“Matthew Klam’s New Book Is Only 17 Years Overdue” and other tales of failure

by janeeatonhamilton

 

the new book

Over at Vulture, Taffy Brodesser-Akner has a terrific feature about Matthew Klam’s career and his new book. Every writer should read this. We all deal with self doubt and castigation, I think. The article is a really a good look at Klam’s early fortune; about how just as he was deciding he’d quit writing, he got a yes from Dan Menaker, editor at the New Yorker, for one of his stories. (My stories got lots of comments from Menaker in my time, and once we even moved into editorial, but I never quite got the yes. The story that came closest was published in the Alaska Review.)

The world opened for Matthew Klam, and his list of early awards and honours was daunting. He had it all except for a second book. As the years passed, he still didn’t have a second book. He wrote continually, he tossed continually, he taught instead for its anonymity.

For me, the world never opened, and my talent, which was substantial but wanting, withered from lack of support. I didn’t have an MFA program to weed out weaknesses. I learned slowly. Sometimes folks went mad for one story or essay, but when they wanted more, the more was always so different they didn’t like it. This is a problem with range and writing across genres (and letting my heart have its way).

I needed an imprimatur I didn’t have. A Menaker imprimatur, maybe. Once Ellen Seligman at M+S spent six months telling me yes, telling me no, telling me I don’t know, I go one way, I flop the other way, and I wonder what would have happened if she had said yes eventually, whether that profound novel about child rape in the world of wild mustangs I was then working on would have come to fruition. All these years later, I’m still curious about what would have broken out of me if by chance I had just been valued and nurtured, and really had to work to an editor’s expectations. I would have risen, I know, because I am like that, but in what way, to what end?

What literature did I not produce because I:

a) wasn’t quite good enough?

b) wasn’t repetitive enough?

c) there was discrimination (even inborne and unacknowledged) against certain categories of writers (disabled/queer/feminist)?

d)  wasn’t from the US?

What would those stories and books have been?

I was low-income and a sole-support parent a lot of those years. And of course I asked the same questions Matthew Klam asked himself: What does this matter? Who needs another story? Another novel? To what purpose? To win a prize and still be unable to pay the bills? I certainly never cared about a postmortem reputation–that and $5 I’d get a plastic glass of latte at Starbucks to set on my gravestone.

I won the CBC contest a couple times. I published in the NY Times, the Sun and other strong periodicals (back then and again this year). But no successes ever built, no one ever tucked me under her mentor wing. I still write in my self-propelled bubble without much response. I certainly write now without any hopes at all for the marketplace–really, only to please myself.

I had my perfect form and lost it. I quit writing stories and nobody noticed. I quit writing stories and only a friable piece of my heart noticed. I struggle to write novels, but I am no novelist. I am no novelist.

Maybe Matthew Klam is. I look forward to reading Who Is Rich?

The Vulture