Sunday, November 04, 2007

Richard Kostelanetz, "Unobvious Disadvantages"

Richard Kostelanetz

Overcoming Unobvious Disadvantages

As I look back on forty years of writing & art, I realize that I survived nearly all the possible professional disadvantages:

I could never spell perfectly, while my skill at proofreading is so deficient that many manuscripts and even books of mine contain, alas, misprints.

Self-consciously unsophisticated parents and blood relatives, none of whom could say they understood what I did.

Alumni affiliations (high school, college, graduate schools in both NYC and London), all purportedly prestigious, with no practical leverage, ever, for anything crucially special at all—zilch, to the surprise of those who think high ‘prestige’ counts professionally.

No teachers ever successfully recommended me to publishers or for teaching positions.

No supportive spouses or lovers either.

I belong to a gender and an ethnic category to which no professional favors were granted (even by those powerful people sharing my gender and sociological categories).

No effective agent, though I tried several of them; nor an effective book publisher, who could publicize my work to people unfamiliar with it.

Probably 90% of my shorter pieces appeared in periodicals with circulations of less than 5000 and no money for contributors.

No elder operatives whose protégée I could have become, who could have created professional opportunities unavailable to an aspirant working on his own.

No institutional connections and thus no positions with power that would not only scare off bullies accustomed to picking on those less powerful but also impress those susceptible to solicitations from powerful people.

Scarce income.

No fad or fashion connected to my name that could have given me some artificial celebrity, at least for a while, before an inevitable fall.

Nary a rave review in the New York Times and no notice at all in the New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, or the Times Literary Supplement.

Work of various kinds that cultural merchandisers in various domains judged that “people didn’t want.”

Art and writing that has been unconventional in more ways than anyone can count, produced at a high level of widely acknowledged integrity.

I worked with some distinction in so many ‘fields’ (and sub-fields) that common tags such as ‘poet’ or ‘critic’ were inadequate, which is to say that I lacked a single familiar ‘hook’ onto which ancillary activities could be hung or a pre-established ‘niche’ in which my name could be conveniently placed.

Politics and literary politics no less fashionable (and no less radical) than my esthetics, poetics, and career goals.

Few of the fashionable ‘disadvantages’ that all self-consciously well-intentioned people publicly honor.

How did I survive? How could I have possibly earned these individual entries in Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, A Reader’s Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Webster’s Dictionary of American Authors, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, and the Encyclopedia Britannica, among other distinguished histories and directories? Quite simply, I did strong work at uncommon levels of seriousness and perhaps humor—work that individuals have admired, sometimes enormously, supporting it (and me) thereby, often prompting envy in those professionally dependent upon advantages. Perhaps that explanation is not sufficient; others might have truer answers. Nonetheless, the greater truth, which accounts for my writing this short memoir, is that what was possible for me is certainly possible for others—professional success, at least in America, is not reserved for those dependant upon advantages.

Richard Kostelanetz is a prolific American artist. A political libertarian, he is a contributing editor for Liberty Magazine.

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