Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
Writing American
by Mark Jacobs (Paraguay 1978–80)
   IN THE ESSENTIALS, being an American writer — even in 2003, a year in which the global reach of the United States has been demonstrated in ways that are at once both clear and ambiguous — is not much different from being a Senegalese writer, or aPrinter friendly version Paraguayan writer, or a Tunisian writer. What do I mean by the essentials?
     First, a writer writes. He may talk about writing — either too much or too little. He may succeed: with readers, with critics, or on the terms of success that he has set himself. More likely he will fail in each of those endeavors, or he will fail partially, or his most complete success will seem incomplete to him. He may make money from his writing: a little money, or a lot, or some amount between those extremes. He may drink too much, or procrastinate. He may allow the multiple pressures of work and family, along with the world’s constant deadly chatter, to distract him and affect his writing. Or he may not do any of those things. Perhaps he gambles. If he has a different sort of temperament, he may build houses for the poor, or spend his weekends cleaning up litter from mountain trails so that the hikers who come after him have a clean view. Maybe he is in prison, or maybe he constructs a prison in his own mind. He may rail against God, or against the absence of God, or what he perceives as God’s monstrous indifference to human suffering. In the end, none of these facts or factors matter. In the end, a writer writes.
     Next, a writer demands the freedom to choose what he will write about. I believe this is true regardless of his or her nationality. This is not to say, of course, that political pressures, political realities, do not powerfully shape the work and thought of many writers just as they shape their circumstances.

Check for Son of Man

     In the Soviet Union, writers found ways to write about prohibited subjects because those were the subjects that, in a sense, chose them. In impoverished places, hunger has a way of making its way onto the printed page — I’m thinking of Son of Man, an early novel by the great Paraguayan writer Augusto Roa Bastos, who spent much of his career in exile writing about the country in which he was not permitted to live. Even in countries where the only constraints on subject matter are self-imposed, such sheer freedom itself can become a kind of anti-political force and a drag on writers.
     Still, despite the press and impress of politics, despite what Wallace Stevens called “the poetry of war,” which invariably speaks in a louder voice than “the poetry of a work of the imagination,” it is writers themselves who determine, finally, what they wish to write about.
     Writers write, and they choose what they will write about. Those are the essentials that American writers share with their sisters and brothers from every other country on the planet regardless of circumstance. Those essentials, the basic facts of the craft, are the foundation on which every writer builds the house of his life. But there are ways in which the experience of being an American writer may differ substantially from the experience of writers in other countries, and it is worth the effort to identify a few of them here.
     Start with the size of the market. According to the Census Bureau’s “Pop Clock,” which is found on the Internet and continuously updated, the United States has a population of about 290 million. Every American writer wishes every American citizen were a voracious reader, particularly of his books. That’s not the case. But out of those 290 million, there does exist a substantial body of hungry readers, and some fortunate good writers find a readership that sustains them critically, financially, and even emotionally. The size of the market alone, its very bulk, tends to affect American writers. I don’t mean to suggest that there are no other large markets in the world, only that the phenomenon invariably has an impact on writers in the U.S. Add to that the fact that some American writers — both commercial and literary, both Stephen King and Paul Auster — are published in significant numbers in countries around the world, and the impact of market size begins to matter still more.

     It cuts both ways. In the U.S., selling ten thousand copies of a literary novel may appear a kind of failure, or at least a disappointment, although major novelists in other times and places have launched their careers with a novel that sold five thousand copies. Probably every American writer thinks at one time or another about Moby Dick. There is a difference of opinion about just how poor the initial reception of that great American novel was when Melville first published it in 1851. Regardless of the sales figures, and what they meant in the mid-nineteenth century in the United States, I think the early fate of Moby Dick — its virtual disappearance for a full generation — stands in the minds of many American writers as an image of oblivion that really is, as they say, a fate worse than death. Everybody dies. Not everybody endures oblivion.
     So much for the size of the market, which can cripple as easily as it can liberate an American writer but is in any case a major shaping force. As Americanists, you know more than I do about another permanent — or at least semi-permanent — influence on writers in the U.S I mean what has been called American exceptionalism, the conviction that the United States was called into being as a nation to play a leading role in the world. Beginning in the colonial era, Americans frequently imagined their New World to be a unique creation, exempt from the sins and the sadnessess of the Old World, which they had left behind. In ways that often frustrated others, Americans believed themselves to be exempt, almost, from history. Even today, many Americans would instinctively understand what we mean when we talk about our country as a “city upon a hill” even if they don’t remember that is was the Puritan John Winthrop who first expressed it in that way.
     The notion of American exceptionalism has long been under siege, both at home and abroad. In the U.S., the notion of being separate from the world, or exempt from history, does not stand up to analysis, particularly in an age of global connections, global disconnects. In the countries in which I have lived and worked, thoughtful people have found the idea of American exceptionalism preposterous, or hubristic, or just plain inaccurate. Such reactions are bound up in the stereotype of Americans as a naïve and a historical people.
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