David Guy‘s “Ardent Spirit, Generous Friend,” is largely a tender remembrance of novelist Reynolds Price, who died last January. But it also sheds some light on the insecurities that can haunt even the most accomplished writer. Guy recalls finishing his first novel, 1980’s Football Dreams, and having Price gently but firmly let him know the disappointment that comes along with getting that first book out:
“Publishing a first novel is a down,” he said.
I don’t know whether I was more surprised by the sentiment or by the ’60s locution. We’d known each other back in the hippie days.
“Really?” I said. The past 10 years of hard work had been for nothing?
“You’ve spent your whole life thinking that if you can finally publish a book, everything will change,” he said. “You’ll suddenly be good looking and everybody will love you, the world will throw itself at your feet. Then you publish the damn thing and nothing happens. You’re the same social misfit and compulsive masturbator you always were.”
And Price was saying that as somebody who had the best first-novel launch a novelist could hope for: 1962’s A Long and Happy Life received plenty of acclaim and was simultaneously published in its entirety in Harper’s, the first (and last?) time the magazine did such a thing for a novel.
Guy’s portrait of his mentor is so fawning it’s a little hard to trust, but if he doesn’t delve too deeply into how the down-ness of novel writing affected Price, Guy willingly exposes what it did to him. Writing a novel, in Guy’s vision, is a kind of compulsive act—something that’s going to wound you in some way or other, but so necessary you can’t resist doing it. And so important you’re willing to assent to requests to talk about it in public: The essay ultimately turns to a panel Guy moderates featuring Price, Anne Tyler, and Eudora Welty that might as well have been called “Four Authors Who’d Rather Be Doing Something Else.” Tyler is prickly, Welty is bemused (“All these people. What do they expect of me?”), Guy is terrified, and Price rolls his eyes when an attendee asks, “Why do you publish?” But Welty answered that question well: “I publish for the same reason I want somebody to be on the other end of the phone when I talk into it.”