A writer is a creature of solitude: Has there ever been a bigger lie?
And yet the myth persists. We treat writers as individuals, but only in precisely those ways that melt their individuality down, the better to recast it in more agreeable forms. Neglected, misunderstood or vaguely despised by most, writers—the “best” ones, anyway—are said to be largely companionless in their striving: they’re in it by and for themselves from start to finish. Their only social redemption is to be recognized as having been all along a lone genius. So our culture gives the writers trinkets and trophies to fight over—fellowships, teaching positions, agents, advances, columns, prizes—the struggle over which only becomes fiercer as year by year they grow scarcer. Each writer must market themselves by having, in fact by being, a brand; one acquires what might once have been called a readership by pandering to a fandom. When occasionally we still choose to trot out some approximation of an eminent writer for an interview, we expect them to play-act a role halfway between a celebrity and a sage. And if a writer has been particularly well-behaved in the eyes of the institutions, then as they hobble into retirement we hand them that especially embarrassing Swedish trophy, which is the shiniest trinket of them all. With this gesture our writer, who has struggled in isolation to reach this pinnacle, is admitted at last into that frosty pantheon that has loomed over the institutions this whole time: the roll call of dead writers whose names have grown prestigious even as their works go unread, more huge than human, imposing as monoliths, unreachable as stars.
You can take comfort in the fact that none of this has much to do with actual literature—neither with what it is nor with how it’s made. Our work is not the loneliest but among the most gregarious of the arts.
Writers not only don’t work alone: they can’t. The key proxy for a vibrant book culture is the little packs they form when things are going well. A literary work of art begins long before the fateful confrontation with the blank page, in the whole life we’ve lived to know what to put upon it. And only a life full of friends among the living and the dead is conducive to the production of real art. Of course a writer is always their irreducibly individual voice—but how do you think they first learned to sing with it? In honing it against the voices of others just as invested in questions of beauty, in histories of forms; in digging up the neglected works that always ought to have been classics, and treating them as such amongst ourselves; in ruthless mutual critique, becoming accountable to one another as editors and collaborators; in mockery and contempt for what’s bad, and throwing the occasional wrench into the machinery of the establishment.
These principles extend across time and space. For the writers of the past are still alive to us—whether they’re our friends, or our enemies, in the battles of today. If they’re our enemies, their ugliness and their attacks on what we love inspire us to combat; if they’re our friends, their words and lives are our model and our manna, and they’re no less our companions than those we grab drinks with at the corner dive. That’s a lesson I learned from Roberto Bolaño, Cervantes and Wu Jingzi: the only way to read the classics is with the playful irreverence that comes from the deepest respect, the very same attitude with which our most admirable peers read one another.
Literature, then, is no mere private career but a way of life—one undertaken not in solitude but in the fullest meaning of a literary community. The renunciation of official rewards, the life journey through different countries and different languages, the full immersion in an era’s political and philosophical and scientific currents, the creation of personal canons and parallel institutions, the resulting emergence of new shared forms: these practices alone, which cut against the whole spirit of our current culture, can generate the experiences and relationships out of which any genuine art must be constructed. All the classic avant-gardes championed such things, but they have no monopoly on them. It’s an old wisdom, really, equally visible in the house shows of a punk squat, the pamphleteering of the great revolutions, the wanderings of any griot or dervish or troubadour. Literature only ever exists as this subtle and sinuous thread that connects various lives—writers to readers, writers to one another, the dead to the living, the living to the unborn—and causes them to course together.
All too often it seems we live in just one of those times when the thread has snapped, and so no literature is possible. What would it take to reconstitute our ties to the kind of literary community that extends from our present into the past and the future? While not exactly providing answers, each of the stories we’ve picked for this issue’s Literature section is in its own way animated by this longing.
There’s no better encapsulation of our actually existing literary world than Ann Manov’s short story “The Last Days of Bohemia”—however much we might wish it were otherwise. Here is an honest, hence dismal, sketch of what’s left of the New York art scene in the early 2020s: a twentysomething arriviste’s relationship with an older photographer whose affections are as exploitative and superficial as his works; the inevitable circuit of oligarch-funded, hollowed-out art parties; clout chasing, ladder climbing and obscenity elevated to universal principles. Here community becomes not only distant but unthinkable. It may have been possible once, but today it exists only as half-remembered snapshots in an old catalog. What stands out in Manov’s story is her willingness to stare the artist’s bleak situation in the face without the comfort of any false hopes and go on trying to make something beautiful anyway. When it can do nothing else, art can at least aspire to a form that refutes its premise.
It’s daunting to imagine what a writer might hope for in a world like this. But Sabine Huynh’s imagination is powerful enough not only to dream of but to reconstruct a living relationship with her literary predecessors. Her autofictional book Elvis à la radio, excerpted here in a translation by Natasha Lehrer, treats this bond as a matter of urgent necessity. Her parents were Vietnamese immigrants with sympathies to the old colonial government who came to France to escape reunification under the Communists; when they were met with rejection and racist violence in the “civilized” metropole they’d admired from afar, they were profoundly traumatized. Scarred by the violence they meted out to her in turn, Huynh became unable to even recall the blurry memories of those early events. A born poet, she knew she had to write about it to get through it, and so she called upon the writers who have been important to her—Annie Ernaux, Thomas Bernhard, Marguerite Duras—quotations from whom are peppered throughout the novel. “I wrote from these sentences, repeating these sentences, bringing them up again and again, looking at them, returning to them in every direction, until something was triggered in the unconscious,” she has said.
But if Manov testifies to our disillusionment with the scene, and Huynh to our ability to reconstruct our most private selves using the language of the great authors, it’s Carmen Boullosa who depicts something like a complete vision of cosmic literary utopia. Her 2009 novel El complot de los Románticos imagines all the dead writers of the past (from Sylvia Plath to Rabindranath Tagore, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz to Yukio Mishima) as a global and eternal assembly of ghosts. This device allows Boullosa—a preeminent Latin American postmodernist, whom Bolaño once called Mexico’s best woman writer—to riff ecstatically on gossip, tragedies and intrigues spanning across literary eras. Our excerpt “Parnassus,” translated by Samantha Schnee, focuses on the titular literary festival held by the ghosts once a year when they return briefly to our world. It seems highly significant that the prize goes to the best unfinished or lost manuscript by any ghost, and that the sole human judge must be only “half-alive” themselves due to writer’s block. As we watch the ghosts bicker over the logistics of the next conference, it’s impossible not to recognize the struggles of our lives in their afterlives—a comfort, but also a call to raise our standards and ourselves to the occasion, to seek out and build the shared culture that is the precondition for art. After all, where there is no community, neither can there really be an individual.
Read “Parnassus,” excerpted from El complot de los Románticos, here
Read “Shame,” excerpted from Elvis à la radio, here
Read “The Last Days of Bohemia” here
Art credit: Robert Braithwaite Martineau, Kit’s Writing Lesson, 1852.