The Apparently Empty Theater

HTMLGiant’s Catherine Lacey points to Wallace Stegner‘s 1959 essay “To a Young Writer,” which is part buck-up-little-camper speech, part warning about the degradations of the publishing industry. It’s beautifully written, though, and something of a classic—so much so that for the low, low price of $790 you can own a limited edition of the essay in book form, built of wood and cloth and calfskin and handmade paper.

Lacey was struck by what Stegner’s piece had to say about self-indulgence. I was struck by what it had to say about critics:

Some good reviews you undoubtedly will get, but also many routine plus-minus ones that will destroy you with their impercipience, and a few flip ones by bright young men who will patronize you in five hundred words or spend their space telling how trying was the heat on the New Haven as they read this book on the commuters’ special.

And especially struck by Stegner’s points about the audience for literary fiction, which suggest that little has changed (or rather, that things back then weren’t much different or “better” than they are now):

The readers do exist. Jacques Barzun confidently guesses that there are at least thirty thousand of them in the United States, though they may have to be found vertically through many years rather than horizontally in any one publishing season, and though the hope of your reaching them all is about like the possibility of your tracking down all the surviving elk in America. But any of them you find you will treasure. This audience, by and large, will listen to what you say and not demand that you say what everyone else is saying or what some fashionable school or clique says you should say. They are there, scattered through the apparently empty theater, listening and making very little noise. Be grateful for them. But however grateful you are, never, never, never write to please them.

Still, I think Lacey herself gets in the best line about writing: “Good writing goes deeper than the self; it isn’t about you, in particular,” she writes. “It’s a hole that you dug through yourself using words like pick-axes until you reached everyone else, or at least a lot of other people.”