What Makes These Writers 'Unprofessionals'?

Moby-Dick sold all of two copies in the United States in 1876, and a total of 3,180 by the time it went out of print in 1887, a tally of futility that in the words of James Wood soon “narrowed Herman Melville into bitterness and savage daily obedience as a New York customs inspector.”

Melville--along with custodian/postal worker William Faulkner, insurance lawyer Wallace Stevens, editor-teacher-single-mother Toni Morrison--came to mind when reading the table of contents and introduction to The Unprofessionals, a new anthology of pieces that originally appeared in The Paris Review. Editor Lorin Stein sets up a superfluous distinction between “professional” writers and those who appear in these pages. The latter are apparently unconcerned with commercial riches--as evidenced by their commitment to short forms of fiction, essay, and poetry--unlike the many MFA students whose idea of success is to “leave school with a six-figure advance.” By this criterion, they’re unprofessionals--never mind their awards, their novels and book-length collections, or their masthead positions at well-known literary magazines. I’d wager that Melville--to say nothing of the many lesser-known and anonymous adjuncts, high school teachers, working mothers, service-industry employees, and others who struggle nobly to place work in respectable but low- or non-paying publications--would welcome so modest a designation if it came with the chance to appear alongside fellow scribblers Ben Lerner, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Zadie Smith, to name a few. They could also reasonably wonder whether being published by The Paris Review in the first place makes one a professional .

In any case, don’t blame the writers featured here. The work is almost uniformly excellent.

Lerner’s “False Spring” (excerpted from his novel 10:04) features a worried sperm donor whose meditations on the nature of family take a turn when a co-worker tells him the “crazy” story of her own upbringing; he thinks later that if he had had the presence of mind he would have assured her that “discovering you are not identical with yourself, even in the most disturbing and painful way, still contains the glimmer, however refracted of the world to come.” Atticus Lish’s “Jimmy” was later to appear as part of his amazing novel Preparation for the Next Life (discussed here by Edward T. Wheeler), one of the better novels I’ve read this year. In “Virgin,” April Ayers Lawson writes of male professional and sexual anxiety from the point of view of a man married to a Southern evangelical Christian. From Cathy Park Hong’s poem “Trouble in Mind” come these lines: “But what core is Ketty-San, sidekick chum?/Torn like tendrils of bloody tenderloin/floating in the sea, heart/a stage set/about to be struck--//All nightlong, she scribbles her useless esoterica./All daylong, mumblecored, she meeps, meeps along.” Maybe the best piece in the anthology is Davy Rothbart’s exuberant essay “Human Snowball,” the chronicle of a single night in Buffalo marked by rapidly accumulating, belief-defying events that bring about the kind of ending no fiction writer would try to attempt.

“These pieces gave us that sense of interiority overheard that we miss so much in contemporary writing,” Stein says later in his introduction. “Their narrators were at home in prose or verse as if in a native language.” This, I think, is a more verifiable, and worthwhile, claim. When releasing its series of collected interviews some years ago, The Paris Review gave each the simple title The Paris Review Interviews and added an identifying volume number. This was before Stein’s term as editor but obviously the Review had long since established itself as a judge of talent and arbiter of literary taste. Its quarterly issues under Stein are reliably strong (the Spring 2015 issue featured interviews with Hilary Mantel and Lydia Davis and Elena Ferrante, not to mention Angela Flournoy’s short story “Lelah,” which also appears in The Unprofessionals). The work, in other words, can speak for itself, and its creators are better served when this is allowed to happen, rather than by marketing it (and them) with a term that works visibly hard to make a needless and ultimately disingenuous distinction. These are pros, after all. What's so wrong with admitting it? 

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Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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