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Is Literary Glory Worth Chasing?

Private Collection/Look and Learn/Bridgeman Images
King Darius I (circa 550-486 BC) receiving gifts in one of his palaces, twentieth century

Is writing worth it? Does it make any sense at all to pursue literary glory? Are the writers we praise really the best anyway?

In 1824, the Italian poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi decided to take on the subject in a thirty-page essay, of kinds. In fact, he puts his reflections somewhat playfully in the mouth of Giuseppe Parini, perhaps the finest Italian poet of the eighteenth century, a man from a poor family who spent all his life seeking financial and political protection in the homes of the aristocracy. Leopardi imagines Parini—“one of the very few Italians of our times who combined literary excellence with depth of thought”—responding to an exceptionally talented and ambitious young writer seeking advice. What follows here is nothing more than a brief summary of what he says; I take no responsibility for the ideas expressed. Readers can decide for themselves how much of this rings true today.

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Young man, literary glory, or the fame that comes from learning and then writing, is one of the very few forms of glory presently available to the commoner. Admittedly, it’s not as impressive or satisfying as the glory that derives from public service, since action is much worthier and nobler than thinking or writing, and more natural. We weren’t made to spend our lives sitting at a table with pen and paper, and doing so can only be detrimental to your health and happiness. All the same, as I said, this is a glory that can be achieved without initial riches and without being part of a large organization.

Theoretically.

In reality, the obstacles are many and daunting. Let’s leave aside the rivalries, envy, calumny, bias, intrigues, and malice you’re bound to come across. And likewise, mere misfortune. The truth is, even without enemies and bad luck, it’s perfectly possible to write wonderful books and be denied glory, while more mediocre authors are universally admired. Here’s why.

First, only a tiny minority of people are able to judge great literature. Since literary achievement depends largely on style, and style is intimately tied to language, anyone who isn’t a native speaker won’t be able to appreciate the immense efforts you’ve put into developing a refined style. So that puts most of mankind out of the picture. Then those who do share your language will have to have put in the same effort that you have if they’re going to enjoy your achievements. Only people who have learned to write well themselves can really judge writing. There are only two or three such experts in Italy today, and don’t imagine the situation is much better in other countries.

Second, perception of literary achievement is very largely a question of celebrity. I am convinced, for example, that the reverence felt for the best writers of the past mostly comes from blind tradition rather than individual judgment. We enjoy the classics in part for their celebrity as classics, the same way we admire a princess to a degree because she’s a princess. A poem as good as the Iliad, written today, would not give the pleasure of the Iliad. We wouldn’t feel the warmth of its centuries-old celebrity. Similarly, if we were to read a great classic without knowing it was a great classic, it wouldn’t please us so much.

This makes things tough for a new book by a really serious author. Without the assurance that they’re reading a classic, most readers prefer coarse and obvious beauties to real quality, and special effects to substance. So the success of a truly fine new writer, when it does miraculously happen, will be more the result of accident than merit. You need a lucky break to overcome the obstacles.

Because we’ve barely begun.

Obstacle three. It’s not enough to have your work read by the handful of people capable of admiring it. You have to get them on a good day. Literary judgments, alas, depend on the effect of a book on an individual mind, not on any inherent or scien­ti­fically demonstrable quality in the book. So even the best critics may miss the point, especially if you’ve done something new. Even the critics who could get it may simply be in the wrong mood. Perhaps they just read something else that deeply impressed them and took them in a different direction. Or they may be dealing with personal issues that distract them.

Pleasure in art is intermittent. One day, the critic is super receptive, on a high, full of enthusiasm. So he finds himself enjoying, and thus, of course, praising, some­thing entirely mediocre, having mistaken his positive feelings for some quality in the book. Another day, he’s dull and unreceptive; he can’t see your book’s genius; but being in a dull mood won’t stop him judging it! As dull. We all have days when even the best classics seem a great bore. But we don’t write them off because everybody agrees they’re great classics. With a new book, we feel free to be as harsh as we want.

So sound literary judgement is an elusive animal. This without even mentioning the onset of age and mental decline, which is bound at some point to cloud the mind of the famous critic, whose judgments will nevertheless continue to be taken seriously for an awfully long time.

Nor will pessimism and skepticism help, even though nothing could be more reasonable or more grounded in reality than pessimism and skepticism. Readers have to have a certain baseline optimism in order to appreciate a book. They have to believe that greatness and beauty are possible and that what is poetic in the world is not necessarily all fantasy. Otherwise, nothing is going to impress.

Let’s add, in passing, that the buzz of city life is a huge dampener of literary sensibilities; yet, for reasons of convenience and networking, most critics live in the city and therefore in places of maximum distraction where people in general are more susceptible to fashions than real quality.

But onward, now, to the huge problem of obstacle four. Any literary work staking a serious claim to glory is not going to reveal itself entirely on a first reading. It will be better the second time around. And better still on third and even fourth readings. But who has time for this? The ancients could do it because they had so few books to read. These days, a writer’s lucky if his work’s read once. With the mad abundance of books we have today, the only things people will read twice are the things everyone agrees are good. The classics, of course.

To make matters worse, your moderately but not seriously good book tends to work well on first reading. It’s superficial, smart, fun. And when we have as many books coming at us as we do today, this is exactly what most people want: something that leaps to the eye, something right in your face, not the hard-earned subtleties of the dedicated stylist. However, a first reading will already give you everything this kind of book has to offer. Pick it up again and it’s a bore. And this puts readers off second readings in general.

But why do the best books require a second reading? Because fine literature is attached to the notion of accruing deep insight for future application, and this takes effort, study even. The payoff in pleasure comes, eventually. But the vast majority of readers want instant pleasure with no effort, from one superficial book after another. They’re not going to admit this, of course. On the contrary, it’s important for them to believe the books they read are great literature; it increases their pleasure to believe so. The result is a situation in which writers are praised to high heaven for a couple of months, then swept away; if a fine book is appreciated on first reading, it won’t get a second, so can’t put down roots in the culture and soon enough sinks with the rest.

Who stays afloat, you ask, amid this general shipwreck of the moderns? Got it: the classics.

Finally, obstacle five. A work of great literature, like a great work of philo­so­phy, will have something profoundly new about it. Some new insight, new attitude, new position with regard to the human condition, or to present times, the result of deep reflection. But the crowd wants to be confirmed and reassured in the opinions its members collectively hold. They want surface novelty, not revolution, old ideas glossily repackaged. They take refuge in their numbers. Over time, little by little, they may come to change their opinions, and even endorse ideas diametrically opposed to those they held before. But for the most part, they won’t notice this has happened. There won’t be a moment where they say, Hey, I’m wrong, I need to change my position. On the contrary, they will feel a deep suspicion and antipathy toward someone who lives, thinks, and feels differently than they do. Our author seeking glory, for example. They can’t understand. They feel provoked. The more we live in the age of the herd, the less likely great literature, and, above all, the recognition of great literature, becomes.

But enough of the obstacles! Let’s imagine that despite everything, you’ve somehow made it. You’ve achieved literary glory; you’ve done it thanks to the most serious literary achievement; and you’ve done it in your lifetime. Bravo!

What do you actually get out of it?

Well, people will want to see you and know you, to come and admire you in the flesh. Of course, if you live in a big city, they will also be wanting to know and ad­mire all the impostors who have won the same celebrity with quite mediocre works extravagantly overpraised. So you may not be impressed by the company you’re keeping. And if you live out in the provinces, people will very likely have no notion of literary glory at all. Writing? I could have done that perfectly well myself, if I’d had time, if I’d wanted to turn my mind to it. You’ll get a lot of this. Only a handful of people will really appreciate what you’ve done, so that, in general, it’s hard to think of a commodity that comes at a higher price and brings fewer benefits than literary glory.

In response, you’ll withdraw into solitude. You’ll try to believe that the work itself is sufficient reward for your efforts. It isn’t. Then, since we all have to have something to hope for in the future, you’ll start to seek consolation in the notion that posterity will finally give you the true recognition you deserve. I’ll live on in the minds of genera­tions to come, you tell yourself. But honestly, there’s no guarantee of this. Why should those who come after us be any better, or any more receptive and perceptive, than our contemporaries? On the contrary, the world will most likely have moved on and people won’t have any time for you at all.

I’m sorry. I see impatience on your face. You want my final word on this. The decision of a lifetime: Should you give up, or should you go on striving for it? For literary glory. My straightforward opinion?

Well, without wanting to flatter, let me say that I do see who you are and what you might do. Your mind is wonderfully sharp; your heart, your imagination, are young and warm and full of ideas; you’re deeply sensitive, noble even. These qualities can only bring you suffering and pain. But really, there’s nothing you can do about that. You are who you are. So just as some unfortunate people, deformed and handicapped at birth, learn to make the most of their disabilities, using them to arouse pity and generosity, you might as well put your qualities to work and go for the one goal, however uncertain and unrewarding, that they’re possibly good for: literary glory.

After all, most people actually envy these personal qualities of yours. They don’t see that if they had them themselves, they wouldn’t be able to live as sensibly as they do, acting only as the times allow and enjoying themselves as much as they can. A serious writer, on the other hand, will be giving up all kinds of pleasures and living a life that looks like death to most people, all for a supposed life, maybe, after his death, courtesy of some improbable posterity. But there you are, this is the card fate has dealt you. You owe it to yourself to give it all the enthusiasm and courage you have!

*

Such is the advice that, nearly two centuries ago, Leopardi put in the mouth of Giuseppe Parini, addressing a young person of talent who doubtless must have gone away deeply perplexed. One notes in passing that the piece was written a few years too early for the poet to have appreciated the immensely damaging effects of literary promotion, hype, political correctness, creative writing courses, and global publication strategies. In 1862, Victor Hugo was to receive one of the largest advances ever for Les Misérables; it should be sold, he advised his publishers, stressing its championing of the poor and moral goodness, with translations prepared for simultaneous publications in a number of countries and aggressive poster campaigns in all major cities. Such high jinks, no doubt, Leopardi would have put down as obstacle number six. Or six, seven, and eight. Depending on how he parsed it.