Late author James Agee is regarded today as one of American literature’s most incisive, insightful, and innovative writers. It wasn’t so while he was alive. He was respected enough, sure: His book and film reviews for Time and The Nation were popular and well regarded, as were his contributions to the screen adaptations of The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter, but Agee didn’t grow in stature untilafter his alcoholism-fueled heart attack in 1955, at the age of 45.
I wrote a brief history of the word “pioneer” for The Millions; I really hope you’ll read it!
In lieu of Tuesday’s traditional Word Play post, here are a few John Steinbeck quotes on the agony and ecstasy of being a writer. Mostly agony.
These quotes come from his 1953 essay “My Short Novels,” which originally appeared in the Literary Guild Review’s periodical, Wings, and which was reprinted in America and Americans, a collection put out by Penguin Classics.
The first note regards the writers’ complicated relationship with their work, how passion fades once the piece is done and gone:
“It is true that while a work is in progress, the writer and his book are one. When a book is finished, it is a kind of death, a matter of pain and sorrow to the writer. Then he [or she] starts a new book and a new life… The writer, like a fickle lover, forgets his old love. It is no longer his own: the intimacy and surprise are gone.”
And of these stories, “thrust out into an unfriendly world to make their way”? “They have experiences, too — they grow and change or wane and die, just as everyone does. They make friends or enemies, and sometimes they waste away from neglect.” 😦
Finally, after recounting how his first three novels failed to sell out, and how the $90 he earned from The Red Pony seemed like “more money than I thought the world contained” and encouraged him to continue, Steinbeck notes, astutely:
“It takes only the tiniest pinch of encouragement to keep a writer going, and if he gets none, he sometimes learns to feed even on the acid of failure.” It’s true. We writers are kind of like those sea creatures that feed off of noxious gases spewing from oceanic anuses, only less cute.