I'm Just Saying…

May 15, 2010

Mirror, mirror on the wall, Who is the best writer of us all?

On June 7th, The New Yorker magazine will publish a list of The 20 Best Writers Under 40. I’m always a sucker for these lists. Each year Crain’s New York Business magazine compiles The Top 40 Under 40, a list that covers all industries. I always make sure to check it out as I like to see what people are doing and how they have used their talents. Let’s face it, there are people out there in the world doing some very cool things. The majority of these people, sadly, never make a list and the world at large never hears of them.

It didn’t take long for some strong reaction to hit the internet (see the report by Leon Neyfakh over at The New York Observer website: “Lit Agent Ira Silverberg to Haters: Don’t Throw “Buckets of Shit” on The New Yorker!). I have to say, when I heard about the list I was surprised by the effect it had upon me. On the one hand I was excited because I love discovering a new writer. To open a book is like opening a present; the treat is discovering the work of someone you’ve never read before, getting to know their style, their prose, how they weave a sentence. On the other hand, the novelty had barely worn off before I was in the midst of a Stuart Smalley downward spiral of  “stinkin’ thinkin'” about my own abilities. “I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m going to die homeless and penniless…”  It was an ugly scene.

It’s a fact I could never be on a 20 Best Under 40 list for the obvious reason. Beyond that, there was that sinking feeling, the “knowing” that I wouldn’t be on such a list anyway, even if I met the age qualifier. I think all writers struggle with the self-doubt of whether they are good enough, if their books are good enough. For years I carried the mental ball and chain: I should be writing “an important book,” “the great American novel,” a book of deep prose addressing weighty matters that captured the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times we live in. What writer hasn’t dreamed of writing a book that stands the test of literature and time to become “a new classic” as movies are advertised on TNT?

Am I proud of my work? Absolutely. Do I think you should read my books? Of course! And yet, I believe to be a writer is always and forever to be a student. To truly touch a reader,  a writer must constantly experiment with language, arranging words like building blocks until finding the optimum construction. Clearly not all writers are the same. Some have that extra “something.” Who has the right to make the call on who those writers are? Judging by Neyfakh’s article, that’s still under discussion.

The writer can be his/her own worst enemy, constantly critical and unforgiving, choosing to see only what is lacking instead of focusing on their strengths. I still find myself inching perilously close to the booby trap of wanting to write “an important book,” instead of focusing on writing the story I need to tell. As I work on Deciphering Bella, I remind myself daily that my goal is to write truthfully of a relationship between two deeply flawed people. Whether or not that subject is important, the reader will decide.

In a few weeks I will pick up my copy of The New Yorker and read about The 20 Best Writers Under 40. There are new writers and their wonderful words to be discovered. And then I will go back to my computer and work on my own story, the story I need to tell.



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