Nobody makes writing sound more romantic, important, and magical than a writer, and that’s why writing about writers is a writer’s favorite pastime. Visit any bookstore’s how-to-write section and you’ll find volume after volume that describes writing as an art and a craft and a calling and a sacred trust. A writer can make writing sound like the most important calling in the world, and the only thing writers love to do more than publicly praise the work of another writer is to talk shit about other writers in the bar after the reading.
A major pitfall of writing about writers, though, is finding readers. Many readers don’t have the patience for the up-their-own-butthole-ness of writing about writing. (Take it from a book critic who’s been in the business for a while.) After all, we use the term “writer’s writer” to describe little-read but much-admired authors. So if you’re going to publish the writing of writers on the topic of writers, you’d better have a damn good reason.
Since 2009, Seattle literary magazine PageBoy has published high-quality writing and art in a utilitarian package: each volume tends to be beige in color and low on the flashy graphic design save a few full-color prints from a featured artist. This minimalism is intentional; it pushes the words right up to the foreground of the reader’s attention.
And PageBoy editor Thomas Walton always does right by those words. The table of contents in each issue of PageBoy is a parade of high-quality local talent, and Walton always coaxes the very best out of those writers. The latest issue — the ninth in the series — features writing about writers, and Walton successfully navigated his boatload of writers around the many dangers of the genre.
These are tributes that acknowledge, even admire, the flaws in writers. This collection doesn’t canonize authors, or make writing seem like some inscrutable sorcery passed down through a secret organizations of wizards. Instead, it celebrates writers for their accomplishments and their weaknesses. It’s a clear-headed acknowledgement of how fundamentally odd, but also breathtakingly fun, it is to devote your life to writing.
This volume of PageBoy opens with a meditation by Vancouver poet Stephen Collis on the life and influence of an older Vancouver poet named Phyllis Webb. Titled “On Failure,” the piece revels in what Collis refers to as Webb’s “generative sense of failure,” which influenced his own book. Collis refers to all of his books as failures in one way or another. “I have courted incompletion, accident, failure, the broken,” he writes, and he credits his willingness to fail in part to “Webb’s own sense of her crimped, cracked, and abandoned (rather than ‘finished’) poems.” Aspiring writers should commit this essay to memory.
Seattle poet Larry Crist’s “The Lily-White Escapist World of PG Wodehouse” is an unexpected delight. Crist’s poetry is plain-spoken and deeply interested in the concerns of the working class, so his adoration of the blue-blooded Wodehouse comes as an absolute — but pleasant! — shock, particularly his confession that “heathen that I am, when I read Jeeves I think Jesus, one that wears crisp spats and pressed striped trousers.” The conflation of Messiah and proper British butler is sublime, as is Crist’s complicated Wodehouse fandom.
Patrick Millan’s essay about early 1900s poet Harry Crosby begins with a sledgehammer of an opening image — the discovery of his dead body:
When they found Harry Crosby, they discovered his toenails were lacquered a deep red. They also discovered he had tattoos on the soles of his feet: a cross on one and a black sun on the other. Though shoeless, he was dressed in his usual fashion, a tailored navy blue suit with a black silk flower in his buttonhole.
You’ll find a battalion of writers crammed into this book. Doug Nufer and Anca Szilagyi write about Kafka. Paul Nelson writes a poem/letter to Sam Hamill. Sarah Koenig writes two fantastic poems about poets — one which imagines Rainier Maria Rilke as an advice columnist, another which admires Emily Dickinson’s use of dashes — and one decent poem about Virginia Woolf (the last stanza is a bit obvious, if pretty: “a handful of stones in your pocket/and you were gone”).
But the dizzying achievement in this issue of PageBoy is an excerpt of a longer work by Seattle writer Amber Nelson titled “A Tiny Boat: Connection, Intimacy, Touching.” It’s a fastidiously annotated essay assembled entirely from quotations from famous writers’ writings about writing. Nelson is the DJ, mixing together each author’s personal thoughts about writing into a larger ur-text about the idea of communication.
Nelson abuts T.S. Eliot’s claim that “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone” right up against Jack Spicer’s assertion that “Readers are purposefully drawn in by the echoes or reflections they recognize,” which fits seamlessly into Amy Levin Epstein’s conclusion that “There’s even a scientific term for the phenomenon: ‘implicit egotism.’ It means we humans are attracted to the things and people that remind us of ourselves.”
Nelson cuts to the core of Walton’s idea in this issue of PageBoy. Inside every writer, there is a reader. When writers write about the act of writing, they’re doing more than just basting their chosen art form in a syrupy glaze of self-aggrandizement. They’re trying to engage with their own writing as readers. They’re not gazing into their own navels, they’re trying to experience something that will always, for them, be unattainable. They’re trying to read themselves the way they read the work of others: with the fresh new eyes of a reader just cracking open a book for the very first time.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the LA Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant