In the 1950s and 1960s, I grew up in Westchester County, thirty minutes from New York City (think Don Draper in “Mad Men” for the typical train commute), and I was the son of a book publisher living in the center of the literary world. My dad would have frequent parties with other book publishers including Sol Stein, the founder of Stein and Day; Max Schuster of Simon and Shuster; Jovanovich of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; Nat Wartels, the founder of Crown; luminaries such as Bennet Cerf of Random House; and many others whose names have receded into the mists of publishing history. I remember the parties and the characters, they seemed larger than life and enjoyed every aspect of living with great emphasis on fine food and drink. After all these years I forget many of their names, but their companies (such as Sterling) live on, now owned by larger corporations which have changed the publishing world and which, no doubt, in fifty years will in many cases have disappeared as well.
The literary life itself has changed. As a society we do not cultivate great writing; we really don’t. I am not sure if great writing is still possible. And this is not because of technology, but in spite of it. More people are writing more books more easily than ever before. There are more writer’s groups, more writing courses, more “How to be a Best Selling Author” seminars, and more access to getting books published than in any previous moment in history. So the problem with the lack of great writing is actually neither access nor time to the tools and the profession. The problem, as far as I can determine, is with the times in which we live.
There is much focus on commercial success and seeming relevance that it is rare for those who read to take the time to cultivate great writing. Great writing takes time. Great writing takes rewriting. Great writing does not ensure commercial success. The recent release of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” is a case study that proves why there is little if any great writing or great publishing at this moment in time. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a great book, it has withstood the test of time. It will still be read fifty years from now, more than one hundred years after it was published. But I doubt that even five years from now “Go Set a Watchman” will be read. It is not great writing. It was not meant to be published; it required rewriting. The rewriting is what created the timelessness of “To Kill a Mockingbird”. The editor took time, months of back and forth with Harper Lee, hundreds of hours of thought and comment from both editor and author. This could never happen today. Both publisher and author can not take the time to have a book percolate. There is too much financial gain or loss at stake. And besides, is anyone other than a few literary critics or erudite publishing industry or academic specialists going to notice the flaws in books not truly gestated, not truly edited, but published for great financial benefit?
I write books myself and they are well written. One, “The Twelve”, has sold more than 500,000 copies. My authored books however are not great writing. I was not motivated to write a great book. I hired an outside editor. I had a wonderful editor provided by the publisher. They did as good a job as the time and money allocated justified. Readers have enjoyed my books, and I receive wonderful compliments from them. For some my books have changed their lives for the better. They are good books, just not great. In the fullness of time my books are unlikely to survive. Only truly great works of art survive.
I recommend that those of you interested in writing strive for greatness. It will not be easy, there will be distractions. You will have to find great editors and you will have to pay them. You will have to allocate time. You will have to be unattached to the financial results. You will have to cut back on your social media and dedicate all of your creative energy to the book itself and not the marketing. You will have difficulty finding a major publisher. But if you write a truly great book, your words may live forever.
Now, that would be a true literary life.