Timothy Egan wins my hero for the week prize for his essay in yesterday’s New York Times, Typing Without a Clue.
In case you haven’t heard, Joe the Plumber (whose nom de plumb is Samuel J. Wurzelbacher) is having a book published! Just like that! Easy as spinning a wing nut. Egan called Joe the Plumber on the bath mat for thinking he can join the profession of “Mark Twain, George Orwell and Joan Didion.” Egan got in what I thought was an aimless and distracting dig at Sarah Palin’s propensity to use a slew of words to signify little, but his broader thesis was sound, his fury legit
— what the hell is a plumber doing getting a book contract when so many of us work hard at our craft, sweating bullets to get assignments, an agent, a commitment from a publisher. Along comes Joe. Ten minutes on CNN and the guy’s got a a book deal.
“Most of the writers I know work every day, in obscurity and close to poverty, trying to say one thing well and true,” wrote Egan. “Day in, day out, they labor to find their voice, to learn their trade, to understand nuance and pace. And then, facing a sea of rejections, they hear about something like Barbara Bush’s dog getting a book deal.”
So Joe the Plumber is writing a book. Big woof. Publishers play this game ostensibly to reap the bucks that will offset publishing “quieter works”–the poetry; the novels whose readership is inversely proportional to their depth and beauty; the academic treatise that might or might not crossover into mainstream. Back in the Seventies I worked at Alfred A. Knopf. The star biographies (Lauren Bacall, Arthur Rubinstein) provided a cushion for the wonderful poets editor Alice Quinn signed. Betty and Art had something to say. But JtP? Wrenching.
Who goes up to a neurologist and says, “I’ve always wanted to slice open a cerebellum. I’m going to do it one day when I have the time.” ? Put a writer at a cocktail party and suddenly everybody’s writing a novel. Or a memoir. Or a children’s book. One day. When they find the time. I understand it completely. Everyone has a story. An idea. A profound experience. We are compelled to share the truths and hard fought wisdom of our lives. And everyone is entitled, invited even, to sit down at the blank page or screen and give it his or her best shot.
What plunges writers into the depths are these flash in the pan “authors” and their publishers riding fifteen minutes of fame for a quick cheap buck. When we read about the Joe the Plumbers we wonder: is our intention to publish our hard-wrought work anything more than a pipe dream?