The philosopher, George Berkeley, famously asked, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Recently, writing about the life of Samuel Steward, author of one successful book and many failed others, Jennifer Senior asks a similar question. If an author writes and no one reads the work, is he or she a writer? The question is troubling, especially for me, the author of a few novels with barely enough readers to outweigh a feather. Even more frightening is the parallel a friend drew between Steward and me in that Steward took solace from his literary defeat by writing social commentary for a dental journal edited by a friend. Had he been born later, (1909-93) he might have chucked the dental journal and become a blogger, taking aim at the world from an unpopulated corner of the internet…. again like me.
Happily, Steward’s wit and insights will not be lost to the world. Jeremy Muldering stumbled across Steward’s commentaries, written under the pen name of Phillip Sparrow, and found the work of this man — who was befriend by Gertrude Stein’s and was a lover to Rock Hudson and Rudolph Valentino — to be delightful. As a result, Muldering has published a collection of the commentaries as, Philip Sparrow Tells All. (“Tattoos, Big Names, Stud File: A Man with Stories,” by Jennifer Senior, The New York Times, Tuesday, 12/22/2015, C6) By publishing Steward’s work, Muldering leaves unanswered my opening question about the status of a writer who is not read because now, presumably, Steward will be.
Nonetheless, the query deserves an answer as it is one a writer asks every day when faced with a rejection letter or, if published, sees the work gathering dust in a dark corner of a small bookstore. Are these unsung, unread, unprofitable writers who are without an audience really writers at all? Perhaps those of us who fall into this category should call ourselves diarist instead.
Among the flotsam and jetsam of people who write today and without much attention to their craft, a few, like Steward turn out to be true artists.
In keeping with this observation I’d like to shine the spotlight on writer, Patricia Kullberg. Kulberg has written a moving first novel based on Northwest history, the story of fallen women who were pushed toward sordid destinies by an indifferent society designed by men. Girl in the River is a tough book. Don’t look for rapturous descriptions of the hills and the sky. Prepare to be white knuckled as you turn a page or pause to stifle rage. This novel about prostitution and abortion and dirty politics is not for the bedside nightstand. It will keep you awake and it should. On the question: If you fail to read it, will Girl in the River be a novel? The answer is yes!