Literary Friendships

As much as I believe that a writer ought to be spiritually and aesthetically solitary—that is, ultimately self-reliant—I also believe that where there is a great book, there is almost always a great literary community.  In other words, no writer, however authentically independent and solitary, should forgo their place at the café table.

We tend, intuitively, to think of a book as a closed system: something the author composes by themselves, with however many difficulties, from start to finish. And in a certain sense, this is true. But if you examine the tangential materials of almost any canonical writer, you’ll find that things like letters, private conversations and/or public lectures played an enormous role in shaping their ultimate literary destinies.

Linguistically, imaginative writing challenges our personal means. And often a sustained dialogue or debate or conversation about literature, is the only verbal practice as equally complex—and therefore as equally edifying—as writing literature. We imagine certain writers–Keats or Rilke–living through their correspondence, while we imagine others–Hemingway or Sarte–living at the café or bar. But we would be hard-pressed to imagine a writer who worked almost entirely alone, or failed to be engaged in some form of public dialogue about their composition.

We can’t conclusively say that, “Oh Joyce’s friendship with Beckett made Beckett who he was entirely”–but we can say that without Joyce’s friendship, Beckett very well may have turned out differently, and maybe not in a good way. Again, this isn’t about being taught how to write (thus the distinction between what I’m trying to outline and an academic writing setting) but the necessity of a working ideas out with a kindred spirit.

I’m not asserting that said writers have to be two absolute geniuses like Joyce and Beckett or Wordsworth and Coleridge, but just two open-minded, thoughtful friends who challenge each other’s ideas on the technical, aesthetical, and ethical problems that come to bear on the challenges of writing. This is especially true for independent or self-published writers, who are more likely to go without traditional editing services and support. On a very simple level, this lack of feedback may deprive them of someone with whom to talk to about their book, making literary friendships the only means by which they can explore the ideas first, in conversation, that they want to explore on the page or to gauge the effect that what they have written has on a reader they respect.

The advantage of definitively literary friendships or communities–any relationship where there is an ongoing dialogue about the nature and art of writing–is that when writing is exchanged, there is some context for it to be understood. Often, writers are disenchanted when friends or family don’t “get” their work–sometimes a legitimate complaint, sometimes not–but this is often because readers who exist outside of a certain paradigm simply can’t jump into that paradigm. Styles, allusions, and concepts are often difficult, acquired tastes–and the only way someone can gauge whether someone else has those acquired tastes, is to talk to them, at length, about their literary articles of faith (preferably with a cocktail in hand).

The paramount reason, however, that a writer ought to develop these kinds of relationships–ones of real mutual aesthetic understanding–is that often it is those relationships that are the only sources of encouragement for people making difficult or unorthodox choices. In a traditional publishing world there may, if one is lucky, be a loyal editor and agent, at minimum–but in a self-publishing world, or even with a small-publisher, one has no institutional form of affirmation. A writer might shelve a potentially very great book (or, admittedly, a very bad one) because they never sought out someone who could read their manuscript, not just sympathetically, but empathetically. A good friend understands us and appreciates us, which–however trite sounding–is exactly what anyone would want from a reader or editor or confidant.

A writer may just be putting their book out online, but the necessity of a physical literary community to buy that book, to read it, discuss it, and cherish it has not gone away–and despite how books are delivered and read, the pleasures, indeed, of talking about books have not changed at all.

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