What is the Secret to a Lasting Career?

Talk Given at The Saints & Sinners Conference, May 2014

Bruce Dern said in a recent interview, "Understand at the very beginning that it is an endurance contest. Nobody makes it overnight. And if they do, they’re gone in a decade."

I myself have not only seen very famous in their time writers come so quickly as to seem like meteors. In fact, I’ve seen entire literary movements come and go. When Midwesterner Saul Bellow moved to New York some people were so upset, one wrote in the Chicago Sun, "we critics made you and we can break you." He turned out to be wrong. Because by then Bellow had found a large and loyal readership. But once the critics turned on Thomas Wolfe, an immense presence in the 1930’s literary world, his literary end followed shortly. Fortunately so did his life. Even today we have not reassessed this particularly American writer’s underrated and unique achievement. The critics turned on F. Scott Fitzgerald and on Henry James and on Tennesee Williams in the end too. But they all continued writing, working toward a single end: the creation of a body of work. As a result we have The Rich Boy and The Loves of the Last Tycoon, Small Craft Warnings and Clothes For a SummerHotel, The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove. Aren’t you glad?

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James Baldwin

jamesBaldwinIn the 1970’s, Delacorte Books put out best selling authors like James Clavell, Stephen King, Howard Fast, and Irwin Shaw, and literary authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Yates, Tim O Brien, and Jayne Ann Phillips. In 1979, many of these authors and I too at Delacorte Books had new books being published and our publisher threw a party to celebrate such a galaxy of talent, and so we might also meet the press.

Of all the authors present that I admired, I most wanted to meet James Baldwin, and to read his new novel Just Above My Head. But even for another author getting near Baldwin that evening wasn’t easy. He seemed circled, virtually protected from outsiders. 

Finally I pushed through, introduced myself (drawing the expected blank) and said to Baldwin, “In college, we all talked about Another Country. How it depicted relationships between blacks and whites, gays and straights was totally real: As were those moments of unbridgeable gaps.”

“Not unbridgeable,” Baldwin insisted concerned, and he drew me aside to sit, pleased that his book had reached this so important readership. We talked for ten minutes of SNCC, the bus rides down south, the integration movement and its leaders. We finally only parted when interviewers became persistent.

By 1987, I discovered that I had made a literary impression myself. Even so, I was surprised to be invited to speak at The Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. It was the midst of the Reagan Era; in a recently published essay I had decried a Media distracted by Reagan’s empty sound bytes and his wife’s fashions into ignoring unsolved national problems. I claimed that under Reagan all the social advances we’d made were being rolled back to the 1950’s. Important people had read my essay and so this also became the theme of my speech to be given and broadcast at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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Alexander Scriabin: Toward the Light

Alexander Scriabin 2Even in a field as noted for its eccentrics as Classical Music is --Beethoven, Alkan, Satie, et al -- Alexander Scriabin stands out by virtue of his personal strangeness, his unusual life-style, his advanced compositions, and especially for the world ranging utopian vision he formulated for his last works. 

Born into the upper class of late Tsarist Russia, Scriabin was an exact contemporary of Sergei Rachmaninoff, but two composers could not be more different. While Rachmaninoff’s compositional style is closely attached to the 19th century just past, and he adapts it to his own time, Scriabin rapidly progressed from the influence of Chopin almost directly into the 20th Century, with his own version of Twelve Tone Music-- and beyond.

Faubion Bowers wrote the standard biography, still available, but Oliver Decker’s marvelous, informative, and visually brilliant hour long film, Toward the Light, serves informatively and entertainingly as a perfect introduction.

Born in 1872, Scriabin lived to know of World War One, but he died in 1915, before the Russian Revolution: died of an infected pimple on his upper lip which led to blood poisoning. Both facts seem strangely relevant to the man and musician.

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