Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Writer's Curse of Posthumous Success


ONE AND DONE.  It's a legacy that belongs to remarkable writers such as A.S.A. Harrison, who died of cancer in April, only weeks before her book was published.  She was 65.

Like last summer's blockbuster thriller Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Silent Wife is about a crumbling, destructive relationship between a man and a woman.  Harrison spent much of her career as an editor and writing nonfiction.  She described her two earlier novels which never sold to a publisher as "cozy mysteries." The Silent Wife was more successful.  As Julie Bosman notes in her article "Novelist's Debut Will Be Her Legacy," by the time of her death, Harrison "had read early sparkling reviews of her novel." According to her husband, "she had a sense that it could be a success." (The Virginian-Pilot. 08.06.03. 2)

But oh the waste, oh the cruelty.  It's not for nothing I use the word "curse" in the title.  Some readers may say she at least enjoyed the success of being published by a major publisher and knowing she had written a good book.  But why couldn't she have seen her publisher, Penguin Books go "back to press seven times" in rapid succession and print "a total of 144,000 copies"? (Bosman) Why couldn't she have lived to see The Silent Wife "make its debut on the New York Times' combined print and e-book best-seller list next week at No. 11"? (Bosman)  How would it have harmed the Cosmic Plan if A.S.A. Harrison had lived just a few months longer?

As many of us know, writing good books and finding publishers for them is hard enough without battling a deadly disease and poor health on top of it.  At times it seems the gods just roll their loaded dice and laugh at us.   

Perhaps the supreme case of this "curse" is John Keats, a supremely gifted nineteenth-century Romantic poet who died of consumption (tuberculosis) at the age of twenty-five.  Talk about injustice.  The guy had perhaps the greatest poetic gift since Shakespeare.  All he wanted (besides the chance to marry Fanny Brawne) was "ten years" to "overwhelm" myself "in poesy; so I may do the deed/ That my own soul has to itself decreed."

He was to have barely three years before ill health destroyed his hopes of any meaningful literary success either in this life or the next one.  The epitaph he composed for his own grave reflects his bleak expectations: "Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water."  Yet today this very young man who did not even begin writing poetry until he had turned seventeen is regarded as one of the great poets of the English Romantic period. Fortunately, we have his masterpieces such as the "great odes," The Eve of St. Agnes, and La Belle Dame sans Merci.  Yet what might John Keats have achieved, what heights could he have attained, if he had lived to the modest age of fifty-two, as did William Shakespeare?  The Norton Anthology of English Literature states, "What he [John Keats] might have done is beyond conjecture; what we do know is that his poetry, when he stopped writing at the age of twenty-four, exceeds the accomplishment at the same age of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton."

Sometimes the curse is self-inflicted and takes a most unique, unexpected turn.  Because of severe emotional problems and the repeated rejection of A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole committed suicide at the age of thirty-one. End of story, right?  Except that according to Walker Percy, the author's mother discovered the "badly smeared, scarcely readable carbon" manuscript of the novel, pronounced it great, and repeatedly demanded he read it, even coming to Percy's office with the book in hand. ("Foreword," A Confederacy of Dunces, Grove Press, Inc. 1981).  He grudgingly gave in, hoping to read a few pages and return the "hefty" mess, telling her it was so bad he could not "in good conscience" read any farther.

Well, the exact opposite happened, and the rest is history.  What Percy describes as "A great rumbling farce of Falstaffian dimensions" went on to knock the critics dead and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981. All this happened because the author killed himself and his mother believed in his book.

What can we learn from these three writers and others like them?  Basically, when we feel sorry for ourselves, we should count our blessings. While we have breath and reasonable good health, we should write, enjoy, and be thankful for our life. There are worse things than not being a commercially or critically successful writer.  Also, we should not count on good luck too much.  In addition, let's be humble and avoid the sin of pride whenever and wherever we can.  After all, just about everything except our character can be snatched away at a moment's notice.

And one last thing.  For God's sake, let's take time out to smell the flowers.





10 comments:

  1. John, this was such an informative and interesting post, but best of all was the last paragraph.
    Thanks for those very important reminders!
    Loren

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  2. Thanks, Loren. You know, it's so easy to forget them.

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    1. Thank you! A much needed reminder.
      Sultry

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  4. Very interesting. Kinda sad. But maybe she's watching from heaven?

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  5. Great post, John! As someone who has nearly died twice in her life (and who acknowledges that whole "three strikes and you're out!" way of things), I believe that it is VERY important to live our lives to the fullest and try to accomplish as much as we can, while we are still here. Even so, the snail's pace of writing and publishing can make it difficult for us to stay alive long enough to see our work finally go into print, even to achieve some degree of success. I think that, meanwhile, we should write our hearts out and just try to get done as much as we can while we still can. As for books and works published posthumously, at least we can enjoy them from the other side. :)

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  6. Dawn, an excellent comment. I'm rather humbled by it. The fact that you nearly died twice emphasizes the need to live our lives to the fullest while we're here. We are less than an eye's blink in the fullness of time and shouldn't bank too much on fame and glory. If it happens, fine. As you say, hopefully we can enjoy our books and works' success from the other side.

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  7. Hi Dr. Rosenman. After graduating from NSU (1995), I continued writing and reading my works in various places in NYC but sadly made the decision to put all my time and energy into the corporate world leaving all my writings and artwork locked away to collect dust. Much like my creativity-locked somewhere deep inside collecting dust too. I too agree that we should live life to its fullest. Don't let events, circumstances, or even people stifle your hopes and dreams and even your creativity!

    Taifa

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  8. Hi, Taifa! It's good to see you here. Boy, time passes, doesn't it?

    It comes down to making choices. Life forces us to make a living and often seems to force us to run ourselves ragged in the corporate or some other rat race. But for many of us, it's our hopes and dreams and our creativity that really matters, and we just shouldn't let ourselves be driven or seduced away from them. Live life to the fullest, fight to pursue and embrace what's really in your heart because you only go around once. As you say, it will collect dust if you don't use it and it may atrophy and die. And nothing is worse than a withered dream. So live! I just wish that A.S.A. Harrison had had a few more months to live.

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  9. Hi, Taifa! It's good to see you here. Boy, time passes, doesn't it?

    It comes down to making choices. Life forces us to make a living and often seems to force us to run ourselves ragged in the corporate or some other rat race. But for many of us, it's our hopes and dreams and our creativity that really matters, and we just shouldn't let ourselves be driven or seduced away from them. Live life to the fullest, fight to pursue and embrace what's really in your heart because you only go around once. As you say, it will collect dust if you don't use it and it may atrophy and die. And nothing is worse than a withered dream. So live! I just wish that A.S.A. Harrison had had a few more months to live.

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