Joyce Carol Oates was the speaker at Benaroya Hall here in Seattle this week for the Seattle Arts and Lectures series. Despite her status as American literary royalty, Oates radiated humility and was a good sport about going up to bat for every question pitched to her. Her latest book, A Widow’s Story, is a memoir describing the experience unexpectedly losing her husband, Raymond Smith, and I was interested in what this writer who’s written in almost every imaginable genre would have to say about memoir, which she described as “the most seductive of genres and also the most dangerous of genres” (“seductive to the writer because it seems so easy”–emphasis on the word seems). But the most compelling part of her talk for me was when she spoke about failure, particularly a writer’s failure.
There are certain experiences–like loneliness, grief, and failure–that seem to permeate our lives but for which we seem as a culture to have not enough ways to discuss. “Failure” is part of every writer’s career, partly because the apprenticeship period for this craft is insanely long. I once heard a writer of note say it takes 10 years to become a writer; and although it’s practically un-American to say so (we like success and accomplishment to be swift and early), the 10-year estimate sounds about right to me. And, in my experience and from what I’ve seen in other writers’ careers, that ten years can be full of minor and major commercial successes and numerous commercial “failures,” but no matter how the reading and buying public might be experiencing us, we are not fully cooked as writers for many years.
Oates’ point, which apparently she has made elsewhere in her essay “Notes on Failure,” is that early commercial success can actually stunt a writer’s progress just as early “failure” can contribute to a writer’s success. Tell me more, Professor Oates! Her theory is that if a writer is very successful commercially with an early book, he or she will keep writing that very same type of book, which in fact may not be all that good and may be highly derivative of another author (She said she could think of many examples but would not care to name them). But if an author bombs out with her or his first and second novels, the author may be then be given the opportunity to say forget about the marketplace and just write a second or third book that is truly in his own voice and thus more likely to be of literary value.
Oates cited Faulkner as a perfect example of this; his first three books, she said, were horrible–one (I believe she said it was Mosquitoes) was a complete Hemingway knock-off, the other two also pale imitations of other writers. And then, his apprenticeship came to an end–just when a writer of less courage might have given up–and he knocked it out of the park with The Sound and the Fury (1929)and then As I Lay Dying (1930) and then Sanctuary(1931) and the rest is stellar literary history.
This got me thinking about how every writer I know seems to have a book that didn’t ever see the light of day. Mine is a memoir called Light Sleeper: The Making of an Unlikely Mother. I always count Light Sleeper among my children, but I’ve always felt bad about her too. I should have made it a better book. It should’ve made its way into print. But I think Oates would say that Light Sleeper was a necessary loss, a crucial part of my early apprenticeship. I see that now. And, I can let it go.