Authors who publish and then withdraw

Myles Weber’s Consuming Silences: How We Read Authors Who Don’t Publish focuses on Tillie Olson, Henry Roth, J.D. Salinger and Ralph Ellison. Weber explains:

My contention is that these authors disparate silences were shaped, sold and consumed in the literary marketplace…. In 20th and early 21st century America, unproductive writers have been able to command serious critical attention and remain literary celebrities by offering the public volumes of silence, which have been read and interpreted like any other text.

Apparently Weber’s aim “is not to criticize individual authors, but to reveal connections between literature as a commodity and authorship as a profession.”

If Weber were to criticize the reclusive Salinger, he wouldn’t be the first. In Book World last year, Jonathan Yardley found that rereading The Catcher in the Rye, with its “combination of Salinger’s execrable prose and Caulfield’s jejune narcissism,” produced “effects comparable to mainlining castor oil.” Said Yardley:

For nearly four decades he has been a semi-hermit (he married for the third time about a decade and a half ago) in his New England fastness, spurning journalists and fending off adoring fans, practicing the Zen Buddhism that seems to have become an obsession with him.

It’s weird, but it’s also his business. If, Garbolike, he just vants to be alone, he’s entitled. But whether calculated or not, his reclusiveness has created an aura that heightens, rather than diminishes, the mystique of “The Catcher in the Rye.” It isn’t just a novel, it’s a dispatch from an unknown, mysterious universe, which may help explain the phenomenal sales it enjoys to this day: about 250,000 copies a year, with total worldwide sales over — probably way over — 10 million.

(For the record, I’ve always been partial to the book.)

So arguably some reclusive authors write one acclaimed book, retire from public view, and garner accolades all out of proportion to their status.

But how many write one well-regarded book and retire, only to drop completely from the public’s consciousness? Take Dow Mossman. His slide into obscurity might have been final had a filmmaker not discovered his novel (The Stones of Summer), loved it and made a film about his efforts to track down the author.

Felipe Alfau, who wrote and then completely repudiated two novels (including the highly memorable, comic, and strange Chromos), condemns not silent authors but prolific ones. In an old Center for Book Culture interview, he said:

I hate full-time authors. I hate intellectuals that make a living from abstractions and evasions. The art of writing has turned into an excess. Today, literature is a waste. It should be abolished, at least in the form we know: as a money-making endeavor.


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