[marginalia] The Myth About Writers : : Mark Polanzak

In this second installment of three articles, draft editor Mark Polanzak opines about the writerly mystique and all the drama surrounding literary genius

After the mandated souring of young persons to the act of reading through our educational system, there’s the culture of book people to contend with. How do we as a society view authors?

On a recent South Park episode, when Butters took credit for authoring the novel Scrotie McBoogerballs and the world deemed him a genius writer, his look morphed from anxious nerdlinger in pale green tee to self-important writer-douche in black frame eyeglasses and gray sweater. The episode goes on to point out that books are not simply enjoyed for the stories they tell. Rather, they are bizarre language puzzles that concoct impenetrable metaphors and allegories that readers must set to figuring out. There’s this bullshit air of mystery about the whole endeavor and about authors themselves.

Oprah made a huge mistake in somehow getting Cormac McCarthy to give an interview. Watch it. As much as you may love McCarthy’s books (I do) and loathe Oprah’s Oprahness (I sometimes do), you end up rooting for Oprah during the teeth-pulling interview, trying to get the damn guy to say something that a normal human being would say.

OW: “Are you passionate about writing [+ something human about telling students to follow their passion despite what it may pay you in salary]?”

CM: “[wry smile] I don’t know. ‘Passion’ seems like a fancy word. I like what I do. Some writers have said in print that they hate writing, that it’s a chore or burden. I certainly don’t feel that way. Sometimes it’s difficult. You have this image of the perfect thing, which you never achieve, but you never stop trying to achieve. But at the core there’s this image, this interior image, of something absolutely perfect. And that’s your sign-post and your guide. You’ll never get there, but without it you won’t get anywhere.”

(Audience: “What?”)

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It’s as if all other art forms and entertainment forms can be enjoyed for just what they are, what they make an audience feel, how they thrill or engage an audience.

But literature? It’s this big freaking cosmic alchemy that transpires between author, muse, alcohol, kale, and divine intervention.

The words on the page aren’t actually what the book is about; the book is about the shit inside the words that only a few of us get. And if you don’t get it, you’re probably more of a television person (but we’re all TV people!). It’s bogus.

Look: Cormac McCarthy can do whatever he wants, talk however he wants, appear or not appear anywhere, but he is one of the only specimens of this writer species who gets to speak to the masses, and he takes the opportunity to act less like an ambassador and more like a guardian at the gates. Oh, hello, you millions of Oprah fans? A huge segment of the world at large? Here, eat this auteur-mysterio sandwich. Get back! Back away from the gates of the serious written-word kingdom! The same goes for Jonathan Franzen, who did pretty much the same thing, and to Oprah at that. And again: Franzen can do whatever he wants.

But why are these our reps and guardians? Why is South Park pointing out that books aren’t about what’s on the page but the intellectual chore of figuring them out. We’ve created this myth about writers and, in part, about readers, and so popular culture portals seek out and display these mythical creatures. But I’m sure you know a writer, and he or she – when not surrounded by other writers – is likely a pretty normal human being. Let’s see them, celebrate them.

Big caveat here: Yes, writing is difficult and sometimes mysterious and powerful. But so are so many things! Discovering and understanding actual cosmic events, like scientists do, is also pretty difficult. But when they are asked about their projects on NPR or in USA Today, those scientists don’t actually mention the torture their work can be and instead largely focus on the excitement of the latest discovery. Doctors and biomedical researchers have exceedingly tough jobs, but they don’t frighten you off at cocktail parties by focusing on the precision and brain power their jobs require and ask of them on a daily basis. Your social worker friend has really difficult and emotionally wrenching work ahead of her everyday, but she talks of possibilities in social change over coffee. Writers are Barton Finks! But the Coen brothers and other fine creative filmmakers know better than to take up airtime trying to make you understand that what they do is hard work. Imagine if Steven Speilberg, when asked how he conceived of ET, stared off wordlessly for 15 seconds, and responded: “One cannot calibrate where and when the muse will strike, so we work diligently to wrestle the human universe into submission there on the page.” I’d fucking hate ET if he said something like that.

And if the potential reader/audience has fought their way through the English classes’ required impossible introductory texts, flipped on Oprah to endure the barely audible warlock-poet interview, checked the events page on their city’s website, saw a listing for a reading at a local bookstore, and actually decided to go, they still have their final gambit to navigate: a reading event. (But as we all know people don’t actually do this. They don’t actually just go and check out a reading by an author they’ve never heard of, like they might a rock show, movie, even play or art exhibition. Seriously, if you do that or know someone who does, email me.)

Mark Polanzak


Mark Polanzak has published stories in Third Coast, The Southern Review, and The American Scholar, among others. He teaches writing at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. His first book POP! is out this spring from Stillhouse Press.

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