Andromeda: Orphaned or Estranged — How Writers Feel About Their Past Work

“All novels are failed novels,” visiting writer Dani Shapiro told writers this past weekend at the 49 Writers Tutka Bay Retreat. I completely agree. And I’ve always found both inspiration and consolation from that Samuel Beckett quote: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

What ends up on the page is usually more than — and also much less than — we had originally imagined it would be. My favorite writers know this about their own work. They are not being self-deprecating. They are being demanding, realistic, and honest. (Every writer should aim so high and be so self-critical; one reason I’m skeptical about self-publishing is that it deludes some writers into believing that writing and publishing are easy, that anything typed deserves to be bound and sold, with or without editing or gatekeeping of any kind.)

But what of the writer who is so unhappy with an early work that he or she pretends it wasn’t published in the first place?

This year I finally got around to reading the absolutely wonderful memoir, This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff. I was already a big fan of Wolff’s fiction, especially his slim, poignant, beautifully structured and underrecognized Old School. I’d always meant to read This Boy’s Life alongside The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolff, T.W.’s older brother. This summer I finally got around to it, and loved them both, especially as a pair of books that show us how two people can write so differently about one family and one era.

In looking for more of Tobias Wolff’s book, I discovered that his “first” novel wasn’t actually Old School, as I’d always thought–and as his publisher seems to claim. Wolff’s first novel was actually published in 1975. Called Ugly Rumours, it was published by an outfit that no longer exists. Wolff himself has referred to it as “terrible,” urging even his friends not to read it. As for why he doesn’t refer to the book more often — except when explicitly put on the spot to do so — Wolff admits he doesn’t want to bring attention to the book.

A blogger named Elon Green (whose post provided some of the info above) happened to get interested in this same issue and recently located a rare copy to read and decided for himself that the novel, while not perfect, wasn’t really so bad either. Green observed, “Readers…are denied the pleasure of observing the true arc of a great author’s career.”

That is what troubles me most as a reader and, especially, as a writer. I’m not really concerned about the author’s own psyche or his publisher’s wobbly sense of ethics. What concerns me is that if we don’t read an author’s early (often weaker or simpler) work, we misunderstand the creative process itself. Authorial genius rarely erupts in full bloom. We grow, book by published book, struggling to add new tools to our toolbox, to broaden our scope, to stretch beyond our own limits.

Dani Shapiro mentioned that it took her three novels to purge certain autobiographical elements from her work (her fourth book, the memoir Slow Motion, was written to fully achieve this). She also mentioned using the first person as her primary default mode for quite a while before getting a handle on the third person POV, with its potential for more complicated narrative layering, which she compared to playing piano with two hands, instead of just one.

Several of my favorite authors have said the same thing about writing early novels in 1st person before mastering 3rd, and about shifting over time from autobiography to other sources of content and inspiration. Ann Patchett has written about her desire to master the third-person omniscient narrator, something she was finally able to do with Bel Canto, an exquisite novel about music, terrorism, and romance that catapulted her to literary stardom. It was her fourth novel, published nine years after the first.

When these authors are candid and transparent, they help us know how to read them, and they teach us better what to expect from ourselves, as apprentice wordsmiths. These are generous lessons to share. We embrace them, understanding them not as dismissals of a novelist’s earliest work, but as an illumination of literature: how it is shaped by men and women of great stamina, who are willing to fail, and fail again, and fail better.

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