I don’t have any problems with the output of writers. They can take thirty years to write a masterpiece for all I care. As long as the book is honest, and moves literature and human consciousness forward I declare it a victory. As long as they were true to themselves even if the world didn’t appreciate it, I declare that a win win too. They can have a bibliography of 60 novels or of just 2 but just as long as they tried and pushed literature a little farther and died with their pens in their hands and stories seeping from their heads.
They can even go and disappear and not publish anymore, but just as long as there are reports of them still showing up at 9:00 a.m. at their backyard sheds to get the daily quota. Just to write and just to live.
I even don’t have an issue with writers fading away in drugs or alcohol or running off to Africa only to return with cancer in their leg to die at their mother’s barn surrounded by their sisters.
But I do take an issue with writers declaring their retirement to the world like if they just finished a marathon. The thing is that when you’re a writer, the marathon never really ends. The marathon will continue without you, the stories will continue to write themselves in your head but you just won’t be putting them down on paper anymore. So I take it as disrespectful to the craft and the long literary tradition of writers that consider the craft holy work when writers like Phillip Roth or Alice Munro announce retirement.
Kafka and Felice Bauer. Photograph: © Bettmann/CORBIS
It’s an insult to all those writers for who writing does not come that easy or as rewarding. If you make a deal with the devil, you have to follow through.
How dare you say you’re going to retire from writing? Real writers never retire for they recognize the preciousness of the words we write. They know the importance of the work we do.
It is an insult to declare your retirement from writing when poets are being tortured in China.
When Fitzgerald died at his desk with pen in hand thinking he was a failure.
When Kafka was editing ‘A Hunger Artist’ while dying of starvation from laryngeal tuberculosis at a sanitarium in Vienna.
When Roberto Bolano was racing against death to finish ‘2666’ hoping, but knowing he would not get a new liver in time.
When Kerouac died of internal hemorrhage from cirrhosis while putting down notes for a novel about his father’s print shop in Lowell.
When Flannery O’Connor limped to her desk on crutches every day to get the holy work done despite the debilitating effects from lupus.
When Delmore Schwartz dies alone in a cheap hotel room.
When Melville dies obscure and in poverty.
When Zora Neale Hurston dies obscure and in poverty.
When Lorca is arrested and shot.
When J.D. Salinger left the limelight to go write in a shed for himself.
When Isaac Babel is arrested, tortured and then shot by the NKVD.
When Isaac Singer continued to write stories and novels in a dead language with a dwindling readership trying to give life to the ghosts of the past.
When Reinaldo Arenas is arrested for being gay, and then must find a way to smuggle his writings from prison.
When Virginia Woolf walks into a lake with stones in her pocket then you know the work is holy.
When Hemingway blows his brains out because he can’t write anymore.
When Sylvia Plath puts her head in an oven after confirming that her work is done.
When Leonid Tsypkin dies in Russia after being denied a visa, never getting to see his work published in his lifetime.
When Jack Saunders continues to write in obscurity every day without selling a word to New York or Hollywood.
When Rushdie continued to write under a fatwa.
When poet Roque Dalton is assassinated in El Salvador accused of being a spy.
When Hubert Selby Jr. got to the desk each day, despite depression and ill health to get the holy work done.
When Horacio Castellanos De Moya is run out of his country for writing a book that is like a mirror.
When Solzhenitsyn is arrested for writing derogatory comments in private letters.
When John Kennedy Toole takes his own life leaving the rejected manuscript of ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ for his mother to find.
When James Joyce is trying to finish ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ despite his increasing blindness.
When Pessoa writes for no one but himself.
When Bukowski quits the post office for a $100 monthly check from his publisher to just write.
When Shelley drowns in the sea.
When Byron dies in Greece.
When Keats passes away in Rome.
When Dostoyevsky survives the mock execution with a wounded soul.
When Carver dies.
When Proust continued to write while on his deathbed.
When Borges, now blind, would recite Dante’s ‘Inferno’ from memory to any visitor that would listen to the entire poem.
It is an insult to retire when there is still so much work to be done. So many hearts and minds to open. So many obscured worlds to unveil. It is an insult and blasphemy.