Tuning Up - Spring 2019

Literary Information Derived From Privileged Writers

Did they know how good they had it?

By Ann Beattie | March 4, 2019
Illustration by David Herbick

1. From Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya (letters exchanged between critic Edmund “Bunny” Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov):

Dear Volodya: I was awfully glad to hear about your book. Did you make any arrangement with them for subsidizing you while you write another?

Subsidized! Surely no joke can be intended. This is definitely not a case of a member of the establishment dissing an ambitious writer. A bald-headed critic (no value judgment is implied) and a lepidopterist-writer privileged to spend his time running around with butterfly nets. Imagine their power, occupying their respective places (the academy and the lawn)! Also, each was privileged to have the money to buy any number of pre-Forever stamps to correspond with the other; these estimable, cis-gendered men were entirely simpatico as they encouraged each other in their respective pursuits: one man teaching at an Ivy League institution while writing “criticism,” the other taking temporary academic jobs as he created a believable fictional sexual predator who abducts a young girl.

2. From The Journals of John Cheever :

Having drunk less than usual, having, as my father would say, gone light on the hooch, I find myself, for the first time in a long time, free of the cafarde. Quarter to nine. Eastern daylight saving time. It would be pleasant to consider this a simple matter of self-discipline. Thunder and rain in the middle of the afternoon; the first of the month. Our primordial anxiety about drought and its effect on the crops, the crops in this case being three acres of lawn and forty-two rosebushes.

Mr. Cheever, who has ample time for daytime drinking, is also privileged to live as a bisexual in suburbia, having both a family and a hidden, homosexual identity—a man who lives amid some four dozen rosebushes! Mr. Cheever, all too human, misspells cafard. One might well be melancholy, surveying the roses, no doubt later to be turned into rose-hip tea, while the homeowner idly passes the day, accountable to no one, with the leisure to journal.

3. From “The Education of a Poet,” by Muriel Rukeyser:

The feeling life of my parents seemed to me to be in the world of opera and music. They went to the opera on Thursday evenings, and on certain Friday mornings the libretto would be on the hall table. When I came home from school on Friday I would read it, and it seemed strange but no stranger than anything else.

Since these parents are privileged to attend costly performances and to leave the librettos lying around like Pussy Power flyers, let’s learn a lesson about writers who have the privilege of registering Cinderella-centric emotions about the lives of others. Should we assume that the janitor took home his libretto and tossed it—if not on the hall table, because there was no hall, let alone a table—on the kitchen table, where his or her wife brushed it aside to put down the canned potato and tuna casserole?

4. From “The Lives of Saints,” by Jeanette Winterson:

After a few months we were spending the whole of each day together. I made sandwiches for our lunch. She never questioned my choice of filling though I noticed she usually threw away the ones with sardine.

What privilege! Making and serving lunch (apparently not the only meal of the day), with no thought of cost, minus any difficulty in obtaining ingredients, yet the lunch recipient throws away protein-rich, omega-3 sardines, a delicacy in some parts of the world. Was this feast washed down with wine? Was a refreshing mint proffered after the repast? Both are privileged to eat what they want and to leave the rest, while seemingly having no jobs they must return to après lunch.

5. From “Fires,” by Raymond Carver:

I have to say that the greatest single influence on my life, and on my writing, directly and indirectly, has been my two children. They were born before I was twenty, and from beginning to end of our habitation under the same roof—some nineteen years in all—there wasn’t any area of my life where their heavy and often baleful influence didn’t reach.

Privileged to have two healthy children, and a “roof” over their heads, Mr. Carver invokes the adjectives heavy and baleful. Ultimately, he was successful in a career that included a mentor (John Gardner), an enthusiastic editor (Gordon Lish), and many employers who hired him for “sawmill jobs, janitor jobs, delivery man jobs, service station jobs, stockroom boy jobs. … I cleaned the inside of a drive-in restaurant and swept up in the parking lot.” Privileged with talent, health, and stamina, as well as workplace autonomy, Mr. Carver became one of the most important American short-story writers of the 20th century, an attainment we can only hope did not cause him to personally suffer even one “baleful” moment!

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