Tim Parks: ‘The Writer’s Job’ in The New York Review of Books A Hogwarts Professor Conversation About the Literary Machine

At The New York Review of Books, Tim Parks has written a bleak and challenging assessment of the ‘life of a writer’ in the early 21st Century, ‘The Writer’s Job,’ and the consequent ‘state of literature,’ Capital L. John Patrick Pazdziora wrote a group of friends and HogwartsProfessors with his thoughts about Park’s gloomy picture, which note inspired a reflective exchange both on the history of this kind of assessment and what a writer’s life is like at any time among his correspondents. With their permission, I share that exchange below. Please read the Park article, enjoy the conversation, and feel free to contribute to it here in the comment boxes!

John Patrick Pazdziora:

[Park’s article is] An intriguing indictment of modern literary culture, and creative writing programmes in particular. Fascinating for its insight into the hypocrisy of the modern industry, and for its spectacular misreading of Eliot. I’ve seen awful but this seems peculiarly noteworthy.

What the author seems to be reaching for through diverse and.convoluted ways is the decay and irrelevance of the literary machine, and the creation of pseudo-literary greats. That, in other words, the dominant voices of modern literature declaim yesterday’s revelations and innovations with increasing stillness.

Really, is this all that literature is meant to be? A self-obsessed adulation of the Romantics, yet lacking their fervour and innocence? Their weaknesses but not their greatness, the poetry of the individual without the reflection of greater reality or a vision of transcendence? The author’s slipshod approach to the idea of “the canon” seems particularly striking in this regard.

Your thoughts?

H/T to Jenna for the fascinating link.


Eric Pazdziora:

“Let’s leave aside how accurate this is historically”…

That’s quite a bit of the problem, I think. Historical, three obvious names spring immediately to mind: Charles Dickens, Jonathan Swift, and Jane Austen. They “rather complicate matters” as much as Eliot ever did– for one thing, showing that “the advent of creative writing as a “career”” took place sometime in the 1700s if not before. For another thing, each being “a skilled craftsman bringing his[/her] talent to the service of the community” while simultaneously question[ing] his community’s rules” as devastatingly as any anti-establishment punk has ever done. “A Modest Proposal,” anyone? Hard Times?

If we look at the publishing industry of the Victorian era, nothing the author complains about is new in any way (except maybe the bits about literary agents and contracts). Including the social media; Dickens was making great money from self-promotional lecture tours a hundred years ago. Writing and publishing as careers in the modern sense began, I’d guess, within a generation or so after Gutenberg at the latest. If anything, the state of the modern publishing industry is nostalgia for the good old days when writers really were rock stars–and when dull formulaic attempts by wannabe stars were every bit as common, I might add.

Where he has a very good point is in observing that the result is a situation rather like the suburban teenager who thinks he’s edgy and rebellious because he buys music and clothes with anti-establishment messages at the mall. It doesn’t work that way.

I’m almost inclined to set it up as an axiom that anyone who writes for any reason about “greatness” by definition hasn’t got it. But then, has anyone?

A successful writer is simply someone who writes things that people like to read. The kind of success he achieves depends what kinds of people like to read what he writes (and, for a capitalist corollary, how many of them are willing to give him money for it).

Another part of the problem is that he seems to have a very nebulous concept of what he means by “creative” and “artist” and even “career.” But that’s already quite enough to chew on….



Jenna St. Hilaire:

Actually, I linked this without comment and figured I’d regret that, since I agreed with only part of it: the part that doesn’t have much use for creative writing school, at least not as a way of helping most novelists. It always seemed to me that reading and practicing would get me further with more fun than an MFA program fixated on the literary elites’ holy trinity of Sex, Tragedy, and Irony. But then, I was homeschooled by a very independent family, which means I tend to have do-it-yourselfer syndrome a lot anyhow.

I wholeheartedly agree with both of you, by the way.

Recently I’ve begun to think about the idea of art primarily as a form of self-expression. Unfortunately, my thoughts aren’t entirely formulated on the subject, but they center around the suspicion that such a perception is not necessarily a good thing. For several reasons, but mostly because self-expression as the great ideal typically becomes self-indulgence (or as John put it, self-obsession). Which generally results in either a failure to communicate with the audience or the communication of an unhealthy thought process or message.

Anti-establishment punks are nothing if not mockworthy; attending an open-mic poetry night in Bellingham, Washington is a great way to experience this firsthand. Dickens, on the other hand–I remember grinning much of the way through The Little Dorrit, just because the portrayal of bureaucracy was so spot-on.


I thought the reading of Eliot sounded fishy, but I am no Eliot scholar and cannot speak to it.

Am enjoying the thoughts.

Jenna St. Hilaire

Josh Richards:

Well, being the Eliot guy, so to speak, it’s probably my job to set his flagrant misreading of Eliot straight–it’s actually a matter of one very simple error in chronology. He conflates Eliot as literary giant, the Pope of Russell Square, as he was called with the author of The Sacred Wood (the book of essays, he quotes from). When he wrote The Sacred Wood, Eliot was in his late twenties, working a bank, unknown, and dependent upon his parents’ support–his entire reputation based on The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The Sacred Wood is less a manifesto than a compilation of editorials that vaguely evince his aesthetic. Thus, the article has The Sacred Wood speaking after the development of literature as a discipline (i.e. in the 1930s), instead of responding to the particularly personality-obsessed and artificial Fin de Siecle and Georgian literature.

Eric’s quite right in saying that his complaint is historically challenged–frankly, the only thing that could have stopped this article from being written in the 1700’s is the shoddy prose.

His complaint shows a real ignorance of the process of literary canonization–he forgets that Time the Destroyer is Time the Preserver. We think the literature of the previous era was great because the vast panorama of rubbish from the period has come to dust leaving only the mountains, and so will it be with our own period. When you only read the best 10 poets of the 20th century and don’t see the mountains of poetastry, it will be an era just as good as any other. Creative writing programs do no good, but little harm–it was, as it has been, that many are called but few are chosen. We should expect 999 self-indulgent navel-gazers for every one who has seen the vision, and as far as greatness is concerned, only two kinds of people assert that they are, indeed, a king–the delusional and the discrowned.

Halliday’s (whom I have never heard of) denial that there will be no literary greats in this era strikes me as being a veiled way of saying: “If I can’t be great and I know I’m not, I’ll deny that anyone can be.” It’s just as silly as me believing that the current track of scientific education and big university labs will result in a no scientific geniuses in the future like those self-made men of the past in their basement workshops because I’m not one myself.

I do think that contemporary literary culture has developed into, as I am wont to put it, an orthodoxy of heresy, but that’s a matter too big for such a letter as this.

-Josh Richards

John Granger:

I’ll risk three points here, albeit only in thanks for being allowed to sit in on the conversation, much of which is above my paygrade, as the man with the top rank chose to say.

(1) Historical and critical errors and misjudgement aside — and I am grateful for the education vis a vis Eliot as well as Dickens, Austen, and Swift — the man is critical of the current literary landscape as something of a Wasteland. I cannot agree with him about the geological causes of this mountain of emptiness but one more honest voice noting the obvious is a good thing.

(2) If I were to have a pistol’s business end pressed to my temple, I’d offer a substantive argument that the difference between the Greats and the legions of battalions of hollow men at the keyboards today is a combination of (a) the dissipation of culture consequent to horrific wars (I think of the men lost in the American Civil War, the English and German dead in WWI, Jews to the Shoah, and Slavs in the Soviet 80 year nightmare) and the inevitable leveling of the conversation to an egalitarian denominator, and (b) a corresponding secularization of shared understanding, as the leftovers were not equal to seeing men in light of created existence and Creator rather than the matter-energy dogmas of the Reign of Quantity. As one of these lesser thinkers and there being no pistol, let’s leave it at “men have forgotten God” and cannot understand art or letters any longer as salutary means to communion with Him.

(3) Any chance of my being allowed to share this delightful thread at HogwartsProfessor? [All agreed.]

Thank you again for letting me sit in!



John Patrick Pazdziora:

Finally joining my own party, here…The problem is less, I think, that we live in a literary Waste Land, but that writers and critics and literary figures sing paeans of praise as thought it were a fruitful garden of earthly delights. In plain point of fact, many good writers are writing very good things, and many dreadful writers are writing dreadful things, and they’re not always overlapping or accorded the rank they deserve.

I could reply to Mr Parks as a writer, suggesting in a Gaimanesque vein that a writer’s job is to write. And sometimes to talk about what you write, when people are interested. But this ground has been adequately covered in the rest of the conversation. So I’m a bit more curious to look at it from an educational standpoint.

Mr Parks complains that creative writing courses are not places to go to learn where to write, but to get yourself seen by the right people at the right places, and to prepare for The Job. The immediate question, of course, is how this differs substantially from many if not most other undergraduate courses of study, particularly in the arts. Surely one could construe, say, study at a music conservatory in the same light? That you would, in fact, achieve just as much technically if you stayed home and practised the violin for a year or four? Technically, perhaps, but you’re much less likely to get head-hunted, or to get offered a place in the LSO. Like it or not, professional development and job-hunting skills are part of higher education and it seems puzzling at best to single creative writing programmes out for what everyone else is doing. (There could, of course, be a larger argument here that higher education as a whole, not just creative writing programmes, needs revising, but that’s quite another discussion and Mr Parks doesn’t seem to be thinking that way.)

The simple fact remains that some people want to be writers, and some people want to go to university, and some of those people are the same. Should a hopeful writer then be obliged to study palaeontology? Well, why not, if they’re interested in palaeontology. But why not offer writing classes as well?

A case can and perhaps should be made that the proper study for the writer is literature–the way young musicians are made to study music, and music history, and music theory. One can imagine a course of study in which a writer applies herself diligently to reading and critically evaluating other writers, engaging with the whole of literary tradition–folklore and Classics and Victorians, learning to write blank verse from Tennyson and comedies-of-manners from Austen, tragedies from Sophocles and Romances from Spencer. In point of fact, this is the ad hoc education that most writers give themselves to some degree; serious writers tend to be serious readers.

But–not at all accidentally–such a programme is very much like Eliot’s suggestions about tradition in The Sacred Wood. Mr Parks sneers at this programme as requiring “a degree in the Classics” (which certainly didn’t hurt J.K. Rowling’s career, which should give many budding or impecunious writers something to think about). But then he also sneers at creative writing programmes, which leaves me again to ask: what should writer’s be studying? It not literature and not writing? Perhaps the answer is palaeontology after all, but that seems too luxurious a road: science departments tend to have oodles of money and young writers should learn early how to do without.

As to Halliday’s paraphrased charge that “GREATNESS and IMPORTANCE” are the concern of those unsuited for a writing career–I can only say, thank goodness. It’s possible that “[my own] GREATNESS and [self-]IMPORTANCE” isn’t what’s meant to be implied, that it’s “GREATNESS [of theme] and [the] IMPORTANCE [of kindness and bravery and wonder and beauty and goodness].” But are these things really incompatible with a career in writing? With all due respect to Mr Halliday, I think of the career writers I know and I can say without hesitation: no, they are not incompatible. To the true writer, amateur or professional, they are essential.

The dull point of fact, as any hardworking mid-list author will tell you, the career writer is an anomaly, an exception, and a seriously very very lucking individual. And they tend to realise that; they’re bemused with their own good fortune. Some of the finest writers I’ve the pleasure to know work boring day jobs and struggle to make ends meet. Even the poets who teach creative writing classes–and, yes, many of them still write poetry–have to scramble round in university administrations, and the only person who thinks that’s not a full-time job hasn’t seen anyone do it. The writer who get to write full-time know they’re lucky, and know that they’re few.

What, again, is wrong with writing as a career? Even (and especially) if–as for most of us, for most of our lives–that career is just an inspiration and a dream.


Eric Pazdziora:

A fitting epigraph might be W. S. Gilbert’s jab at Martin Tupper, whose pretentious and utterly banal books of poetastry sold over a million copies in Victorian days:

O Tupper, philosopher true,
How do you happen to do?
A publisher looks with respect on your books,
For they do sell, philosopher true!

–“Sir Barnaby Bampton Boo,” 1869

Also from Gilbert, Ko-Ko’s famous “little list” of victims who will “none of them be missed” includes “that singular anomaly, the lady novelist” — along with “the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone / All centuries but this, and every country but his own.” Let the punishment fit the crime.



Josh Richards:


As something of a parting salvo, perhaps, let me share with the group what I concluded with John (P.) over coffee last night.

Our dear Mr. Parks here is not really mourning the death of great literature–the piece is deceptive, maybe self-deceptive, I don’t know. What Parks is weeping for is the death of the great literary journalist. He is pouring a forty out for the road that Hemingway, Chesterton, and Hunter S. Thompson walked. Neil Gaiman, who may be the last of the lot, is now an elder statesman. Really, why else complain about creative writing programs but that they are leeching talent away from the journalistic field?

My mother is a huge fan of the Waltons–obnoxiously so–and in the series, John Boy is told that if he wants to be a writer, he needs to work for a newspaper. It was just the expected path–even Eliot would have been a journalist if he hadn’t needed the steady salary the bank required to care for his sickly first wife.

Yet, can we imagine telling a bright, aspiring high-schooler the same thing in this day and age? It is really for this road now much less travelled that Mr Parks is tolling the bell.

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