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Arts & Culture

Malcolm Cowley, Life Coach

May 16, 2012 | by

In the fall of 1946, my grandfather was twenty years old and back home in Pittsburgh, having completed his English degree at Purdue and a tour with the navy. Though he was expected to join the family diamond business, Richard Max Davis dreamed of becoming a writer—he just wasn’t sure how to do it. So he wrote a letter to Malcolm Cowley. And Malcolm Cowley wrote back.

There was a family connection: Cowley was my great-grandfather's Harvard roommate and a fellow Pittsburgh native. Cowley’s enduring fascination with the personalities and destinies of American writers is evident, as is—I imagine—a note of paternal affection.

In the weeks since I discovered Cowley's 1947 letter among some family papers, I have often paused to consider his message: writing is difficult; most writers are failures. If you have to ask if you should become a writer, you are probably not a writer. A postgraduate writing course? Can’t hurt, but that's almost beside the point.

The letter makes me smile as I imagine my grandfather, sepia and stern-faced, among his twenty-first-century peers in an Iowa workshop. He fretted over a course in fiction writing decades before it was common for aspiring writers to ask such a question—and Cowley answers him.

But it also pains me, in no small part because the correspondence is one–sided. What did my grandfather write to Cowley? I can feel Richard Max's anxiety as he typed his letter, and I can feel his heart sink as he read Cowley’s words. Certainly, it will delight Louis Menand fans and cultish observers of the Harvard curriculum (they exist) to learn that the self-appointed curator of the Lost Generation wished he'd taken more science courses. But what did it mean to an ambitious twenty-year-old man, fresh from a minesweeper, eager to avoid the family business?

My grandfather did not “become” a writer. (As Cowley might say, does one ever?) He joined the diamond business and soon had a wife and three young children. At least one Hemingway dream remained: he was an avid deep-sea fisherman. In January 1964, while on a fishing vacation in the Cayman Islands, Richard Max Davis set out toward Cuban waters in a twelve-foot outboard motorboat and was never seen again. —Rebecca Davis O'Brien



  1. Helen DeWitt | May 16, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    “if he has to write, why then he writes…” This is roughly what my penultimate agent, Bill Clegg, had to say on the subject. This is not so much the romantic point of view as the addict’s point of view. Anyone familiar with the world of publishing will know that it’s bullshit. The writer who is literally an addict, the writer who can’t help himself, the writer who HAS to write, can never be anything but an amateur, because the industry requires the professional to put writing on hold not just for a day or two, or a week, but for years.

    Jonathan Galassi is on record as saying that Jonathan Franzen is the most important writer of his generation. Franzen says he has done no writing for TWO YEARS. Well, of course. Franzen is a pro. Freedom had to go through the machine that turns a manuscript into an artifact; Franzen then had to do a roadshow to shift copies of the artifact. The fact that his editor saw him as the most important writer of his generation did not mean that his editor thought his time would better be spent (gasp) writing — that a single appearance on Oprah, for instance, would suffice.

    Jaimy Gordon won the National Book Award last year, because Bruce Ferguson submitted the ms of Lord of Misrule. Gordon is 65; she had been teaching full time. Making the finals got her a hot shot agent, an extra $100,000 if she won. She won. The prize, a chance to join the pros. Not to WRITE — only an amateur would expect to use the money to squander the anointed talent on a new book. No, being the Winner meant she could spend a year on publicity, shifting copies of the artifact.

    If you literally HAVE to write, you can’t be a pro. By ‘literally’ I mean that you have quit your job, you are using all your money and time to write, get an offer of publication, can just possibly remain sane for 2 weeks of the drudgery of seeing a finished book into print before returning to work in progress; if you are promised editorial comments in a week and get them in two months, you jump off a cliff, throw yourself in front a train. That’s if you LITERALLY have to write. If you HAVE to write, in other words, you’re the kind of writer who is ‘impossible to deal with.’ So you can’t be a pro.

    The writers whose work is published are all writers who can somehow manage NOT to write for months, even years. There may be writers who HAVE to write, but if there are we never see their books: no agent would touch them. Mainstream publishers only accept submissions from agents. Indie publishers don’t pay the kind of money that would enable a writer to do nothing but write. Mainstream publishers pay money that could buy time, but won’t let the writer use the time. So the system selects for the writer who doesn’t HAVE to write.

    I find it hard enough to understand why agents and editors act in bad faith; can’t at all understand why a writer would do so.

  2. Program Agnostic | May 16, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    It’s an age-old question, I guess: Do I get an MFA, or do I go into the diamond business?

  3. Aaron Sandland | May 16, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    Nicely put, “Program Agnostic”.

    It is astounding how out of touch literary publications have become with the current Zeitgeist.

  4. Joe | May 16, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    “Have to write.” What Helen’s taking it as and what Cowley’s saying are two different things to me. Cowley’s talking about giving permission to oneself to write, not asking for it, just doing it. That’s all. He’s not talking about not dealing with the process of editing and marketing. He’s not talking about the world of publishing. He’s just talking about the simple act of writing, at a very base level.

  5. Program Agnostic | May 16, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    What a great letter, though, and it should put us all to shame: either Cowley had an excellent typist, or he had magic typing fingers.

  6. Adam | May 16, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    ‘–you would have known the answer yourself and to hell with what anybody told you.’ Timeless.

    Also, Helen, when are you writing chapter 2?

  7. Don | May 16, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    Thank you, Helen, for not being the 1 billionth person to foolishly romanticize the act of writing.

  8. Book Maverick | May 17, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    A slight correction: the publisher of Lord of Misrule is Bruce McPherson, not Bruce Ferguson.

  9. GZ | May 17, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    I am agnostic as to Program’s ‘Zeitgeist’ but however this is meant – those who read TPR blog are quite likely to be asking the questions addressed here.

    Joe’s point is well taken but Cowley specifically refers to writing as a profession. He does not illuminate the complex maze betwixt writing and being publishing (à la Helen) except to say that most writers are failures. He deliberately expresses this as an afterthought to reinforce that true writers consider failure irrelevant.

    Is this romanticism Don? And if a miserable, failed artist affirms the primacy and necessity of writing, are they just lionizing failure? The truly foolish act is to romanticize publishing, not writing itself. The alternative is to be utterly pragmatic about both, and if we consider well crafted words as art (and therefore of high importance) this would be more dreary than failure.

  10. Helen DeWitt | May 18, 2012 at 8:02 am

    Book Maverick, Argh, thanks for the correction. (And apologies to Mr McPherson.)

  11. ijaz | October 16, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    so informative on personality and art of personality. discussion of people make it mature.

  12. Sanna | February 24, 2014 at 4:04 am

    The writers whose work is published are all writers who can somehow manage NOT to write for months, even years. There may be writers who HAVE to write, but if there are we never see their books: no agent would touch them.

  13. Mark Colloy | April 16, 2014 at 7:16 am

    Lost Generation an incredible record of American history;the famous book written by Malcolm Cowley is available here in the library.It is among the finest creation ever written in that category.

6 Pingbacks

  1. […] an obvious truism, but novelist Helen DeWitt ("Lightning Rods") strongly contradicts that in the blog post's comments. DeWitt […]

  2. […] Of note: both this Malcolm Cowley letter on writing and Helen DeWitt’s response to it in the comments. […]

  3. […] (This is a comment in response to this Paris Review post.) […]

  4. […] advice and it’s echoed by Rainer Maria Rilke, Christopher Hitchens and Rod Dreher. From Cowley: In matters like writing and painting, a man does what he has to do – if he has to write, why […]

  5. […] obvious truism, but novelist Helen DeWitt (“Lightning Rods”) strongly contradicts that in the blog post's comments. DeWitt […]

  6. […] can’t have one without the other. Helen Dewitt, author of Lightning Rods, alludes to this in a comment on the Paris Review blog when she notes that, “the industry requires the professional to put […]

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