The Graveyard: Are the Great the Lucky?
by Court Merrigan
Put your birthday into the Birthday Bestsellers search engine to see a list of New York Times bestsellers the week you were born. Here’s mine:
Are all of these Top 10 books from February 1976 exemplars of fine literature? Surely not. Are at least a couple? Almost certainly. How to know?
As for me, I recognize some of the names – Tennessee Williams, Agatha Christie, Saul Bellow, William F. Buckley, E.L. Doctrow. I’ve read some of their books, but none of these. That includes Humboldt’s Gift, which was part of the oeuvre that got Saul Bellow the Nobel Prize, or that American classic Ragtime. Sadly, the work with which I am most “familiar” is Shogun – at least as it appeared as a TV miniseries years later.
And these are just the lucky 10 books that made the list, for one week during the disco era. Thousands of others– some vastly superior, no doubt – remain totally unknown to me, because the search engine limits my enquiry to bestsellers only.
Consider further. Without this search engine, even these ten books might never have briefly flared into my consciousness, to depart equally quickly. What are the odds that I would have stumbled across any of them in a library, or a second-hand bookstore, and picked them off the dusty shelf, and read them? And that I would subsequently have declared, “These are fine pieces of literature!”
You see how the odds funnel down very, very quickly. It makes you wonder: is literature just what survives?
Beyond the flickering light of those few writers who achieve fleeting fame in their lifetimes, past the much brighter halo of the Faulkners and Dickens and Shakespeares whose posthumous fame constitutes the canon, lies a vast, unseen, unmentioned graveyard. A graveyard of unknown books, a monstrous, unknown continent that surrounds the little enclave of books we revere.
I corral these ideas from Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The Black Swan is one of those exceedingly rare books that may actually cause the earth to move under your feet, mangling your parameters, trashing your preconceptions, crushing your private views.
Take the first part of Chapter 8 (bold mine):
Notice the large number of people who call themselves writers but are (only “temporarily”) operating the shiny cappuccino machines at Starbucks. The inequity in this field is larger than, say, medicine, since we rarely see medical doctors serving hamburgers. I can thus infer that I can largely gauge the performance of the latter profession’s entire population from what sample is visible to me. Likewise with plumbers, taxi drivers, prostitutes, and those in professions devoid of superstar effects. …
The consequence of the superstar dynamic is that what we call “literary heritage” or “literary treasures” is a minute proportion of what has been produced cumulatively. This is the first point. How it invalidates the identification of talent can be derived immediately from it: say you attribute the success of the nineteenth-century novelist Honoré de Balzac to his superior “realism,” “insights,” “sensitivity,” “treatment of characters,” “ability to keep the reader riveted,” and so on. These may be deemed “superior” qualities that lead to superior performance if, and only if, those who lack what we call talent also lack these qualities. But what if there are dozens of comparable literary masterpieces that happened to perish? And, following my logic, if there are indeed many perished manuscripts with similar attributes, then, I regret to say, your idol Balzac was just the beneficiary of disproportionate luck compared to his peers. Furthermore, you may be committing an injustice to others by favoring him.
My point, I will repeat, is not that Balzac is untalented, but that he is less uniquely talented than we think. Just consider the thousands of writers now completely vanished from consciousness: their record does not enter into analyses. We do not see the tons of rejected manuscripts because these writers have never been published. The New Yorker alone rejects close to a hundred manuscripts a day, so imagine the number of geniuses that we will never hear about.
I particularly enjoyed this section; despite numerous tries, I’ve never much enjoyed Balzac. I’ve always considered that a fault of mine. After all, Balzac must be a genius, right? He’s in the canon!
Turns out maybe Balzac didn’t even think so:
Balzac outlined the entire business of silent evidence in his novel Lost Illusions. Lucien de Rubempré (alias of Lucien Chardon), the penurious provincial genius, “goes up” to Paris to start a literary career. We are told that he is talented—actually he is told that he is talented by the semiaristocratic set in Angoulême. But it is difficult to figure out whether this is due to his good looks or to the literary quality of his works—or even whether literary quality is visible, or, as Balzac seems to wonder, if it has much to do with anything. Success is presented cynically, as the product of wile and promotion or the lucky surge of interest for reasons completely external to the works themselves. Lucien discovers the existence of the immense cemetery inhabited by what Balzac calls “nightingales.”
Lucien was told that this designation “nightingale” was given by bookstores to those works residing on the shelves in the solitary depths of their shops. Balzac presents to us the sorry state of contemporary literature when Lucien’s manuscript is rejected by a publisher who has never read it; later on, when Lucien’s reputation has developed, the very same manuscript is accepted by another publisher who did not read it either! The work itself was a secondary consideration.
In another example of silent evidence, the book’s characters keep bemoaning that things are no longer as they were before, implying that literary fairness prevailed in more ancient times—as if there was no cemetery before. They fail to take into account the nightingales among the ancients’ work! Notice that close to two centuries ago people had an idealized opinion of their own past, just as we have an idealized opinion of today’s past.
Lest we think that it is only recently that publishing houses began to favor the bottom line over artistic innovation, or that once upon a time publishing houses nurtured writers from difficult beginning through long fruitful careers, see this letter from 1936. It is a rejection of Henry Miller’s third novel, Black Spring, by legendary publisher Bennet Cerf. He remarked,
“I am sorry to say that I had to turn down BLACK SPRING. I admire your talent for writing, but I didn’t like this particular book at all. In my opinion, it hasn’t the faintest chance of achieving commercial success in America.”
(Self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps?)
Those we regard as greats may only be greatly lucky.
–by Court Merrigan
See also Court Merrigan’s “What it’s like living here” and and “Spotlight on Court Merrigan” at Dark Sky Magazine.
(Post design by Natalia Sarkissian)
This essay reminds me of my mother-in-law. You know the type, right? She’ll waddle into a room and point out the cancer in everyone’s moles.
But sometimes she’s right. I try to keep what you’ve illustrated above in mind as I submit and am rejected, as I’m ignored and others are lauded. Luck is a bitch with a bad temper.
I’ll continue to think the publishing process is rigged until I get in, at which point it’ll certainly be all about talent. 🙂
A good essay, Court. Thanks for pointing me to Taleb.
Amazing in the way so many things are: what is wrong with it, and what is right. On the whole, though —
just to be clear — these entries are excellent and dg needs ever the ball thrown to/for the dog.
Leon, Great to see you here. Both Leon Rooke and David Helwig commented on NC today, old friends, well met.
It’s a nice coincidence, Court. I was working on my post, above, when yours went up and didn’t see it.
My father had two novels on his shelf that always mystified me and I’ve been meaning to read some day, Life in a Putty Knife Factory, by H. Allen Smith, and Swoop! (I think — I’m still tracking it down).
Thanks for your comments.
I like the cut of your jib, Brad, viewing publishing that way. I think I will commence to think that way, too.
That Gladwell link is hilarious. Let us know if you find those novels, and if they were all you thought they would be.
I was just working on my arrogance.