What does success do to a writer? Florence Gordon/Brian Morton: Reflections

Monday, November 3, 2014

Brian Morton (Starting Out in the Evening, among others) writes about writers. The hopes, the blockades, the pretenses, the indignities, those rare moments of glory. He writes as one who has struggled and one who has taught, as one who has come to believe in stories first, and also in patience, as he noted in this Ploughshares interview:
Nabokov said that there are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. More and more, my only goal in writing is to tell stories—tell stories and bring characters to life. If there’s enlightenment or enchantment to be had in what I write, I’ve come to believe that I can’t force it; it’ll show up or not show up on its own. 
But of course, patience is still the most necessary thing. Patience, tenacity, perseverance, stubbornness, devotion—in terms of the writing life, they’re all different words for the same thing. I think the only way to keep going as a writer is to find a way to love the writing process in its every aspect: to take pleasure not only in the moments when it’s going well, but to find pleasure even in the difficulties.
Morton's new novel, Florence Gordon, is about an aging feminist who has just received an astronomical New York Times Book Review, her dangerously affable and endearingly well-read cop son, his perched-to-leave-him wife, and their feeling-guilty-to-grow-up-but-is-growing-up-and-how-we-like-her daughter who is, at the moment, between colleges and assisting her prickly grandmother with research. It's also, as Morton's books are, about New York, where those who master the Manhattan walk may just decide to call the place home.  

Florence Gordon (which was sent to me by my good friends at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is a decisive, deliberate, quick beat of a novel; the pages quickly turn. It is also a novel that slyly defies convention, leaving the reader to imagine conversations and to knot (or unknot) story threads. It made me laugh when I desperately needed to laugh. It put me in mind of writers I have known, of conversations overheard. It is a bright mirror of a time and a place and, also, a career, which is hardly the same as a profession.

It is about success—insidious, embittering, disorienting, impossible, and never enough. From Florence Gordon, just after Florence has received that glorious, late-career-changing review:
Vanessa was a psychotherapist who worked with people in the arts. She proceeded to give a few examples. A painter who, after selling one of his works to the Whitney, began to speak of himself in the third person. A writer who'd so long suppressed her desire for fame, so long suppressed the narcissism near the root of every creative life, that when she finally achieved a bit of recognition, all her hunger for it had come bursting out—a ferocity of hunger that no degree of success could satisfy—and she was plunged into a depression that took her months to recover. Another writer, a woman who'd always seemed a model of tolerance and tact, who, after finally writing a book that brought her a degree of acclaim, felt nothing but anger toward all the people who were celebrating her. Late recognition, Vanessa said, was the stage for the return of the repressed.

Alexandra too believed that success could make you crazy, and she too had a theory. Buried deep in the psyche, she thought, is a sort of lump, a creature that craves nothing except stability, and as far as the lump is concerned, change for the better is just as bad as change for the worse.


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