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A New York Writer’s Catch-22

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And also, most of all, are you even talented? Obviously not. You have spent a whole semester rewriting twenty pages of a thing you have come to hate.

My Hunter students do not ask when the agents will visit. They are there, I tell them, to be writers. Everything else will follow. But who can say they won’t get the fabled six-figure advance in the end?

And who would dare suggest they divide this number by the three or four or five years it took to earn it?

And would it stop them anyway?

And here is what seems most insane—young and not-so-young writers take out student loans to get M.F.A.’s in creative writing. This does not add up. I once taught in the M.F.A. program at Columbia, and so I know the extraordinary gifts that student debt can confer. But the Marshian in me says it’s impossible to start a life committed to literary fiction when you are $60,000 in debt. The very size of the loan assumes there is a market, a business to go into, a living to make. But the hard truth is that only a sucker writes literature with the intention of making money. This was so obvious in Australia in 1961, you never needed to say it. Today, when people seem to be breaking through all around you, it might be good to bear in mind that the only reward you can rely on is in the work itself. And, of course, they do know that. A while ago, I went down to Strand with my then 13-year-old son and we were, of course, selling books and we watched the buyer separating the sheep from the goats, without understanding which was which. When the judgment was made, he pushed back at us a pile of really good novels. These, it turned out, were the goats. I said, “But surely you can sell Rohinton Mistry.” And he said, “We don’t need fiction.” And I thought, Where am I?

And I thought, quoting Beckett to myself, Imagination Dead Imagine.

But those twelve students sitting round the table have to forget way bigger things than money. In particular, they must forget that they’re walking out onto the same field as Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Conrad, Austen. This should be enough to stop anyone. Of course, it never has been.

And I, for some insane reason, have ended up caring about their lives. Frankly, I should be worrying about my own book, and yet here I am fretting about how I can make it worth their while to be in New York.

So that student over there, the one who arrived from San Francisco, is now working as a research assistant with Jonathan Franzen. He’s the recipient of a Hertog Fellowship, and he’s by no means the only one. Indeed, there will be eight this year.

And there is A. working for Toni Morrison, and V. working with Salman Rushdie. And C. who went to work with Richard Price and found him a psychic and a haunted house on the Lower East Side. E. researched for Siri Hustvedt. G. worked with Patrick McGrath and collected information on spinal injuries for the book he is now just finishing. The list of mentors goes on and on. I forgot Nathan Englander. Jonathan Safran Foer. Colum McCann too, although he has since come to join the faculty.

Of all the things I do at Hunter, this seems to me almost the most important, to close that huge, lonely gap between the kitchen table and the world of literature.

But when we’ve done all that, although the Hertog Fellows now know, say, how a great writer uses research, or what A.M. Homes’s apartment is like, they’re still those anonymous people you see on the 6 train, reading Bruno Schulz. You’ve seen my students. You’ve thought, Is this a teacher, a barman with a taste for literature? One day you’ll be reading their book, maybe, but for now, as the train does that violent chiropractic jerk between Grand Central and 33rd, the only thing that is clear is that these young writers are unstoppable. No one reads fiction anymore? Says who? We are living in the middle of a roar of literature. The national newspapers are performing the surgical removal of their book-review pages like slick lobotomies, but the fiction writers continue like so many thousands of song-and-dance Rasputins who refuse to die. They’ll be there when we wake from this dark time and realize what all those “true stories” have really been. Imagination Dead Imagine.

Peter Carey's Official Website


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