The Pall of Fame
A writer grapples with the problem of success—including his own
Essays on Creators and Creation
by Tom Bissell
McSweeney's, Believer Books
$14.00 List Price
Tom Bissell’s new essay collection, Magic Hours, opens—in what can be taken as a challenge or a gesture of self-justification—with “Unflowered Aloes,” his 2000 meditation on the tenuousness of literary immortality. Why do some works survive, Bissell asks, while others are lost to posterity? The reader may note that this is a book of previously published magazine work, rescued from the recycling bin and bound in a volume as Essays on Creators and Creation.
“Unflowered Aloes” is certainly worthy of an ISBN number. Bissell wrote it, he explains in his author’s note, as “a twenty-five year old assistant editor”—that is, a still-youthful reader who had been initiated in the hard business of publishing at W. W. Norton & Company, and who was using that knowledge to reread cultural history. Why, really, did Emily Dickinson’s writing overcome her obscurity? How did Herman Melville, after death, transcend the critics’ disdain? How many geniuses failed to catch the same breaks?
Literary survival, Bissell argues, is less the triumph of merit than “an accumulation of unliterary accidents.” That fatalistic insight, though, leads to a more hopeful one. A good critic is not “a noncombatant observer upon literature’s battlefield”; one actively engaged reader, a passionate enough essayist, may turn the outcome.
That essay is followed by “Escanaba’s Magic Hour,” in which Bissell returns to his hometown on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to watch the making of a semimajor motion picture there. The interaction between the film-industry outsiders and the locals leads Bissell into a sharply observed