A Moment of Jen
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Saturday, November 05, 2005
posted by Jen at 11/05/2005 08:50:00 AM

My whole life as a writer – and as a wannabe writer, and a college student, way back when – was based on an assumption about how novelists supported themselves.

The way I figured, they fell into two groups: popular authors who sold a lot of books and were rewarded with big advances and royalties, and critically acclaimed authors who might not sell as many books, but got all of the plaudits and endowed professorships, fellowships and prizes they could wish.

Granted, there’s been some recent blurring of the lines. Popular hero Stephen King now publishes short fiction in the New Yorker and E. Lynn Harris, per this morning’s New York Times Book Review, is a visiting professor and writer in residence at the University of Arkansas. Meanwhile, lit darlings like Jonathan Safran Foer and Zadie Smith command jumbo advances and hit the bestseller lists.

But the exceptions generally prove the rule of the two-tier rule; a system that, from my perspective, seemed to work.

Popular authors could bitch about their lack of critical recognition, but they’d have nice paychecks to salve their sore egos.

Critics’ pets could moan about their lack of sales, but they’d have all of the important reviews and New Yorker-published short stories they could ever want, plus the choicest plums from the groves of Academe. Everyone would be reasonably content …. and everyone could pay the bills.

So I was shocked to open up the Styles section on Sunday and read about the plight of Mary Gaitskill, an enormously talented, deservedly acclaimed author of two novels and two short-story collections and currently finalist for the National Book Award, has spent her career as a journeyman teacher ranging from Texas to upstate New York and who is, not to put too fine a point on it, broke.

"Her life is not easy," Knight Landesman, Ms. Gaitskill's friend and the publisher of the magazine Artforum, told the Times. "There have been good reviews, but that does not translate into dough. She has not been offered the cushy faculty job at Princeton. The work has been too raw, and that's why this has been, really, such wonderful news."

On weekends Gaitskill shares a rented house in Rhinebeck, New York with her husband. During the week “she lives in a student dormitory at Syracuse University, where she teaches creative writing, an arrangement that is both cost-effective and loud. "But what can you really do?" Ms. Gaitskill said. "You can't tell an 18-year-old to keep it down and turn off Britney Spears or whatever it is that they listen to.”

And it gets worse.

After she married four years ago, she and her husband considered adoption, “but they were $50,000 in debt and Ms. Gaitskill was working on two books. "It was really a quandary," she said. "I didn't feel as though I had the freedom to do everything I wanted to do."

Three years ago, she contacted the Fresh Air Fund to see about becoming a mentor. "One boy awoke the most passionate maternal feelings in me that I had ever had," she said. The boy, now 9 and his sister, 13 regularly visit Ms. Gaitskill and her husband, and the couple pays the children's tuition at a Catholic school in Brooklyn.”

I’ve admired Gaitskill’s work since her first short-story collection, BAD BEHAVIOR, was published in 1989. The book explored the seamy underbelly of desire and power, beauty and obsession (the short story “Secretary” recently became a film of the same name, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as the lost soul who finds a sordid kind of salvation when her lawyer boss starts spanking her for her typos).

Her writing isn’t sunny or breezy or necessarily pleasant to read. She offers no happy endings, sets her stories in bleak cities where the color scheme runs the spectrum from soot gray to dirt brown, and gives you characters you admit to finding relatable with a shudder instead of a smile. This isn’t a case of, “if you liked GOOD IN BED or IN HER SHOES you’ll love TWO GIRLS, FAT AND THIN.”
But Gaitskill was one of the writers who made me believe that I could be a writer, too, and her characters, while creepy, live and breathe on the page. If she’s in debt and living in a doom room trying to write over the noise of Britney Spears, there’s something wrong with the modern-day patronage system that I always figured was working pretty well.

What can you do? Buy her books. Read her stuff. Start with this piece about her experience with the Fresh Air Fund kids, which may be the most heartbreaking thing I’ve read all year, then go buy VERONICA.
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