About Getting Good: The Many Paths to Literary Mastery

December 7, 2014 § 11 Comments

A guest post from Melissa Frederick:

It has never been easier to get published (many authors do so themselves), while it has never been harder to have your work read, and even more, to make a living off of what you write. ~ E. Stephens, “The Vanishing Apprenticeship

Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges

I’ve been thinking a lot about Allison K. Williams’s blog post from Monday. I know the frustration she describes, the Torment of the Unknown Writer, floundering in a sea of publication options, rejections, and fellow writers armed with little or no guidance on how to navigate toward a successful career. In my darker hours, I do a lot of bewailing: about my outsider status, my long hours of effort for little return, my willingness to do whatever it takes for someone to notice me, and my bewilderment when the Powers that Be continue to ignore me while they usher dozens of authors through the Gates of Literary Greatness. The hell? I mutter to myself. Why not me?

I’ve also been thinking about the essay on Medium, written by E. Stevens, that has caused Williams so much concern—the one that bewails dwindling career opportunities in journalism, a field in which a single editor can provide direct feedback to young writers and give them a salary in the process. Sounds like a good system, doesn’t it? Earn money to get successful. Who wouldn’t want that?

Well, me for starters. Apprenticeship was a system originally structured to benefit society’s most privileged members. During the Italian Renaissance, which Stevens touches on in his argument, artistic apprenticeships produced uber-masters like Michelangelo and da Vinci. But what else did the Renaissance produce? How about societies in which only prosperous, urban white men and a few scattered white women from wealthy families learned to read? And what kind of writers might be chosen in a modern form of the apprenticeship system? Stevens’s essay gives us a clue. Throughout the piece, he mentions 38 authors and artists by name. Several are cited in a long block quote from one of Arthur Quiller-Couch’s lectures in the 1910s. Only three of the artists and authors mentioned are women. (Four, if Quiller-Couch is talking about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and five, if he’s talking about Christina Rosetti. Which he almost certainly isn’t.) In addition, the only person on the list who comes close to being non-white is Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges, although his family was largely descended from European immigrants, and he himself spent a good chunk of his youth traveling through Europe. Would readers today want to invest in a system that supported such a narrow, elite demographic group?

The truth is, there are many paths to literary mastery, and often those paths are as painstaking as they are idiosyncratic. Borges is an interesting example. In an article from the London Review of Books, Colm Tóibín discusses the publication of Borges’s first book of fiction, which he began writing while working at a daily newspaper. His book, A Universal History of Infamy, sold only 37 copies in a year. According to Tóibín, Borges didn’t care: he “had placed himself in what was for him a fortunate position of having no world to describe, except an invented one, and no audience to speak of, allowing him the luxury to address his fictions to one or two of his friends.” A couple of years later, Borges lost his job.

Like it or not, we writers have to accept that the only way to get good at writing is to write and share that writing with others. If the only space we have to hone our skills is a blog, so be it. (Don’t forget that Stevens published his critique of self-publishing on Medium, a mass incarnation of the blog.) Why do we care so much about gatekeepers telling us we’re not good enough, anyway? Do we really need a corporation giving us money to validate our talent, when many of our greatest writers worked as maids, airline reservation clerks, and ad copywriters? What is literary fame except a vast, uncontrollable, century-spanning social media network? Or is our obsession with success (like bewailing) just another trick we use to avoid doing the grueling work of getting good?


Melissa Frederick is a writer and blogger from suburban Philadelphia. Her poetry and prose have appeared in numerous publications, including the Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, The Cream City Review, Kalliope, Strange Horizons, Frogpond, SmokeLong Quarterly, and the Mid-American Review and is forthcoming in Helen: A Literary Magazine. Her poetry chapbook, She, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2008. Follow her on Twitter at @msficklereader.


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