Joseph Epstein begins his a commentary of The Midnight Disease by Alice W. Flaherty like this:
I was recently asked what it takes to become a writer. Three things, I answered: first, one must cultivate incompetence at almost every other form of profitable work. This must be accompanied, second, by a haughty contempt for all the forms of work that one has established one cannot do. To these two must be joined, third, the nuttiness to believe that other people can be made to care about your opinions and views and be charmed by the way you state them. Incompetence, contempt, lunacy.once you have these in place, you are set to go.
Not a bad start. But what interests me is his take on the differences of writing (novels, I suppose) and journalism:
A pity she does not appear to know the truth-laden aphorism of Karl Kraus, the Viennese wit: ”a journalist, given time, writes worse.”
I taught would-be novelists, poets, and essayists for three decades at Northwestern University. Many of them demonstrated much greater ability than I at their age, yet nothing much has happened to the vast majority of them. Or, rather, the world happened to them, intervening in their grand plans to become serious writers by placing genuine obstacles in their way or by holding out other prospects and possibilities: marriage and family, honorable and better-paying work, the temptations of journalism.
I think it was Tom Wolfe who wrote that during the 20th century many American journalists considered their careers only as stepping stones on their way to writing the Next Big American Realistic Novel. After all, that was what Mark Twain and others had done. However, says Wolfe, these wanna-bes failed because they lacked the sine non qua to become a bona fide author.
I for one have no real interest in writing fiction. I mean, if I wanted to do that, I’d be studying to become an author and not a journalist, right? Maybe this whole
all journalists are failed authors thing is inherently American. Going by my gut feeling I’d be willing to say that not too many Finnish reporters harbour secret wishes of authordom. Most of the newspaper people seem to be quite happy the way they are. Maybe they’d like to get more space every now and then, but people seem to be quite focused on writing news, not just writing.
Which is not to say I’d like to be an author myself. Stuff like The New Yorker (the subscription of which is dirt cheap, by the way) or new journalism appeals to me greatly because of the combination of form and content. I don’t even want to writing fiction, because I can’t see the appeal. Does this make me a failed author?