Salinger, Roth, Hemingway and the wilderness of writing

We are all geniuses at something. The trick is to find out what it is. Photo: Salinger

WASHINGTON, DC, January 16, 2013 - Philip Roth has quit writing and nobody knows exactly why though I can guess. Salinger wrote only for himself, for his own pleasure, and considered getting published a nuisance, a bother and an intrusion. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last royalty check amounted to something like six dollars and change. He said, “Why am I doing all this writing. No one’s reading me.”

Hemingway was so unimpressed with his Pulitzer, his Nobel, his wine, his women, his fame, his books waiting to get written, that he committed suicide.

John Kennedy Toole (“A Confederacy of Dunces”) won his Pulitzer too late. He kept getting rejected and answered right back with his own suicide.

Dear world…How’s that for rejection!

Both a doctor and an auto mechanic (people I admire) marveled at the fact that some of us can turn emotions into prose.

I explained that we are all geniuses at something. The trick is to find out what it is.

Writing novels, as I do, is fun, and more than that, once the inspiration kicks in there is nothing compared to the exhilaration when the words begin to flow, and there is no stopping us once we get started. There is no choice but to write and as I have said plenty of times, you don’t choose writing, writing chooses you.

But that’s the writing itself that I’m talking about, and in that period when the going is good and the words (from above?) keep coming so fast that even the keyboard can’t keep up – in that period we are charmed and blessed. At these moments, as we write and lose track of time, we create a universe and discover continents. We become gods and kings.

In the publishing we turn ourselves over to our readers and trust that we will get a fair hearing. We don’t ask our readers to love us, only to understand that a novel is tender and precious and easily broken when trashed. We worked long and hard to get it done and deserve leniency for the effort alone – and for having the guts to stick our necks out where there may be multitudes waiting to do us harm.

This is an especially tricky time for writers. We find ourselves squarely into the teeth of a technology that permits anyone to comment on our work without telling us who they are, so that by remaining anonymous they enjoy a tyranny. Bygone writers faced their accusers.

All around I have been lucky with reviews though we don’t know what a new day will bring, but on getting published it has been a drag from day one, and yet there have been some astonishing successes, which only recently I have come to appreciate. I keep saying that every work of art is a failure because we never get it exactly right, but even so, sometimes we click and our books get praised, become bestsellers and get made into movies…and for that much I can vouch.

But generally all true writers – all true artists – are failures. We are dependant on the mercy of strangers.

I even wrote a novel about a novelist, his triumphs yes, but oh brother the rejections, the hardships, the bills. I knew what I was talking about.

I am reading the biography of David Lean the great director of “Lawrence of Arabia” and am astonished at his feelings of inadequacy even after scoring success after success.  Even at the height of his fame Hemingway had trouble getting a press pass to cover World War II. Even after “The Catcher in the Rye” Salinger had to keep proving himself at The New Yorker. (Read Kenneth Slawenski’s fabulous bio on this.)

Today I have begun writing a new novel and I wonder if it’s worth the trouble. I keep hesitating as I consider my predecessors and about their weariness and despair and the uselessness of it all. Fitzgerald in “The Crack-Up” extended King Solomon’s despair in Ecclesiastes. All is futile and futility.

Readers will misunderstand, as is to be expected, but some will misunderstand the work purposely and viciously.

Once the work has been done and is out of your hands you have no say. Onward your readers become gods and kings. They, not you, interpret your work, and this is their duty in this, the final act of intimacy, more intimate than sex, this give-and-take between writer and reader.

But who will be around to read this book of mine? Will we all be tweeting by the time it’s done – tweeting instead of reading, and tweeting instead of writing? Already the language has changed and already we have a generation trained and conditioned to express themselves in 140 characters or less.

I notice this even at the movies where a typical scene in today’s films runs no more than about 10 seconds. Our attention spans are devoted to the next commercial.

I also notice that the finest writing these days comes not from our novelists but from our screenwriters. (Is this why Roth quit?) True that so many films are junk but also true that good films keep getting done, and the writing is good and sometimes very good. I cannot write a screenplay because to me words are notes, sentences are music, and I need rhythm to keep moving from paragraph to paragraph.

Rhythm is something you have or you don’t. Read the first paragraph of Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.”

Read the opening lines to James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

Read Kafka to find that a writer does not and should not care if his works get read.  Kafka died before seeing his novels in print.

The work – it’s only the work that counts. Forget the rest.


Jack Engelhard is a novelist for such moral dilemma bestsellers as The Bathsheba DeadlineThe Girls of Cincinnati, and the classic Indecent Proposal, his memoir Escape From Mount Moriah, and  Slot Attendant – A Novel About A Novelist is Engelhard’s partly autobiographical expose about the trials of making it as a writer, bring his words to the Communities page covering all topics, with special focus on the absurdity of human behavior, and reaches around the globe.


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Jack Engelhard

Jack Engelhard enjoys international fame as a novelist for such moral dilemma bestsellers as The Bathsheba Deadline, The Girls of Cincinnati, and the classic Indecent Proposal, which was turned into film starring Robert Redford and Demi Moore. His memoir Escape From Mount Moriah has been acclaimed for excellence and a movie version was an official selection at CANNES. Slot Attendant – A Novel About A Novelist is Engelhard’s partly autobiographical expose about the trials of making it as a writer. Engelhard’s journalism covers all topics, with special focus on  the absurdity of human behavior, and reaches around the globe. He can be contacted at


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