Poe’s prescription for writing success: Bare if you dare
January 9, 2014 | 6:19 pm
There’s a well-known, much-quoted, and apparently simple prescription for writing success that any budding writer can take up. It comes from Edgar Allan Poe, it appeared in 1848 in Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature and Art (which Poe himself edited briefly in 1841-42), it is classified among his marginalia, and it goes like this:
“If any ambitious man have a fancy a revolutionize, at one effort, the universal world of human thought, human opinion, and human sentiment, the opportunity is his own – the road to immortal renown lies straight, open, and unencumbered before him. All that he has to do is to write and publish a very little book. Its title should be simple – a few plain words – ‘My Heart Laid Bare.’ But – this little book must be true to its title.
“Now, is it not very singular that, with the rabid thirst for notoriety which distinguishes so many of mankind – so many, too, who care not a fig what is thought of them after death, there should not be found one man having sufficient hardihood to write this little book? To write, I say. There are ten thousand men who, if the book were once written, would laugh at the notion of being disturbed by its publication during their life, and who could not even conceive why they should object to its being published after their death. But to write it – there is the rub. No man dare write it. No man ever will dare write it. No man could write it, even if he dared. The paper would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen.”
In these days of psychoanalysis, explicit genres from erotica to gore, post-Holocaust historical callousness and atrocity exhibitions, that may sound like pretty tame stuff. But is it? Are there minds, and literary works, out there now that are so transgressive, so beyond even today’s elastic social norms, that mere publication will immediately bring a succès de scandale? Are there dark regions of the human spirit still unplumbed that can bring fame – or notoriety – for anyone who dares write about them? Poe himself should know, after all, having tapped deeply enough into his own inner darkness to earn immortal fame across all subsequent ages. But if such works exist, even now, would anyone dare publish them?
The success of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey series shows what can be achieved with something even slightly, mildly transgressive. Conversely, the ludicrous moral panic around Bigfoot porn is just one instance of the kind of obstacles that anything even slightly more imaginatively ambitious is facing these days. So the question of who would dare publish them isn’t such a dead letter any more.
Joyce Carol Oates tried to live up to this in My Heart Laid Bare. Did she succeed in revolutionizing the universal world of human thought with that little book? Alas, I don’t think so. But William S. Burroughs might have come a little closer with Naked Lunch, or Henry Miller with Tropic of Cancer. And both those books were banned, at least in certain markets and for certain periods of time, in the U.S., never mind other markets.
So what do readers think? Are there still wellsprings in the human soul that can “revolutionize, at one effort, the universal world of human thought, human opinion, and human sentiment” – if the writer only dare dig that deep, and the publisher or self-publishing platform dare back them? Are such revolutions being denied to the world by the current wave of online New Puritanism? Or are these just bestsellers waiting to happen? Opinions welcomed.