The Southern Review keeps knocking my socks off. I subscribed last year because my friend Allison Smythe had a poem in the Spring 2007 issue, which also features a jaw-droppingly good piece by Mark Jarman on metaphor. When it comes to journal subscriptions, I'm used to disappointment. I can't count how many I've let lapse. Maybe this would be different.
Last night I started flipping through the recently arrived Winter 2008 issue, wondering if it would live up to expectations. It did. Robert Clark Young's essay "The Death of the Death of the Author" is required reading. Young was at the University of Houston a few years before me, and mentions a few of the people I knew there. I wish I'd had a chance to meet him, because he's offered up the antidote to a festering affliction of mine.
The sky is always falling. Literature is always on the brink of extinction. Someone's always proclaiming, Zarathustra-like, the death of the novel. Young reduces this kind of cynicism to absurdity:
"Surely the most naive of Sumerian writers must have understood that cuneiform was a doomed writing system anyway, and that anybody still pressing wedges into soft clay was a fool. It must have made for a sour panel at the Euphrates Writers Conference when the participants showed up for 'The Death of Clay Tablets.' Technological advances were threatening the writing arts, with clay itself soon to be replaced by papyrus and then paper and then satellite dishes for high-definition television. How would the written word survive?"The point is, there's nothing new about the novel's supposedly bleak prospects, and no point in being discouraged by the latest versions of the argument. Young quotes Sidney J. Harris as an epigraph: "A cynic is not merely one who reads bitter lessons from the past, he is one who is prematurely disappointed in the future." I can relate. It's easy (for me, at least) to lapse into the mistake of thinking that, if my own unrealistic ambitions go unfulfilled, then the problem is a system that makes talent a liability -- the success of other, more talent people notwithstanding. Young again:
"The truth is that too many literary writers internalize their own situations and then project them, which means that an author is apt to confuse the general obscurity of his own published novel with the death of the novel in general. Fiction writers are like addicts who, no matter how much ego-supply they have sucked up from previous publications, grouse until scoring their next hit. When the delirium tremens of ego frustration grows intolerable, the whiners quit and the quitters whine, while those talented writers who are calmly persistent are able to find success after success."I'm not going to keep quoting from the piece -- it's worth your trouble to track down a copy of The Southern Review on the newsstand and read the whole thing. I'll keep this issue handy as a reality check next time the shadows close in.