Nov 5 2009

Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives, edited by Elizabeth Benedict

Robert P. Baird

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Near the middle of the Inferno, the poet Brunetto Latini tells Dante, "If you follow your star, you cannot fail to reach a glorious port." The scene is doubly poignant. The first prick comes with Brunetto's encouragement of his former student, a gesture of generosity that Dante answers with a gratitude that "will be found, as long as I live, in my language." The second and more lasting poignancy arrives when we remember that Brunetto is speaking from a script of Dante's devising. The teacher says what he says because those are the words his student wanted to hear.

In the introduction to her anthology Mentors, Muses & Monsters, Elizabeth Benedict identifies the same double reach—for expressions of gratitude and for approval—in her contributors. She tells of their desire "to thank the people who had made a landmark difference in their lives," and the importance they attach to those first whiffs of writerly validation: "A good many of the writers are looking back at themselves at a tender age when something powerful happened to them, a moment when an authority figure saw talent in them, or when they came to believe they possessed it themselves.... It's like being rescued. No, it is being rescued—from uncertainty, indecision, mediocrity."

The Dutch novelist Arnon Grunberg affectionately mocks this notion in his contribution, smiling at the idea that a writer's beginning can be "traced back to an exact date and time. Like one's first cigarette, or the loss of one's virginity." But about half of the thirty essays in Mentors, Muses & Monsters treat the subject in exactly this way. They give us stories about the rescues that saved their authors from the undifferentiated mass of people-who-write and helped them claim their place on a bookstore bookshelf.

Essays by Sigrid Nunez and Mary Gordon are the standouts in this class, and none is more entertaining than Carolyn See's split memoir about her father (the author of seventy-three pornographic novels) and Dame Helen Gardner (the author of none). Unfortunately, too many of these narratives seem determined to prove Gordon's dictum that "all students are narcissists, even the best of them." Sweet as it is that Julia Glass wanted to thank her editor, one can't help but cringe when her essay melts into a self-flattering goo, a very public version of a Mother's Day card that says, "Thanks for making me who I am."

Worth noting, too, is how many of these essays read like paeans to the structures of literary privilege in America. The writers insist that their success owes to some combination of luck, talent, and the generosity of their mentors, but they unwittingly leave the impression that the most important choice facing a young writer in America is which elite northeastern university to attend. (That this impression may be correct is another story, and one I'd like to read.)

By far the more interesting group of essays takes a broad view of the exercise. Michael Cunningham relates his discovery of Mrs. Dalloway, the happy result of failing to impress a girl during high school. Denis Johnson measures the decades-long influence of Leonard Gardner's Fat City on his prose. Joyce Carol Oates tells us that she had no mentor but books, and describes the competition and collegiality that marked her relationships with Donald Barthelme and John Gardner. And in terrific essays on the New York Review of Books and the Iowa Writers Workshop, Neil Gordon and Jane Smiley give us a sense (at last!) of how institutions conspire to turn ordinary human beings into award-winning authors. "Suddenly," Gordon writes, "the nexus between ambition and luck, artistic realization and public recognition...had entirely lost its mystery to me. I knew how people are published, how reputations are made, how singular the path to literary fame, and how much it depended on people like [New York Review editor] Bob [Silvers]."

Writing is not the same thing as being a writer, and if Mentors, Muses & Monsters has one lesson, it's that literary mentorship has more to do with the latter than the former. (Jay Cantor: "When asked what he taught young writers at Black Mountain, the poet Charles Olson said, 'Posture.'") To a purist this must seem wrongheaded; he will tell us that only the words on the page are important, no matter how they get there. Like Dante, however, the writers represented here know better. They get by with a little help from their friends.

Robert P. Baird is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago and the editor of Digital Emunction (digitalemunction.com).

dowling

November 30, 2009
2:37 pm

“Joyce Carol Oates had no mentor but books” is a point that reminds me of a book I recently consulted called Melville’s Circles, which covers the later portion of his career, when in fact he was part of no circle whatsoever. The “circles” the book alludes to are of course the same that spurred on Oates: literary circles in book form. Literary communities for some writers are irrelevant. But for so many, they “get by with a little help from their friends.” This is why I have gone back to Washington Irving in so much of my own research on the topic. His career so aptly illustrates how social networks were instrumental in the construction of fame. Baird, the doctoral candidate who wrote the review is too cool for school. Obviously lots of those success stories simplify the matter of authorial aspiration to flatter ourselves, or even worse, those around us for ever-more self promotion; assigning strict causality to something like authorial aspiration and ambition is obviously silly given the ambiguous and highly subjective nature of authorship. No news there. To say so as if he’s dismantling the entire project of the book is missing its value as a compendium of authorial tales of ascent, a literary version of the rags to riches genre that badly needs to be told if only to expose those writers’ reliance on their institutional or coterie affiliations for their success. It’s so much more complex than just a “who you know” issue, because it intersects deeply with how what one writes, and the quality thereof, determines who one knows.

The market does not lie; there is no safety even on the inside of the most privileged circles (like the Iowa Writer's Workshop) that all but guarantee success. Carlyle became the star of the Transcendentalist circle as quickly as he was jettisoned from it when his savage racist proslavery stance came into view. It is very easy to say that privilege is a one way street; Melville himself knew a lot better than our doctoral candidate about that. Baird's review inadvertently supports precisely why such a book is so important: it showcases the stories and myths authors tell about themselves to make sense of what it is they do on the one hand, and who they are on the other, which is always already artificially constructed to some extent. “We are who we pretend to be, so we should be careful who we pretend to be” is Vonnegut’s quote embossed on the sidewalk on Iowa St. that explains precisely how fabricated our notion of authorship, or any profession, really is. I’ve heard lawyers tell me, with a straight face, they were in the “healing arts,” for example.

David Dowling

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