During the decade of editing New American Review, I was often struck by how many gifted young writers there were in America. They would arrive every month, three or four of them, accomplished or close to it, full of wit and panache or a steady power or a fine, quiet complexity. We tried to devote twenty-five per cent of each issue to these new voices and seldom failed to meet the quota. Where were they all coming from? They seemed to come from everywhere: Dixon, New Mexico, and Seal Rock, Oregon, as well as Chicago and San Francisco, from English departments in community colleges as well as the big creative writing centres. They also came amid the 1,200 or so manuscripts we received each month. Eugenics alone would seem to dictate that half of one per cent of the writing population would be brilliant.
What has happened to all of that bright promise? When I look through the cumulative index of the New American Review, I see that perhaps one-quarter of our discoveries have gone on to have reasonably successful careers; about the same number still have marginal ones, part of the alternative literary community of the little magazines and small presses. And about half have disappeared. It’s as though some sinister force were at work, a kind of literary population control mechanism that kills off the surplus talent we have been developing or causes it to wither slowly away.
Literary careers are difficult to speculate about. They are so individual, so subject to personal circumstances that are often hidden to the writer himself. What is not hidden is likely to be held so secretly that even the editor who works closely with a writer knows little more about his or her sources of fertility and potency than anyone else, and the writers who fail are even more inclined to draw a cover of silence over the reasons. Still, it’s worth considering why some gifted writers have careers and others don’t. It doesn’t appear to be a matter of the talent itself – some of the most natural writers, the ones who seemed to shake their prose or poetry out of their sleeves, are among the disappeared. As far as I can tell, the decisive factor is durability. For the gifted writer, durability seems to be directly connected to how one deals with uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment, from within as well as from without, and how effectively one incorporates them into the creative process itself, particularly in the prolonged first stage of a career. In what follows, I’ll be writing about fiction writers, the group I know best. But I don’t imagine that poets, playwrights and essayists will find much that is different.