fiction is far too capricious, far too accidental for anyone who hasn’t “hit it big” to rely on it exclusively for a living. Although I often say it myself, I tend to be suspicious of anyone who says, “I’m a writer” and means “I’m a professional writer.” I tend to think that person is probably a bit dopey and not in the “real world.” That may be unfair, but unless the speaker is one of those “name brands,” is independently wealthy, or has a thriving business or professional background of some stripe other than writing, I can’t help but wonder how in the heck he or she is making it from month to month. Many writers in the academy assure me that when and if they “hit it big,” they’ll leave all the “teaching crap” behind. They might; it’s hard to say what one might do if riches and fame are suddenly heaped on one’s head. But I am skeptical that most of them will ever leave teaching and the security it affords to take up being a full time “professional” author. Also, I doubt that they’d ever be as comfortable at an author’s reception as they are in front of a classroom. Behind a lectern they don’t need the validation of reviewers and critics to tell them whether what they’re doing is working or not. They have students for that. And they’re sufficiently steeped in the American “work ethic” to want that monthly paycheck, however inadequate it may be to cover their needs. Furthermore, an academic can sit on a panel and say “I’m a writer,” for there is seal of the academy to tell him so. That’s the only kind of validation they can receive as writers until they win a major national literary award, make the Best Seller list, have a major motion picture filmed after one of their novels, or, most significantly, have nothing but royalties to list under “income” on their IRS forms. Until one of those unlikely events takes place, most of them must remain primarily college professors, scholars, creative writing teachers first, and novelists and poets second and as something of an embarrassing afterthought. Most published writers feel they must apologize for their lack of success until they truly find it. In the meantime, they often teach. I don’t believe that such activity truly detracts from their commitment to their work. I am thus confused about this distinction between “profs” and “pros.” The truth, I think, is that only a small percentage of the hundreds of creative writing teachers \(or their nificant, even fewer have published with major, national houses. Those who have made national names for themselves as professional writers are often creative writing teachers because they published something first, usually with a major, national house. What all this truly comes down to is name recognition. As recently as 1986, I couldn’t have told anyone who any of the people in New Growth were, except for Naomi Shihob Nye, whom I met during my freshman year in college. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that prior to 1986, I didn’t know she was a writer, either. So when I see Pilkington or Herndon’s distinctions, I wonder how the “pros” in the collection really stack up against names like Joseph Heller, Alice Walker, William Kennedy, Norman Mailer, E.L. Doctorow, Erica Jong, Saul Bellow, Ray Bradbury, Thomas Berger, Judith Krantz, Tom Wolfe, Isaac Singer or even Larry McMurtry, Elmer Kelton and Larry L. King, who make their primary livings solely by virtue of their writing. Of course, many of these supplement their publishing income by appearing as guest speakers at where else? universities with strong writing programs. Or they have family money, or they’ve married well, or they’re also professional actors, or they write columns for newspapers and magazines, or they’re in business, or, well, that’s the point, isn’t it? More than one published novelist has gritted his teeth over the success of Tom Clancy, an insurance salesman, or over the lavish monetary rewards heaped on Kim Wozencraft, a excop and ex-con. In many cases, of course, if they have any academic credentials at all, these successful writers become resident or guest teachers in creative writing programs at various universities; if they do it after they’ve “made it big,” then, somehow, they .are spared the onerous label of “academic.” It’s unlikely that the royalties off even two Best Sellers could set a person up for life, unless, of course, that person is Iv ana Trump or Nancy Reagan. And even the former First Lady probably couldn’t support herself and the past president for long in the manner they are accustomed to – on the returns from My Turn, one of the more interesting pieces of fiction recently published. I would be willing to wager, though, that Ms. Reagan made her share of academic appearances before My Turn was remaindered. In an ironic sense, most college professors creative writers and otherwise do make their livings from their writing. Oh, they couldn’t even buy a decent pair of shoes with the royalties derived from publishing reviews, articles, or even scholarly books; but they do receive promotion, merit increases, sabbaticals, speakers’ honoraria, etc., all of which put the cornbread and beans on the table and keep the armadillos out on the interstate where they belong. In a true sense, the poor assistant professor slaving away six months on “Hemingway and the Homosexual Character Canon: A Feminist Reading of Papa’s Work,” to be read at MLA, is more of a “professional writer” than anyone published in New Growth or any other collection. The professor’s rank, raise, and whether he can move his office closer to the faculty john ride on it. To put it another way, he’s making his professional living by writing; how many “professional” authors of fiction can really say the same? I somehow doubt that any poet can. But the point is fiction, not scholarship. It may be that I’m totally in error, that in New York, LA, and Chicago, the “headliner professional writers” in New Growth have their names bandied about with the best novelists and short story writers in the country. People on Fifth Avenue may be anxiously awaiting these “pros’ ” newest work, and the New York Times could hold review space every week for the next outpouring from these “professional” writer’s pens. But I tend to doubt that, too. Of the novelists I personally know who have scored big in New York’s national houses, one is an insurance salesman, one runs an antique store, several are housewives, a number are journalists, and the rest are college professors of one stripe or another. And all of them were doing these things before they published; they continue to do them in order “to make a living.” The one writer I know who makes his living solely as a writer claims that, as a convicted felon, the only job open to him other than writing is pumping gas. There still is an apparent contradiction in this residual response to New Growth, however. There are some “big names” in the volume, and I don’t mean to amend it by adding “in Texas” either, for my personal perception of several of these authors is that they are “professional writers,” and even though they have at one time or another lived in Texas, their connections to the state are tenuous at best. I was merely surprised that some of them submitted to a small press volume in the first place. After all, I’m an unknown author with no reputation to speak of, and my agent was upset with me for practically giving my story away, even though it had been previously published. I believe, however, the issue of “pros” and “profs” is resolved when one asks why true “professional writers,” according to Herndon and Pilkington’s definition, also would sell their stories so cheaply. It contributed to a handsome table of contents, but is that any way to “make a living?” Probably not. But they we are writers, and regardless of how much money we can report to the IRS as being derived directly from this writing, most of us think of ourselves as professionals. We all want our stories to be read and appreciated. Income is an afterthought, or as another Texas writer once put it, “That’s why I have an agent: to worry about the money. I just want to write.” That is the main point I believe the critics, Botstein in particular, missed. To paraphrase the Guy Clark lyric, we don’t write for the money, we write for the story itself. The critics named here, and most of the writers who continue to worry about this issue, probably are more at cross-purposes than involved in any serious renewal of conflict with regard to Texas writing. The problem is that in Texas and nationally, writers and critics must come to understand that professionalism in writing or anything else has less to do with name recognition than it does with the quality of the work being produced. If it’s possible for profs to write as well as pros, then the profs should be praised, not apologized for; if pros don’t write as well as profs and sometimes, they don’t then maybe the distinction is useless. As for the “gray area” Pilkington mentions, I have no idea what he’s talking about. Personally, I haven’t the first notion of what it takes aside from a pot of money to be a “professional writer,” Texas or otherwise. It’s just hard to decide whether it’s better to rim with the foxes or hunt with the hounds. Creative writing teaching in the academy may be more comfortable, more secure, and thus less significant as a vocational alternative than relying only on one’s publication income for “a living,” but for many the most sensible choice is to ride the steeple chase and hope that the university will continue to employ them to do what they can do consistently and well. 111 22 OCTOBER 16, 1992
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