial work, fearful of being drawn into the distracting pragmatism of publishing — magnetized instead by the lure of the Ding an sich.

Incomprehensible to old writers in their youth were the curiously impatient exceptions to that overridingly patient age — Willie Morris, editor in chief of Harper’s at 33; Norman Podhoretz presiding over Commentary at 30; Susan Sontag, at 31 a rising luminary at Partisan Review; Norman Mailer, a literary celebrity at 25. These were anomalies and monsters of ambition, while old writers in their youth loitered in their rooms mooning over Proust in his silenced room, or contemplating an exhilarated Henry James, whose first publication in The Atlantic Monthly he compared to (unacknowledged) sexual initiation. Yet old writers in their youth were themselves monsters, though of another kind: encaged heavy-pawed gryphons who, exiled by word-lust, single-mindedly sought immensities of meaning (Bellow, Gaddis, Gass, Malamud, Oates, Pynchon, Roth, Updike!), and upon whom fame fell unsummoned by careerism, self-advertisement, blurb-chasing, publicity, avarice for notice and wrested acclaim. If fame is the spur, then ambition must gallop, despite the stench of droppings. Old writers in their youth eschewed such professionalism — the writer as canny entrepreneur. Doggedly, they stuck to their desks, they persevered, and like the Ancient Mariner they called out solely for the sake of telling the fevered tale.

Young writers, meanwhile, bring to mind those magically endowed characters in the fairy stories whom the youngest son meets on the way to his future: the man in the blindfold, the man with his ears tightly bandaged — because otherwise sight so powerful will see too unbearably far, and hearing so sensitive will be assailed by all the sounds of the earth. In the bottomless force of their seeming immortality, young writers are mercifully lent these blindfolds and ear muffs, and why? To shield them from what old writers have come to know: how things turn out. Old writers have the eyes and breadth of biographers, even when they are not literally so: they are witness to the trajectories of entire lives, the early flourishing and the latter-day fizzling, or else the unpromising seed and its surprising fruitfulness. Old writers have seen and heard the howls and wounds of the madness that failed recognition confers, and they have seen and heard the triumphal parades that the madness of great reputation allows.

Old writers live in a country whose manners encourage not so much skepticism as realism; still, there is no melancholic resignation in that land of decaying cabins, where all the carpets have long been threadbare. Here and there a passer-by will catch the muffled yet fervid tapping of an antique Royal or Olivetti. At the same time, and in another region of the mind, young writers, appareled in the mores of the hour, are housed in appetite’s striving headquarters, a well-furnished palace centrally located, equipped with Wi-Fi and tended by bustling publicists who must constantly burnish the many impressive chandeliers, lest they tarnish from neglect.

And when, sooner than they can possibly imagine, young writers turn into old writers, what then? How will they live, and in what country, and under what system of temperament and raw desire?

Cynthia Ozick is currently working on a book of essays on critics and criticism.

A version of this review appears in print on March 29, 2015, on page BR29 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Writers Old and Young: Staring Across the Moat

See online: Writers Old and Young: Staring Across the Moat