Disappointed Literary Authors

by Richard Kostelanetz (January 2016)

(The text below is the preface, along with samples from the more than 100 selections, to a forthcoming printed book available in 2016 from Archae Editions via Amazon CreateSpace.)


In memory of Yvor Winters (1900-1968)

A few years ago I drafted an inventory that, though it has profound truths worth sharing, I could not figure out how to publish appropriately. My initial aim was identifying how smart, mostly well-intentioned people fail in a hyper-competitive business—more specifically, American literary contemporaries who finally didn’t succeed as writers, even though others thought they would or the writers themselves thought they should, usually because they had in passing some publishing leverage or a position offering professional advantage, sometimes as the protégé of a declining patron or clique, other times with good fortune, such as commercial publication or a prominent “prize,” that would not become permanent. Others were strangled by their old-school tie, while a few couldn’t accept that they were simply lucky one-shots.

Personal pomposity notwithstanding, few would be recognized in nonsectarian literary histories (or encyclopedias); none had much discernable influence. Few, if any, ever published books, that’s BOOKS, which were strong enough for strangers to recommend to their friends years after their initial publication, which is to say long after their books’ publisher(s) had stopped promoting them.

I’m not aware of anyone before me publishing a critique comparable to this in any language, though I can imagine that perhaps similar critiques were privately circulated. (Sometimes when I wake up thinking I’ve invented the lightbulb, I discover that I’ve only found the switch.)

Much as doing what’s not been done before has always been important to me, I thought for a while of publishing under the name Ricardo Castellanos, with the further advice that only his name was real, all others were pseudonyms; but that joke was too thin. One new possibility made possible by on-demand publishing is establishing a price so high to discourage frivolous purchase, even though Amazon will make sure that the book is known to exist in a repository outside the author’s control. As this was initially drafted a few years ago, several have passed beyond their experience of disappointment.

–Richard Kostelanetz, FarEastBushWick 11385-5751, 1 January 2016

Consider initially Harvard graduates such as L. S. Simckes, Harold Brodkey, Maxine Kumin, Rachel Hadas, Katha Pollitt, Brad Leithauser, Mary Jo Salter, Sallie Bingham, James Atlas, Lawrence Osgood, Robert Bly, James Park Sloan, Frances Fitzgerald, Harry Mathews, and Charles Bernstein, among many other entitled princes and princesses, who assumed that their advantageous old-school-tie would make them forever prominent.

Gordon Lish (b. 1934), initially the publisher of a seven-shot literary magazine named Genesis West (1961-1965) before he became the fiction editor at Esquire and then a powerhouse at Alfred A. Knopf before disappearing from print while still alive, reportedly.

Louis Lapham (1935), who could not write anything generally influential in spite of his leverages bestowed on him from his long tenure as chief editor of a venerable magazine, who thus earned more “friends” than admirers.

John Leonard (1939-2008), the chief editor of the New York Times Book Review in his early thirties, who aspired to be like the critic Edmund Wilson but instead resembled the reviewer Granville Hicks, say, whom typically publishers liked more than readers. (Others?)

Hilton Kramer (1928-2012), an aspiring art critic who depended upon positions to publish, first as the editor of a magazine called simply Arts, later as a cultural staffer at The New York Times, finally as the founding editor of the neo-conservative The New Criterion, all of which granted him visibility without influence, because as an art critic he was essentially a fake while, as a late-blooming neo-con, he would never be more than one of many.

Essentially pop novelists whose claim to literary presence is based upon their holding a professorship, usually at a second-level university, until they are dropped by commercial publishing, as nearly all pop novelists eventually are when they can’t duplicate earlier successes, but remain tenured academics.

George Steiner (1929), a true polymath who didn’t become the Edmund Wilson of his generation, though for reasons having nothing to do with him no one could, as the preconditions for Wilson’s exemplary career had evaporated by the 1970s, additionally because Steiner’s advocacies weren’t persuasive and he lived and taught too long abroad.

Norman Podhoretz (b. 1930), long the editor of Commentary, presumably a prominent neo-conservative, who long ago claimed “making it” although (surprise?) his name doesn’t appear in the histories of anything general (as distinct from sectarian) and, since he has passed eighty, probably never will.

Previous editors of the hyper-venerable Poetry magazine. (Daryl Hine from 1968 to 1978, John Frederick Nims from 1978 to 1983, and Joseph Parisi from 1983 to 2003.)

Ishmael Reed (1938), a special case, because, irrepressible, he routinely expresses professional disappointment.

Accomplished academic operators who can’t understand why prominence in their home campuses can’t be leveraged to realize at least some success, any greater visibility, in the outside literary world(s).

Poets prominent, if only briefly, for activites other than their poetry, such as feminism, masculinism, pacificism, or other activities more likely to be reported in newspapers than in their poetry.

Nearly all writers ever recognized as the “first” three-handed or whatever new category to receive a certain visible, publicized award based on some physical tag (race, gender, etc.) in the past, because they discover such recognitions had little to do with the quality or presence of their writing.

Winners of prominent prizes who believed that their parading the awards’ names would earn them new admirers a year or two later, perhaps because sophisticated readers have come to understand that all one-winner rewards reflect not highest excellence but the biases of a particular juror(s) at a certain time.

Nearly all poets published exclusively by the literary-industrial complex, usually thanks to the appreciation of a single editor ensconsed there, because they discovered that while the commercial houses can get awards and even teaching jobs, they don’t “push” poetry and, by their familiar imprimaturs alone, can’t make literary reputations.

Any author to whom compensatory concessions were made early in their careers (aka “affirmative action”), whether on behalf of some state-certified minority category (of race, gender, etc.), of religion, legacy, nepotism, and place of birth, or of traditional WASP privilege, which probably gave the beneficiaries some head-starts of employment or publication in cultural competitions that, in the end however, required genuine achievements for which no concession could be made.

Dumb authors who, once successful, believed that they could takes dangerous risks with their minds, say by ingesting too much alcohol and/or excessive drugs, much as some athletes, temporary confident with their success, take unnecessary risks with their bodies. Others simply imagined that drink or drugs would enhance their imaginations, because their literary idols were drunks or addicts, only to become dummies who scarcely wrote.

Authors who sought to be popular among their colleagues rather than influential, because such popularity has a shorter life than influence. Literary business isn’t politics.

For aspiring authors, as well as those still active in their middle ages, the moral of this story is simple: Don’t ever think that anything less than the very best writing that you can do and do again, yes, will save you from the eventual disappointment that befalls too many authors.


Richard Kostelanetz’s work has been acknowledged at some length in Ronald S. Berman’s America in the Sixties (1967), Ihab Hassan’s Contemporary American Literature (1973), Robert Spiller’s Literary History of the United States (fourth ed., 1974), The Reader’s Adviser (1969 & 1974), Daniel Hoffman’s Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing (1979), Irving and Anne D. Weiss’s Thesaurus of Book Digests 1950-1980 (1981), George Myers’ Introduction to Modern Times (1982), David Cope’s New Directions in Music (1984), Joan Lyons’ Artists’ Books (1985), Tom Holmes’ Electronic and Experimental Music (1985), Jamake Highwater’s Shadow Show (1986), Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988), Eric Salzman’s Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction (third edition, 1988), Tom Johnson’s The Voice of the New Music (1989), Robert Siegle’s Suburban Ambush (1989), John Rodden’s The Politics of Literary Reputation (1989), The Reader’s Catalog (1989), Lydia Goehr’s The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (1992), Ecce Kosti (1996), Bob Grumman’s Of Manywhere-at-Once (1998), Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing (2005), Kyle Gann’s Music Downtown (2006), Sally Banes’s Before, Between, and Beyond: Three Decades of Dance Writing (2007), C. T. Funkhouser’s Prehistoric Digital Poetry (2007), Jacques Donguy’s Poésies experimentales Zone numérique (1953-2007) (2007), and Geza Perneczky’s Assembling Magazines 1969-2000 (2007), among other critical histories of contemporary culture. Otherwise, he is unclassifiable and under-acknowledged.


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