The Literary “Genius”
By David Arthur Walters
There is too much bullshit on the rungs of the literary ladder to success.
Current statistical studies certainly support the 'stagnant class circulation' thesis. A few people do strike it rich one way or the other, but that circulation is barely. Some people do win the lottery, and a few become rich and famous due to a combination of virtue and luck, but most aspirants stay where they "belong" no matter how ambitious they are, and that is certainly a waste given their untapped talents and abilities.
Petrifaction of people within social strata has been obvious to the man and woman in the street for countless years, especially if he happens to be an unemployed literary genius like me in a city like Kansas City calling for creative revitalization but which presently has no positions open in his field, or anything else for him to do for that matter, not even as a laborer on a construction job - for those positions are filled by undocumented workers.
Diane Stafford, human resource columnist for The Kansas City Star knows that her unemployed readers know that there are way too many applicants for every job. So what is she to say to boost their morale for awhile and not call for a revolution? She says that unemployed people can succeed if they reinvent themselves and become self-employed entrepreneurs.
Now when Ms Stafford heard that "one of the greatest self-employed, flat broke writers in the country," namely me, was seeking work at her newspaper, she overlooked my delusion of grandeur, and replied, "I have no specific knowledge of any relevant openings, but I know for sure that daily newspapers aren't promising." She suggested that the greatest writer the world will ever or never know try to sell articles to monthly and weekly publications.
I approached Tony Ortega, managing editor of a free weekly, Kansas City's popular sidewalk rag, The Pitch, with Ms, Stafford’s HR advice in mind. The Pitch is a Village Voice knockoff. It is best known for its excellent entertainment reviews, counter-cultural critiques, screwball editorials, and interminably corkscrewed articles about irrelevant subjects. I submitted a few of my Man on the Street dialogues along with a few provocative essays on controversial subjects, and asked him for a column in his rag. I did not tell him that I thought his paper, other than the entertainment reviews, was a load of crap, and that I would really not be too proud if any of my articles were accepted, but I needed the money so I could at least say that I am a professional writer.
From his superior vantage point as the editor of a second-rate rag that no reader would pay a single cent for, peering down haughtily on my humble submission, Mr. Ortega perceived that I had delusions of grandeur. He said that I was not great at all; that my dialogues with people on the street, which I had written down verbatim, were contrived; that my brilliant essays were interminable screeds. Furthermore, he said one has to play the ropes, to painstakingly move up the ladder, rung by rung, to eventually get a column; the aspirant cannot just waltz onto the set and take the anchor man's seat. He advised me to drop the old-fashioned dialogue and write about what was really going on in Kansas City for a few years; that is, the truth as he saw it. In fine, my work was not his cup of tea, wherefore I should not expect his business.
Well, screw him, I thought, he doesn’t know the difference between a brilliant essay and his fat ass. It’s too bad Screw Magazine did not last, for he would have been its perfect editor. The in-your-face, juvenile-delinquency Pitch, I concluded, is on the lowest rung of the ladder to success, and that rung is covered with bullshit.
Ms. Stafford’s advice to employ one’s self when unemployed has already been taken by scores of excellent writers who are far more truthful writers than writers who are employed to obey editors. They call themselves "freelance writers," or, better yet, “authors,” for they may think of themselves as independent authorities. Some of them do quite well, but not many, for the ladder to success is slippery and crowded with scoundrels and whores. The most of them have little or no money to pay themselves as self-employed writers, so one might say they are desperately employed without pay - artists are prone to sacrificing their lives for their art even if they cannot land a job in their preferred field. They may try to get day jobs in some mundane field to support their art if such jobs can be had.
Such a plight might remind the discriminating reader of Eugene in Theodore Dreiser's The "Genius". Dreiser's protagonist was a painter made in the author's image. Eugene had failed to sell sufficient art or get an art directorship to secure his living. He was almost at the end of his economic rope, wherefore he sought a position doing something else, anything at all, just to get by. He naturally had an innate feeling of superiority or over-qualification in comparison to others while standing in job lines. Others in line noticed his lofty demeanor:
"Look what wants to be a clerk," one applicant remarked.
Eugene became so depressed that he stopped filling out the forms when he got to the head of job lines - he simply stood in line and observed, with horror, the grinding of the wheel of fortune.
"It was a horrible picture to him in his present condition. It was like the grinding of millstones, upper and nether. These were the chaff. He was part of the chaff at present, or in danger of becoming so. Life was winnowing him out. He might go down, down, and there might never be an opportunity for him to rise any more.
"Few, if any of us, understand thoroughly the nature of the unconscious stratification which takes place in life, the layers and types and classes into which it assorts itself and the barriers which these offer to a free migration of the individuals from one class to another. We take on naturally the material habiliments of our temperaments, necessities and opportunities.... He found that he was naturally barred by temperament from some things, from others by strength and weight, or rather the lack of them; from others by inexperience; from others by age; and so on. And those who were different from him in any and all of those respects were inclined to look at him askance. 'You are not as we are,' their eyes seemed to say; 'why did you come here?' "
Oh, what a shame, what a shame it is for me that I know exactly how Eugene feels. I was appalled the other day by yet another of Ms. Stafford's illuminating HR article, rendering the advice of the Human Resources director of Hallmark Cards. The director said anyone applying for a job at the card company had better do their homework, had better research the company and know exactly what they want to do for the company before bothering to apply for a job.
By the way, there was only one job opening that week, as card-folder. Still, if it were not for Ms. Stafford's article, Jessica Flint, who has a master’s degree in English and who writes charming little poems, would not have revised her resume and gotten the card-folding job the next week.
We are all familiar with the results of strict adherence to the qualification process. Credentials can be a good thing, but they can also be a curse. Theodore Dreiser, for instance, knew exactly what he wanted to do: he wanted to be a newspaper reporter and to rub shoulders with important people. He could not complete a sentence, yet he pestered an editor until he got a writing job, and eventually became a foremost pioneer of realism - called naturalism or sensationalism at the time. If only that was how the world worked for my generation, my greatness would already be realized.
Now we have the fellow who graduated from high school, learned how to write according to a certain formula, got his journalism degree, and got hired. He has held down a good job with The Kansas City Star for some time now, but he cannot do the job nearly as well as any number of persons who do not formally qualify to do that sort of job, namely one of us. He is with the local daily newspaper monopoly, by the way, where he is generally regarded as "stupid." But he is a nice guy, and the power elite like his column because he has a "positive mental attitude" about whatever the authorities want to do with the taxpayers' money.
A few large, high-growth progressive companies during the dotcom craze took a somewhat different approach. Applicants on the whole did not apply for particular jobs: they were given a battery of skill-tests, occupational preference tests, and, curiously, psychological tests with such questions as, "Do you turn around when you get off the stool and look at what you did?" If hired, they were trained and routed to the appropriate positions - sometimes positions were tailor-made for them. Sadly, these companies went bust in the dotcom crash. But I think their creative approach - hiring human beings for jobs they can do best and want to do, instead of fitting pegs into holes, should be further explored by large companies, especially large newspaper and magazine companies.
But what do I know? I am not a human resources expert. Maybe that card-folding job is open again - I hear they have a high turnover in the card business.
Kansas City, Missouri