Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Shelf Life of Yogurt

Yesterday afternoon I visited Hollins University, my Alma mater, for a panel discussion with Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle and Natasha Tretheway.

The event was a kickoff celebration of a $125 million funding campaign.

The university wants to use the money for scholarships, adding to the endowment, student items, renovating or replacing specific buildings, conservation easements, and funding day-to-day operations of the university.

The last time I attended a Hollins event with Lee Smith, Danae Science Building auditorium was packed. The alumnae panel with these authors was advertised as being in the DuPont Chapel which holds a great crowd.

When I arrived I found the event had been moved to the theatre. Turnout was quite low for such well-known Hollins alumnae writers. I was disappointed in that for I had hoped to see professors or other alumnae I know. Instead I saw no one.

The topic of the day was "Writing and Publication: When Art Meets Commerce."

Natasha Tretheway, a 1991 graduate of Hollins' master of arts in creative writing program, in 2007 received the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry. She presently teaches English at Emory University. Her take on the whole "money versus art" thing was that money cannot be the reason for writing, particularly if you are a poet.

Poets do not make much money. She cited figures of less than $5,000 for most of her books.

I have not read her poetry or heard her read her work, something I will rectify in the future. I know her dad, Eric Tretheway, who is a professor at Hollins, but not well. I never took a class from him so I am not a student he will remember.

I went to the panel to hear Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle talk. I have read both of these authors and have enjoyed their work.

Lee Smith graduated from Hollins in 1967. She has written 11 books. I read On Agate Hill this year; previously I have read Oral History, Saving Grace and Family Linen. I forgot to take my books with me so she could sign them.

Saturday was her birthday. I overheard her telling someone prior to the event that her birthday was really October 31, as she was born just a few minutes before midnight, but her mother begged the doctor to say her daughter was born on November 1. "No lady can ever be born on Halloween," Smith said.

She did not tell that story from the stage but did note that it was her birthday.

Smith has a great sense of humor and she's very enthusiastic about her writing. However, none of these writers were very enthusiastic about the future of the book nor were they encouraging about making a living as a book writer, especially a fiction writer.

She told a humorous story about how her work fell flat when she worried about the dollars. She once sent off to Silhouette for writers' guidelines and proceeded to attempt to create a romance novel. The book was set on Pawley's Island and featured an orphan (as required by the guidelines) and a dark and swarthy artist.

The book was rejected.

Jill McCorkle, likewise, said she feels her art suffers when she is writing under contract. She prefers to write the book and worry about selling it later. Smith nodded her head in agreement.

McCorkle graduated from Hollins' masters program in 1981. She has written five novels and I have read three: Carolina Moon, Tending to Virginia and Ferris Beach. She is currently on the faculty at North Carolina State University.

McCorkle said trying to write for money is definitely hit or miss. She likened the time period for a book to sell to be about the shelf life of yogurt. If a book doesn't make it in that short span, then it's pulled from the shelves and that's that.

I came away feeling a little wistful and a bit sad. Writing as art is always a lofty goal and I have attempted for the "art" title. However, writing as craft is more what I do. Those are two different things, I think. The first seldom pays and the latter pays some. Neither pays very well.

Which isn't to say the two aren't interchangeable; I think they are. Otherwise there wouldn't be that ever-present hope of being the next Lee Smith or Kurt Vonnegut. Or even the next Janet Evanovich, who, while more a craft writer, does have a little bit of art about her work.

It makes me sad that our society does not value intellect or ideas or the ability to write good story. For example, I have never understood why the actors, who would have no work without screenwriters, tend to come out ahead financially. Shouldn't it be the other way around?

The ability to tell a story should have value. We should encourage young writers. In this society that means writing must be a commodity because we are so market-based. The arts suffer under capitalism, perhaps because art cannot be calculated. It is ephemeral and subjective and the value in capitalistic terms then because incalculable. Apparently being incalculable makes you either priceless or worthless, depending on your point of view.


  1. Thanks for sharing a summary of this very interesting panel. You make an excellent point about how our culture shows how much it values the actor compared to the writer. The measure is money. Of course, without story tellers there are no cultures - no surviving cultures anyway. At least we don't have to keep up exhausting fitness regimens, subject ourselves to toxic cosmetics or undergo painful surgeries to produce our art well into our golden years.

  2. Interesting post and beautiful picture...looks like something out of a fairy tale!

  3. I bet Mara was there.

    I always feel sad that writers can't get books as easily as artists can access a canvas and hang their art almost anywhere.

    You should come to our spoken word some third Saturday.

    Great post!


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