James Baldwin published Giovanni’s Room when he was 32 years old. That means he could have written it when he was as young as thirty. I am about to turn 30 and Baldwin’s second novel haunts me; harasses me, inspires me, and frightens me.
James Baldwin was a great American writer. Not the best, but right up there with Norman Mailer and Henry Miller as an A.2 writer. The absolute top tier is very rarified air with names like William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway and Saul Bellow. The mastery of the craft and the intricacy of their styles as well as the power of their themes make these writers the best America has produced.
Perhaps it is due to Baldwin’s status as a great writer but not one of the few best that he haunts me. Not only did he publish at a young age – Giovanni’s Room was his second novel – but he won major fellowships and circulated with the movers and shakers of his day.
He gave he speech at the podium in Washington D.C. immediately preceding King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Baldwin was in.
I am not in. I have not published anything except for what I can get online. Triond and Associated Content are half-measures. They do satisfy the writer’s urge to be read. These websites provide the motivation of an audience, or at least the sense of one.
However, I do wonder if writing non-fiction will help the fiction writer who aspires to be very good. Will Triond help to improve the writing of one who aspires to be great?
Discovering the electronic venues of Associated Content and Triond, which offer pay (albeit minimal), has been a nice boost. It has provided a market, very literally, to shop around ideas.
Yet as my 30th birthday approaches, I feel that my own Giovanni’s Room remains on the horizon. I try to be constructive and ask the right questions. What can I do to utilize the benefits of these websites while also progressing with my prose and fiction? How can these websites help me to realize my ambitions of publishing fiction in print? What creative marriage is possible between literary fiction and on-line publishing which might be (minimally) lucrative to boot?
There are answers. I play hokey-pokey with my desperation, sometimes one foot in, one foot out, sometimes I dance my desperation and shake it all about.
In the end, I know that the writing simply must continue and where the dream leads the work will follow. If the dream leads toward improvement and publication of work at my highest potential, then that is where the work will go.
In the meantime the online sites may provide enough motivation to keep both feet out of my hokey-pokey circle of despair.
I should mention that my pain is only existential in part and I do not compare this artist’s despair to the more real grief of life and loss. However, as a writer with ambition to be better, to be good, and to be published, my despair is real in its own way, like a cattle brand, it marks me.
Maybe that’s why I don’t have any tattoos…
Suffering in art is a classic trope. Perhaps it is the most classic professional trope in western culture. The “tortured, suffering artist” would be cliché if the truth of the idea did not remain true.
James Baldwin had his suffering. He put it on the page and is loved for it.
Giovanni’s Room is a wonderful example of the troubled man, wearing two personas. Symbolically, the gay version of Baldwin’s character is representative of the artist. And the heterosexual mask the character wears is the non-artist who is able to escape the tortures of his deep and true passions by fitting in.
When the man fails to convince himself that he is straight and admits that the passions he felt for Giovanni were the “real him”, we are seeing an artist coming to terms with the fact of his identity. He is an artist. He is a writer. And so he must create, and suffer.
Not to be ironic or funny, Baldwin’s suffering is the pure suffering that unpublished writers crave. Because Baldwin is past the doubts as to whether or not he can do it, he can ask the more profound question as to whether he wants to do it and what the doing will cost him.
Unpublished folks are doubled up in their doubts and cannot readily approach the question of desire for the pure suffering. That purity is beyond them.
I could be wrong.
So, to attempt dipping a toe into the pool of true, pure artistic suffering, we send out dozens of manuscripts and cater rejection for the sole opportunity to suffer better.
We turn to Associated Content and Triond to see if they will offer some semblance of purity.
And we find ourselves, involved in this half-measure toward publishing, faced with un-predicted questions.
The brand remains.