Writers need to understand their role in the storytelling process, says bestselling author Martin Amis.
Martin Amis has made a name for himself by being an unafraid writer, having published over a dozen novels over 40 years. Here, he provides a hilarious comparison between James Joyce Vladimir Nabokov, explaining why highly experimental writing rarely (if ever) works and that even writers with genius-level talent need to better understand their role in the storytelling process. After all, he says, "the writer is like a host and the reader is like a guest." Martin Amis' latest book is a collection of essays entitled The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage, 1994-2017.
We all love the art, but we often forget the difficulty of being an artist. Here are some of the most famous, greatest writers of all time who never could quite make a living doing it.
The image of the broke writer is engrained in the popular imagination. The often tortured artist who writes until they remember to eat, and then eats too little as to stretch out their failing budget.
While this image doesn’t apply to most writers, there are a few remarkably famous authors who hardly made a dime by writing. This didn’t stop them from joining the ranks of the most celebrated poets and novelists of all time. Here we have six such authors for your consideration.
Lovecraft was an American writer whose work in “weird fiction” has had a lasting influence. His Cthulhu mythos, a collection of interconnected novellas and short stories, has inspired authors from Stephen King to Alan Moore. The word Lovecraftian has come into use to describe his brand of cosmic horror and Cthulhu himself often appears in popular culture.
Despite working his entire life as a writer, he was never able to earn enough money doing it to cover even his most basic expenses, at the lowest points of his life he was forced to skip meals to afford postage stamps. A planned project with Harry Houdini which would have earned him a great deal of money had to be abandoned with Houdini’s death. A lack of business acumen also cost him; he once failed to reply to a publisher that inquired about any novels he might have ready.
Lovecraft, whose desire to make a living as a writer never faltered, died in 1937 of cancer at the age of 46. The entirety of his work can be read here.
"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn"
(Translation: In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming)
- The Call of Cthulhu
Kafka was a Czech writer living and working in Prague in the early 20th century. His writing often focused on the alienating powers of bureaucracies, byzantine systems that worked to promote themselves, and the isolating features of modern life. Among his works are The Metamorphosis and The Trail, both of which inspired the existentialist philosophers and have had such an influence on literature that the word “Kafkaesque” was created to describe his style.
Franz Kafka (Wikimedia Commons)
Like Lovecraft, Kafka did publish some works in his lifetime. Kafka, however, kept most of his work to himself and ordered it burned after his death. His friends went to the publishing house instead. Unable to support himself by writing, Kafka took up several jobs that allowed him to write in the evenings and quit those which took up too much of his time. He had a long, relatively prosperous, stint as an insurance clerk at a work safety agency where he may have invented the hard hat.
Kafka was relatively unknown during his life but became famous almost immediately after his death of Tuberculosis at age 40. Several of his works can be read here.
"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams; he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous insect."
- The Metamorphosis
Emily Dickinson was an American poet who wrote nearly 1800 poems, of which less than a dozen were published during her lifetime and were often heavily edited. Dickinson’s poetry has been continuously published since her death in 1890 and has been highly praised.
Dickinson wrote prolifically during the American civil war and carried on correspondence with others to gain feedback on her experimental style. She, like Kafka, asked that her papers be burned after her death in 1886. Luckily for us, that promise was not kept. Her younger sister found the trove of unpublished poems and had them printed four years after the burn by date. A collection of her poems is available online.
"Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
- Because I Could Not Stop for Death
A French writer in the early 20th century, Proust is best known for his monumental work In Search of Lost Time, parts of which were only published after his death. It is often considered one of the greatest novels ever written.
He halfheartedly held other jobs, he once took a post at a library and had such an extended sick leave that he was presumed to have resigned. He lived with his parents and then on an inheritance left to him. While Proust did make some money as a writer, his work was unfished and not fully appreciated until after his death at age 51.
"We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full."
- In Search of Lost Time
Edgar Allen Poe
An American writer who hardly needs any introduction. Poe was a master of Gothic horror and the inventor of the detective fiction genre. His works are required reading in any American literature class and his most famous work, The Raven, has been recorded and parodied countless times.
The Raven was extremely popular upon publication and earned Poe precisely nine dollars. He was the first notable American author to attempt to make a living on writing alone. He was often unable to do so and held several other jobs during his lifetime. He was found delirious in a gutter in Baltimore and died of still unknown causes at a nearby hospital. To add insult to his death; a popular biography falsely depicting Poe as a degenerate made a great deal of money and has poisoned our image of him ever since. A collection of his work can be found here.
"Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore —
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the raven, 'Nevermore.'"
- The Raven
A Germanic philosopher who co-founded existentialism, Nietzsche has had a tremendous influence on philosophy, politics, psychology, and the popular image of a philosopher. His works are often referenced by people who have no idea what they are talking about, and he remains a philosopher who is well known even to those who have never studied philosophy.
He abandoned a career in academia, where he was made a professor right out of college, to try and make a living as an independent writer and philosopher. He was unable to make much money from selling his books and often begged from friends. This didn’t deter him, and at the height of his writing he was cranking out a book a year of high quality. At the time of his death, he had achieved some fame, if not wealth, from his writings. Slightly older versions of his work can be read here.
"I am no man, I am dynamite!"
- Ecce Homo
Artificial Intelligence has come a long way in a short time. So at what point will it be able to emulate the great artists and writers of our time?
Author and public intellectual Salman Rushdie knows his way around a good word or two. It's made him one of the most celebrated and widely-read authors of the last 50 years. But he has an open mind that one day a machine might be able to emulate him. He remembers an era not too long ago where people were deriding computer chess programs, saying that they would never beat grandmaster human players. It only took a couple of decades until those that chided the chess AI had to eat crow, Salman posits, so why should writing be any different? Salman Rushdie's latest book is The Golden House.
We compiled a list of seven of the greatest public speakers of all time, people who forever changed the course of history with their words.
A speech is more than a set of spoken words. It's a combination of the speaker, the context, the language, and these things working together can make it far greater than the sum of its parts. In that vein, we compiled some of the greatest public speakers of all time, people whose words changed the course of societies and defined eras.
When Paris fell to the Nazis on June 14, 1940, England began to steel itself for the brunt of the Axis powers on the Western front. Winston Churchill, who had taken over as prime minister just a month prior, delivered his famous "Our Finest Hour" to a country bracing itself for full-scale attack. In 1953, Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in part for his speeches, which he wrote himself.
In his history of World War II entitled "The Storm of War," Andrew Roberts writes:
"Winston Churchill managed to combine the most magnificent use of English — usually short words, Anglo-Saxon words, Shakespearean. And also this incredibly powerful delivery. And he did it at a time when the world was in such peril from Nazism, that every word mattered."
John F. Kennedy
Few speeches are as oft quoted as John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, which he spent months writing. Kennedy's ability to speak as if he was having an authentic conversation with an audience, as opposed to lecturing to them, is one quality that made him such a compelling communicator.
Standing accused of crimes including corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates had a choice: defer and apologize to his accusers for his alleged crimes, or reformulate their scattered accusations into proper legal form (thereby embarrassing his accusers) and deliver an exhaustive defense of the pursuit of truth, apologizing for nothing. He chose the latter and was sentenced to death. Part of Socrates' “Apology" includes:
"How you have felt, O men of Athens, at hearing the speeches of my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that their persuasive words almost made me forget who I was - such was the effect of them; and yet they have hardly spoken a word of truth. But many as their falsehoods were, there was one of them which quite amazed me; - I mean when they told you to be upon your guard, and not to let yourselves be deceived by the force of my eloquence."
Hitler was well aware that mastering the art of public speaking was crucial to his political career. He wrote all of his speeches himself, sometimes editing them more than five times. He practiced his facial expressions and gestures, and he was adept at interweaving metaphor and abstract ideas into his speeches about political policy.
Martin Luther King Jr.
The strong musicality of Martin Luther King Jr.'s rhetoric is perhaps just as recognizable as the words “not be judged on the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Martin Luther King drew inspiration from Shakespeare, the bible, his own past speeches, and numerous civil rights thinkers to write his "I Have a Dream" speech, one of the most famous of all time.
Until his death in 1987, James Baldwin pushed the conversation about race in America forward with his carefully intense social criticism. He traveled extensively throughout his life, saying that “Once you find yourself in another civilization, you're forced to examine your own."
Mister (Fred) Rogers spent his life communicating soft-spoken yet direct messages of practical advice to children, ultimately earning him a Peabody Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Rogers was an expert in using rhetoric to effectively communicate with any audience, not just children, a quality best evidenced in his appearance before a senate committee to save his show's funding in 1969.
How do you win a Nobel Prize in Literature? First you must get nominated, then it gets hard.
In October 2016, Bob Dylan became the first western songwriter to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, with the committee citing his “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Joining such illustrious names as Bertrand Russell, Winston Churchill, and Ernest Hemingway as a laureate. He was seen as an outside bet for years by those who claimed to know, and now he can claim to have his lyrics regarded as art by the highest authority.
But how? How did he win a Nobel Prize?
Each Nobel prize has an organization in charge of giving it out, for the prize in literature it is the Swedish Academy. Every year the Academy sends out requests for nominations to thousands of individuals. These include former winners, members of the academy, literature professors from around the world, and the leaders of writers organizations. These nominations are reduced from hundreds to five in two months, and then several months are spent debating the finalist’s merits. A person can only win if they are a finalist at least once before.
Bob Dylan was able to win by having each one of those requirements met, and then being seen as a better choice than the other finalists; which is no small task. This has not gone without controversy, however. French writer Pierre Assouline suggests that giving Dylan the prize is “contemptuous of writers”. Scottish author Irvine Welsh dismissed it as a nostalgia award by old hippies.
The literature prize is no stranger to controversy. The tastes of the original committee head lead to the rejection of such authors as Tolstoy and Mark Twain in favor of people few have either read or heard of. Every Noble prize has had controversy, failed to give awards to deserving individuals, or simply given ones to people who didn’t deserve one, but the literature award perhaps suffered the most from this in the early years.
Famously, Jean Paul-Sartre refused to accept his award on the grounds that he rejected all awards. Boris Pasternak, the author of Dr. Zhivago, was forced to refuse his prize by the Soviet government. It is impossible to be nominated when dead, so authors like Franz Kafka were never considered.
Bob Dylan has become the first American in two decades to win the Nobel Prize in literature, and only the second songwriter to win the prize at all. This is no small feat, but he will also join the list of controversial winners whose merits we will debate for some time.