Coming to terms with one’s “nauseating puerilia.”
Few experiences are more humbling for an author, not to say humiliating, than coming across one’s early work. Fortunately, very little of mine exists prior to 1999. What output I had before then appeared in long defunct college literary magazines, or was archived on obsolete floppy discs that have long since been recycled, along with my notebooks, diaries, and all other evidence of a premature writer’s life.
Then came the Internet.
At first blush, the Net seemed like a boon and a blessing. Budding Shakespeares could — in the time it used to take to lick a stamp — deposit their brilliant submissions in the inboxes of anticipative magazine editors. None of this ten or twelve drafts nonsense. You typed out a rant or a bit of verse, hit send, and you could knock off for the day. Sometimes these slapdash pieces were even published. Online, that is. The more naïve among us took this as vindication of our prodigious talent. It wasn’t until decades passed, and our skills and judgment had somewhat matured, that we realized how badly we had misjudged our abilities, to say nothing of the critical faculties of the editors.
In the pre-Internet era, there were countless literary, political or news magazines, most of them of consistently high quality. If a young author published a piece in, say, Three Penny Review or Politics, it meant it was a pretty good effort. Maybe not Pulitzer-Prize worthy, but certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
At the other end of the spectrum were the so-called ‘zines, often slapped together by one or two unemployed English majors on the public library’s Xerox machine. Few of these publications lasted beyond a year. And, like an old bachelor, when they passed into oblivion, they left no trace of their existence.
Then came the Internet and its myriad third-rate webzines. Today, any dreamer with a Macintosh can start an online magazine, and often does. The only barrier to some enterprising Harold Ross wannabe is the suffering he will have to endure reading thousands of hopeless manuscripts. When I was starting out, I published a lot of dreck on these sites. And a lot of it is still out there, haunting me. (Or should I say taunting me?) Unless the website goes offline for some reason, these stories can remain live for generations, serving as a constant reminder of one’s humble, not to say, inept beginnings. I keep praying these sites will become defunct, but for some reason, despite their awfulness, they stubbornly hang on in cyberspace, while much better sites (remember Feed and Suck?) have gone the way of the broadsheet.
TO BE SURE, there are some authors whose early writings are master works of prose, who seem to spring fully formed like Greek demigods on the page. The French poet Arthur Rimbaud was so good out of the gate he stopped writing at 21, no doubt thinking, “Been there, done that,” in today’s un-Rimbauvian parlance. But we late-bloomers can do little but pray our cruder stuff ends up at the butt-end of any Google search.
It does no good to try to get the stuff removed. I’ve asked editors to take down some of my more crude early writing, and they inevitably refuse. If they published such dross in the first place, they probably think it is worth preserving. “I still like it,” they tend to say. “I think we’ll leave it up.”
I am reminded of an essay by the cantankerous Edmund Wilson titled “Thoughts on Being Bibliographed.” What did Wilson think of the honor? Not much. He would have preferred his trivial early work be left buried and forgotten, not drudged up and placed on display for all posterity. Wrote Wilson:
My scholarly instincts were tempted as well as my literary vanity, and I have ended by scraping up items of nauseating puerilia and insignificant reviews and paragraphs which the Library might never have found for itself and which might better perhaps have been left unidentified…
Late in life, H.L. Mencken had second thoughts about the art of poetry. He decided the form was no medium for grown men. Mencken was so embarrassed by his first book, a collection of poems called Ventures Into Verse, he attempted to buy up (and destroy) all of the copies of the book he could find.
He must have missed one. Today, Ventures Into Verse is available for all to see — on the Internet, of course. Actually, the poems aren’t too bad. Compared to mine, anyway.