Ann Beattie does not need to answer her question. She renders sufficient service by asking it.
In today’s New York Times Beattie wonders how young people became convinced that they were products and that they should aspire to be products, bought and sold in the marketplace.
To her credit, she does not blame it on the internet or social media.
Obviously, there is nothing wrong with buying and selling in the marketplace. There is something wrong, Beattie says, with becoming a product yourself.
Once young people define themselves as products, who knows where their efforts to sell themselves will lead?
Fiction is Beattie’s trade and she, dare one note, has always allowed her work to speak for itself. Her's work's excellence has always sufficed.
She never made herself a brand. To my knowledge, she never presented her gussied-up best across multiple media platforms.
And she has not trafficked in sensational personal stories that are more suited to gossip columns than to fiction.
Of course, many of today's young writers probably do not believe in excellence at all. If they have drunk deep of the dominant campus ideology they might come away thinking that there is no such thing as a truly great writer, but that certain writers have gained outsized reputations for reasons that have more to do with a vast conspiracy and less to do with their wondrous sentences.
In some cases young writers try to sell themselves because their work cannot speak for itself. but then, the rage toward selling oneself might lead more talented writers to spend less time on their work and more time on their public personae.
Beattie raises the issue in her opening paragraph:
YOUNG people have been educated to believe that self-promotion is essential. Being excellent is only part of the scenario, and quick personal advancement is mandatory. Otherwise, all will be lost. All the talent, all the hope, all the achievement. Those things are not meant to speak for themselves: They’re kindling for the fire, and the fire must be breathed out of the mouths of young dragons that have no fear (with tongue piercings removed for job interviews).
She, as I, finds it sad that young people have been taught that they must have a narrative, and that they must become a narrative.
How sad for everyone, that they’re expected to have their narrative — facts are to be spun into fiction; they’re prompted to make up a coherent story, though life itself is hardly that — while they’re still developing. Then they’re expected to be “adult” and to ask another adult to endorse them.
As you know, our culture has taken it as an article of faith that life is a story and that your goal should be to conceive of yourself as a character in a coherent narrative. Beattie is right to dismiss the notion.
Knowing what advances the narrative is not the same as knowing the right thing to do. Surely, neither is the same as doing the right thing.
Most fiction writers do not use multiple media platforms to sell books. They are not a constant presence on talk shows. For the most part, they, like Beattie allow their work to speak for itself.
Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule. Think Jonathan Franzen or Normal Mailer.
Of course, young writers tend to write about themselves. It's what they know best. Often, and unfortunately, it's all that they know. And yet, life experience does not, in and of itself, produce great fiction. It might produce sensationalism and buzz, but that does not make anyone a great writer.
If you succeed at the game of buzz by exposing your more intimate secrets, what are you going to write about when you run out of intimate secrets?
Beattie is pointing to a basic confusion. A work of fiction needs to have a concept and it needs to tell a story. That does not mean that the writer must be a brand with a great life story.
Having taught fiction writing in a university, Beattie is occasionally asked to recommend her former students. Many of them are applying for grants and fellowships at prestigious writers’ programs, like Yaddo, the Radcliffe Institute or the New York Public Library.
And she wonders why the committees that hand out these funds require the personal opinion of the writing instructor. Doesn’t the young person’s work speak for itself? Does anyone really believe that the quality of a writer’s work has a direct correlation with his good character, with his congeniality?
The committee might want to know whether the writer works hard, but, shouldn't an attentive and educated reader discern hard work in the product?
One recognizes that publishers like to know how marketable a writer is. They want to know how much press he can generate and how many books he can sell. Again, this applies more to non-fiction than to fiction.
But, the august souls who decide on who will be going to Yaddo do not, in principle, share these concerns.
Perhaps, they want to know whether the candidate will be a congenial presence, someone whose good attitude makes for a more harmonious environment. A writer who is borderline and inclined to produce drama might not be a desirable dinner-table companion.
On the other hand, a committee that wants Ann Beattie’s opinion of a writer’s potential might lack confidence in its own judgment.
As it happens, in our litigious age has obliged professors to write glowing recommendations for everyone. At times, it more than mere litigiousness. Many professors offer mountains of unearned praise because students cannot handle anything resembling the truth. If each and every young writer is the best, the judgment is no more than lip service.
Nothing about the process will detract from a young writer’s self-esteem. Worse yet, nothing about the process will tell young writer whether he has the talent to make a career of it. Of course, it is telling him that, lacking the talent, he can always go out and sell himself.