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The Art of Literary Discernment

The Art of Literary Discernment

by Robb Todd

An anonymous person posted some writing on a website and asked: "First page of my book. What do you think?"

It was difficult to tell whether the joke was on the people who offered their quibbles or the author of the famous book from which the page was stolen. Or on everyone. 

The answer chosen by commenters as the best was: "You know your story needs more work, so you don't need anyone to tell you what you already know."

Another one read: "No discernible voice/tone in this writing. Rambling descriptions. I, frankly, do not care where each and every person is seated. I don't care what shoe you're wearing. If you take out all the unnecessary details, you'd be left with about seven words."

And, really, this answer offered good advice for any writer, novice or expert: "I recommend checking out 'The Elements of Style' by William Strunk and E.B White... that should help to clear a few things up."

I sent the link to a friend who had been prodding me to read the book for years, thinking he would see what it was right away. 

He wrote back: "Ha. In the words of Charles Barkley: turrbl." 

"Wait, you recognize that first page, right?" I asked. 

"Ooooh jeezzzz — I read it quickly," he said. "Infinite Jest... sheeeesh…"

A byline can carry enormous power to distort the words that follow. That is as true for Anon, who has none or less than none, as it is for David Foster Wallace, who holds enough to electrocute a herd of large animals or turn on a small city’s lights after a blackout. He cultivated power and wielded it. 

"I think you just forfeited your right to ever say anything nice about that book ever again," I said.

"Gaah! Maybe I did," he said. "And for the record, since this might be the last time, the things I say nice about that book have more to do with the internal journey than the written experience, which can seem swirling and uneconomical, to put it nicely. He just knows how to write a story on your inside, especially obvious in his non-fiction."

The opening sentence  of a famous novel.

The opening sentence of a famous novel.

Nobody would confuse DFW with J.K. Rowling, even without bylines, but when she removed her name from her words, something similar happened. She adopted a pseudonym to write crime novels after her long, luxurious success with Harry Potter. Before she was outed, one of the rejection letters to "Robert Galbraith" suggested that "a writers’ group/writing course may help."

Preconceived notions and personal bias shape the way we evaluate most everything. This is, in part, why the bootleg industry is worth a half-trillion dollars. Knockoff Yeezys are better than no Yeezys to status-seekers and sycophants. Name brands of every sort mean something to someone, even when it comes to the art of words. But to care more about who is speaking than what is being spoken is not to care about language at all. It is to care about politics. 

In addition to that common chasm around a name's import, everyone brings something personal to the page that can alter the meaning of the words. 

"A book's pleasure is strangely contingent upon one's context," Joe Fassler wrote in the Atlantic. "A paragraph scanned on the subway and swept aside with a yawn can thrill you on the sofa later that same day. Or a cherished novel, revisited years later, can seem to have grown cold, the fire gone out of its prose. Even meaning can morph and shift: That book you loved in college, the one about youthful passion and the road ahead, seems later about the older, more mature characters you overlooked on the first read."

Kay Ryan

Kay Ryan

Alice Quinn experienced something similar while she served as the poetry editor of the New Yorker from 1987 to 2007. For years, Kay Ryan sent poems to her and she sent back nothing but rejection letters. Ryan finally scolded Quinn, who caved in and asked to see all her unpublished poems from a forthcoming book. Quinn published three in one issue. 

"Sometimes it takes the first big yes to unlock someone’s work,” Quinn wrote in the New Yorker. “We read all the poems differently after we’ve fallen in love and been changed by that single poem."

Jack Gilbert's poetry also was overlooked by a lot of people who knew a lot about words, including Quinn. Gilbert had a self-inflicted disadvantage. He did not care for the game that so many others enjoy. He was not concerned with building a brand. He did not publish often and did not want to do anything other than live his life on his terms and write. After he died in 2012, his obituary in The New York Times said that he "was a peculiar figure in the contemporary poetry world in the sense that he wasn’t exactly in it."

Gilbert had a taste of stardom with his first book, Views of Jeopardy, in 1962. It won the Yale Younger Poets prize and was nominated for the Pulitzer. Soon, though, the attention was too much and he walked away from it. 

Jack Gilbert

Jack Gilbert

"I enjoyed those six months of being famous," he later told The Paris Review. "Fame is a lot of fun, but it’s not interesting."

Gilbert preferred to wander wherever his feet went, have his heart broken, break hearts, and write about it rather than pursue a safe career in academia or fake-laugh at literary gatherings with those who could gold-plate his name. 

“Being alive is so extraordinary I don’t know why people limit it to riches, pride, security — all of those things life is built on," Gilbert said. "People miss so much because they want money and comfort and pride, a house and a job to pay for the house. And they have to get a car. You can’t see anything from a car. It’s moving too fast. People take vacations. That’s their reward — the vacation. Why not the life?”

Quinn first encountered Gilbert’s poems when she worked at Knopf alongside Gordon Lish, who published Monolithos in 1982. Gilbert's second book, two decades later, also was nominated for the Pulitzer, so some people were paying attention, but not nearly enough. 

"I was late catching up to his work, too, in spite of my exposure to it," Quinn wrote after Gilbert died. "At the time I didn’t peer into the book deeply enough to be captivated by the poems as I later decisively would be. Perhaps I was a little jealous."

The greatest rewards for a writer who refuses the klieg lights are a life well-led and a few meaningful words from a reader who looks beyond the byline to see and feel only what is on the page. This kind of person makes up a far-too-small percentage of the far-too-small reading public. 

Gilbert earned both even though he did not give many opportunities for his readers to address him in person. He rarely gave readings. But after one such occasion, the Los Angeles Times wrote, a man who did not offer his name told him, "I want you to know that you've been keeping me alive since 1982." He walked away before Gilbert could respond.


Robb Todd is a journalist and author in New York City. He has lived all over the country and was lucky enough to live in Hawaii twice. He also lived in Texas twice. And North Carolina twice. Actually, this is his second stop in New York City, too. He doesn’t do things right the first time.

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