On Rereading Martin Eden by Jack London; Part One: Futurama, Self-Publishing, and Jack London’s Rapacity

Last night I couldn’t sleep.  Sometimes I get insomnia for a simple reason like sleeping too long during my afternoon nap, but such was not the case this time.  Three seemingly unrelated bits of input created deep despondency in me, and I couldn’t shake the sense of failure, of futility, of worthlessness.

The first was the episode of “Futurama” in which Fry discovers his petrified dog in a museum of an ancient pizzeria.  The professor says he can create a clone of the dog from its DNA, and Fry gets all excited about it until the professor tells him that the dog lived to be fifteen years old.  Fry went into the future when the dog was three, and Fry is afraid that because the dog lived twelve years after that, he wouldn’t remember Fry anymore.  Fry decides in tears not to clone the dog.  Then the last scene shows the dog waiting outside the pizzeria for the rest of his life, through all the seasons, as he gets older and older and finally closes his eyes in death.  In other words, he waited all those years for the love that never returned.  I’ve seen that episode numerous times and it always chokes me up.

The next thing that set me off shouldn’t have done so, but it did.  It was a nice article by Hugh Howey, ostensibly written to be an encouragement to self-published writers.  Hugh Howey is a self-published writer whose stories took off and became best-sellers, which culminated in him getting a lucrative deal with much better-than-average contract terms from a big publisher.  There was nothing wrong with the article.  It was written to encourage self-published authors and disparage those who criticize them for no other reason than that they have no comprehension of the phenomenon.  It rightly brings out that most self-published writers do not make it big, do not make a lot of money, do not become popular, but this is no reason to deride them for writing and publishing.  The problem is, in my mind at least, in an indirect way it belittled most self-published writing as little more than a hobby.  Howey points out that being a best-selling author is not so important to him, and describes times in his life during which he felt more fulfilled and happy.  He never expected much from his writing; he does it because he enjoys it.  Fine.  Good for him.

The third trigger to my despondency was “Martin Eden”.  Recently I was looking for a quote from “Martin Eden” to tack on to some other piece of writing.  I looked up some passages online and a hunger grew in me to read the novel again.  I ordered a used copy and waited for a gap in my self-imposed reading schedule.  I have now just begun; I’m not more than about a half dozen chapters in.  Martin Eden, the sailor, saves a young man of the upper class from a beating and gets invited to his home for dinner.  While there he meets his sister Ruth, falls in love with her delicate frail beauty, her demeanor, and her education, and resolves to win her by becoming educated himself and thus attaining an equal status.  That’s as far as I’ve got so far.  But I know what happens next, as I read it many years ago when Jack London was one of my literary idols and I was reading whatever I could find by him.  Martin Eden resolves to become a writer, and pours his prodigious mental and physical energy into educating himself, teaching himself to write, and navigating the stormy waters of the publishing world.  He is rejected again and again but finally, when he attains to victory and becomes rich and famous, it is too late.  Something has been lost.  Not only does he lose the girl, but he loses the sense of fulfillment that should have been his for his publishing triumphs.  His largess to his relatives and friends brings him no peace of mind.  And finally, in the end, in despair, he slips off a cruise ship in the South Pacific and drowns.

Ah, I suppose now that I’ve told you the end you won’t read the rest of these posts on the novel, eh?  But the purpose of rereading a work like this is not to find out what happens next, but rather to follow the author from point to point and see what he was really getting at, what was going through his mind, what was really at stake as he wrote.  London was always in debt his whole life.  He wrote at a frantic pace to try to keep up with his bills.  But there’s no writer in the history of the world that could have written a novel like “Martin Eden” solely for the money.

Anyway, we’ll get back to “Martin Eden” in more detail in the weeks to come.  But what was churning through my head when I couldn’t sleep last night was the feeling that I wasn’t anything like the author Hugh Howey describes.  He encourages writers not to worry about success or failure at all, but rather instead to thrill to the act of writing itself.  It sounds fine, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t work for me.  All my life the only thing I ever wanted to be was a writer.  And I have never wanted to do it only for myself.  I want readers, and I want readers to appreciate what I write enough to pay for it so that I can support myself by my writing.  It’s my talent, my calling; it’s who I am.  And last night I felt so far from my vision of success in my life’s calling I fell into despair.  I have few readers.  I make next to nothing in royalties.  I have to support myself and my sons by doing hack work, writing nonfiction articles for Internet websites on a piecework basis.  There’s no future in it, no promotions, no benefits, no retirement funds.  I live day by day, week by week on the edge of poverty.

So I can’t agree with Hugh Howey.  I can’t be content just to have written.  I need my writing to hit the gong, to explode into space, to ignite readers and change them.  I am more like Jack London, hungry as a wolf for success, struggling valiantly in the midst of poverty, trying to impress a publishing world that couldn’t give a rat’s ass.  Try as I might, I can’t be very stoic about my work.  I care too much.  It means too much to me.  It affects me if I feel I am failing.  I can’t help it.  I’m not failing in the writing; don’t get me wrong.  I am confident that the writing is good writing.  Someday, I hope the people who need to read it will find it.  I hope, though, that that day is not so far in the future that like Fry’s poor dog, I wait wistfully on the curb until I finally close my eyes and die, only to be appreciated many years later when it’s too late.  I want it now, and I’m not getting any younger.

Well, having said all that, I have to tack on the epilog.  The next day I was fine again, resolved to do the best I can in the circumstances in which I find myself.  I can’t make people read what I have written.  All I can do is write the best work of which I am capable.  And I will continue to do so until I drop, whether my dreams of success come true or not.

I’m searching in my mind for a happy ending to all this.  Believe it or not, I am okay this evening.  It was a reasonably decent day.  I got my work done without undue fuss.  I fed myself and my boys.  Their work and school is going okay.  There was a storm last night and the weather cooled down, which is a relief.  Last night it was oppressively hot, which contributed to my malaise.  Yes, I’m okay today.  Last night was just one of those times when the bottom drops out.  It happens to everyone.  And then we carry on.

I’m a professional writer; I make my living by my words.  I’m happy to share these essays with you, but at the same time, financial support makes the words possible.  If you’d like to become a patron of the arts and support my work, buy a few of my available books or available stories.  Thanks!

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