The Plight of the Academian and the Author

Read Aeschylus yet? Have his works on your shelf? If you answered "no" to the first question and "yes" to the second, maybe it's time to reconsider your personal library. Considering the rate new and engaging books are coming out these days, ask yourself, when am I actually going to sit down and read his works? Just toss it.

Now that I have finally weeded out my book collection, I’m starting on my magazines and journals. I started with a year’s subscription of The American Poetry Review that I got back in 2003. I don’t think I can part with a single one of them.

I’m not an indiscriminate reader, not anymore anyway. I mercilessly throw away books or donate them to libraries at least once a month. My disdain for literature which didn’t apply to me started back in my undergraduate years, when the school, or one of the clubs, would host a book sale each year. I’d watch my friends scramble down after class and pick up as many of the “classics” as they could get their hands on. Anything with Aristotle’s name, or Plato or Socrates. We were English majors after all and we already had full collections of Shakespeare and all of the Norton anthologies with the greats. We had moved on to literary criticism, philosophy, and relatively obscure poets like Hart Crane, the poets we didn’t always hear about in class but heard about in passing or in interviews with other greats.

When I moved in with my wife, also an English major, we started boxing up our collections and tossing out the books we both had copies of. Three Shakespeare collections were reduced to one. A lot of required texts we read for class were tucked away in a closet in my parents’ house. Years later when we went through them, we realized most of them meant little to us. Neither of us cared much for American imagist poetry. The countless collections of literature that feature excerpts from classic greek texts, they just didn’t matter. If they did feature something important to us, we wanted the entire text, not a single chapter to sample the material. All of the texts that we promised ourselves we’d get to some day, like the works of Euripides, we knew in our mid-twenties what we didn’t know when we were in our late teens: there was no way in hell we were going to dig through all of the works our professors attributed value to.

I feel like most people hit a point early in their lives where they’ll come to the realization that they’re not going to read everything on their shelves, but they don’t. I’ve watched many a professor retire with three shelves filled with books they’ve never read. I’ve had the luxury of sorting through the collections of retired professors who then, at the moment of retirement, realize they’re not going to read most of the work and leave the books in boxes in a department common room for students to browse, so that they may continue the legacy of knowledge hoarding. I have watched cohorts slink away with bags filled to the brim with books they’ll never read. Screw that. I won’t be a part of it.

The value of these works diminished for me a long time ago. It used to pain me to say “no” when a colleague or cohort in my program asked, “hey, have you checked out Aeschylus?” It doesn’t bother me anymore. That’s not my focus.

I’ve learned, through the years of cleaning out texts which are unimportant to me, not to crack a book that I know I probably won’t read. The minute I do, I’ll convince myself I need to read it. The last time I did this, it was with Proust. The prose was elegant, so elegant  and drawn out that after a few pages, I still didn’t have any notion of the plot. But the language. The language!

That’s part of the reason I’ll hang on to my subscription to The American Poetry Review from 2003. There’s some great material in those issues. Some of those folks can truly be called wordsmiths, even the folks who I don’t recognize by name. But there’s another reason: I feel sorry for most of the authors inside, all of which, at the time of publication, had probably convinced themselves that they were on the verge of making it big, at least as far as poetry is concerned. I look back almost ten years later, and I still don’t recognize 95% of the names in the July/August issue. I counted 30+ books advertised in that issue. I recognized perhaps one or two of those names, and those were the names of poets who had been writing since the 90s or earlier. Some of those books probably won a pushcart prize or some other notable award of distinction. I still have no idea who the authors are.

Perhaps that’s my fault for not being an integral part of the poetry movement in America. Maybe it is society’s fault for not attributing enough value to poetry today. Despite the culprit, maybe what I’m describing is symptomatic of the lives of many as writers, including myself. No matter how much exposure we work to give ourselves, we’re still going to die obscure authors known by few, relatively speaking. The question is, are you willing to accept that? Furthermore, why are you writing?

Most days knowing I’ll likely die an unknown author doesn’t bother me. I’m writing because I love it, and if only one other person enjoys my work, that’s good enough for me. I’m not writing to make a living, and I’m glad I’m not. I think that can be dangerous. I’m still motivated to expand my audience, but I find my motivation stems more from my desire to be remembered after I die than to be applauded for my works now. But there will be no marble bust made in my honor. My works won’t be tucked away in some monastery, hidden from the eyes of the general population for years before resurfacing and granting me the acclaim I once thought I might deserve. At best, they’ll grant me continued appointment at my job and I’ll garner a wider audience. Most days I’m alright with that.

But there are some days where I open an old literary magazine and see a plethora of names I don’t recognize. I wonder where those authors are today like I used to wonder what happened to the cast of Salute Your Shorts on Nickelodeon. I looked them up long before I started wondering about authors in these magazines and journals. Like most, they fade into the backdrop. I wonder if the old tapings of their shows bring them only a sense of longing and despair. Do they look back in disappointment at what they thought was going to be when they were in the prime of their career?

Ever wonder what happened to these folks? Some went on to do notable things in the realm of acting. Others just moved on. What're you going to do if and when it finally occurs to you that you're not going to be the next Sophocles, or the next Dean Koontz?

I think it is a pivotal point in the small press author’s career when we have these feelings of inadequacy, when the disparity between what we originally set out to accomplish and the reality of the situation hits us, and for the first time, we begin to feel unremarkable. It’s almost inevitable that most of us will feel this at some point. It’s what we do with it that counts.

This feeling has hit me many times over the years, but it never keeps me down. I doubt I’ll be doing anything different from what I am today, or was yesterday. I have come to terms with the fact that I’ll never stop writing, and I’ll never give up on publishing whether it takes me somewhere, or leaves me laboring over a manuscript in my moldy basement. One of my primary motivations has been to establish a legacy that will live on after I’m gone. I can’t imagine giving up on that while I’m still here.

So what are you going to do? Whatever our dreams are, are you going to move on to do something notable in the field you’ve always loved, or are you simply going to move on? I think the answer rests in part with why you’re doing what you’re doing to begin with.

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