Dawn Powell on ‘Writers of Consequence’

Dawn Powell‘s A Time To Be Born is chock-a-block with wonderfully acerbic observations: on life, love, politics–you know, the usual stuff–but for my money, most memorably, in these brief passages, on journalism, writers, and writing itself:

Every morning Miss Bemel turned in a complete digest of the dinner conversations or chance comments of important officials who had visited the house. Miss Bemel had all these words down in shorthand in her unseen chamber outside the dining or from invisible vantage grounds elsewhere in the house, and these were then checked with other information, and eventually woven into the printed words as the brilliant findings of Amanda Keeler Evans. Miss Bemel saw nothing the matter with this arrangement, since her own rise to power accompanied her mistress’ ascension.

To tell the truth, Amanda would have been genuinely surprised to learn that any writer of consequence had any other method of creation. There were a number of minor scribes on liberal weeklies who were unable to afford a secretary, that she knew, but she had no idea that his was anything more than the necessary handicap of poverty. The tragedy of the attic poets, Keats, Shelly, Burns, was not that they died young but that they were obliged to by poverty to do all their own writing. Amanda was reasonably confident that in a day of stress she would be quite able to do her own writing, but until that day she saw no need, and in fact should a day of stress arrive she would not be stupid enough to keep to a writing career at all, but would set about finding some more convenient means of getting money.

Even if the public had discovered, through malicious enemies, that Amanda’s first knowledge of what she thought about Britain’s labor problem, Spanish Rehabilitation, South American Co-optation, America First, War with the Far East. was the moment she read Miss Bemel’s “report” above her own signature, no one would have thought the less of her intelligence, for the system was blessed pragmatic success. The most successful playwrights, the most powerful columnists, the most popular magazine writers, seldom had any idea of how to throw a paragraph together, let alone a story, and hired various little unknown scribblers to attend to the “technical details.” The technical details usually consisted of providing characters, dialogue and construction, if the plot was outlined for them, as well as the labor of writing. Sometimes the plot itself was assembled by this technical staff, for individuals were far too busy in this day and age to waste time on the petty groundwork of a work of genius; it was enough that they signed their full name on to it and discharged the social obligation attendant upon its success. The public, querulous as it was with the impractical gyrations of the unknown artist, made up for this, by being magnanimously understanding of the problems of the successful man, so it all evened up in the long run. Amanda was just as entitled to her “genius” as any of the other boys on Broadway or in the public prints.

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