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 a 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.
     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.
     In a way, none of that matters. Many, maybe most, American writers are still affected by the notion of their nation’s exceptional status. In some cases, they work hard to debunk the notion. That’s the thing about a tradition. There are as many ways to respond to it as there are writers who think about it: You can celebrate a tradition, or you can condemn it. You can amend it, ridicule it, endorse it, camouflage it. You can blow it up and rebuild it. Maybe the only thing you can’t do with a tradition is to ignore it. It changes, but it probably won’t go away. For better or worse, I think something like that is the case with American exceptionalism. Does it touch every last imaginative work written by Americans? Does it figure in the reflective poems of a poet like E.L. Mayo? I wouldn’t go that far. I wouldn’t say it does, but I wouldn’t be sure that it doesn’t, either.
Ironically, the power and reach of the United States today appear to endorse the notion of American exceptionalism. There are many names for the position the U.S. occupies in the world today: the sole superpower, the hyperpower. There are those who want to believe America is the new empire, while others believe with equal conviction that the U.S. is incapable of empire. Whatever you choose to call it, however you choose to interpret the facts and circumstances of U.S. global power, it seems to me that those facts must affect every American writer regardless of his or her subject matter.
     Let me take the most extreme example first. The intelligence that takes as its ostensible subject a pine tree on the lee side of a hill at a particular hour, in a particular cast of light, cannot help understanding that the tree, the hill, the light, are located in time, which is to say in a political context. The consciousness that conceives the poem does not exist in isolation. The writer may resent that fact and struggle against its tyranny. In some poems, the results of that struggle are evident as sparks, or as flaming branches; in others, they don’t show at all. But the woman who sees the tree and writes the lines is in some respect a political creature no matter what she wills, and if she is an American poet she lives in a country whose influence is felt almost everywhere, and she knows it.
     There are other, more obvious cases of the effect on writers of America’s global presence, and that is the presence in America of the world. The extraordinary enrichment of the corpus of American writing by new citizens — writers like Edwidge Danticat and Bharati Mukherjee — is easy to understand, and Americans have learned to celebrate their arrival, to savor the meal they bring to the American table. They have expanded our understanding of what it means to be an American.
     Not quite as obvious, but in some ways just as interesting, is the influence of American writers who consciously seek to understand cultures that are not their own. John Coyne, a writer and editor, identifies a group — if not exactly a movement — of American writers who emerge from their experience as Peace Corps Volunteers with a passion to convey to American readers what they have seen and lived beyond American borders. Writers like Norman Rush, Marnie Mueller, and Paul Eggers continue to do that in writing that has little to do with expatriate fiction of the colonial era. Before her death in an accident, Maria Thomas wrote about Americans and Africans in stories that did imaginative justice to the fine mesh of relationships between them. In my own writing, almost all of my published work comes out of my own experience abroad, first as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay and then later in the foreign service.
     I think writers like Thomas are onto something. What binds together their diverse perspectives and politics and styles is an attempt to make narrative sense of the interactions among people of different cultures. Those interactions take the form of clashes as often as they are of understandings, of miscues as often as rapprochement. There are more disasters than triumphs, and more middle-ground consequences than either of those. But the writers I mentioned seem to me to be paying attention to something fundamental. They seem to understand that the U.S., questions of power notwithstanding, exists in the world, and that our human connections matter. They matter to Americans and non-Americans with equal weight.
     How do we get at these human connections? How do we begin to understand one another? One way is to tell each other stories. We talk and we read. It seems to me that this is what the colloquium is all about. We’re talking, and we’re reading. So let’s listen — with pleasure and passion and strict attention — let’s listen to each other’s stories.

This paper was read at the 20th Annual American Studies Colloquium. The Colloquium, held in May on Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, included Americanists of various disciplines from 14 African countries. Mark Jacobs’ next novel, A Handful of Kings, will be published in January 2004.