Realism, Hope, and Humility


5 May 2009

With job loss still on the rise; philanthropy, investment, and consumer spending way down; retirement funds dwindling to nothing; and everyone struggling to “do more with less” (when many have been doing with less for a long time anyway)… not to mention continuing death and violence in Pakistan, Iraq, and now Turkey in the news today (I won’t include the links here; you’ll find your way to the bad news on your own, I’m sure), and flu-and-more-flu (on this Cinco de Mayo);  it might be easy to equate realism with pessimism.  

When I was a college student, I became enamored of the philosopher/ivy league academician/jazz-and-hip-hop-activist Cornel West, who toured the country talking to 20 year-olds like me, saying idealistic things like, “Hope and optimism are not the same.  Optimism says ‘things will get better.’  Hope says ‘Things may not get better, but I have faith anyway.'”  (My paraphrase)

Lately I’ve been receiving and internalizing a lot of lower-your-expectations counsel from people in the book biz.  Don’t expect a big print run, don’t expect the greatest book jacket in the world, don’t expect much in foreign sales, don’t expect to sell your next book (necessarily), don’t expect people to show up to your readings.  Realism and pessimism, indeed.

(And I am as susceptible to pessimism as anyone.  My friend B. and I, both of us writers, have written to each other about how “easily dispirited” we are, and how writers sometimes seem to have been born with one less layer of skin than a normal person.)

But.  Miraculously (today, I can only speak for today), I am not dispirited.  I’ve finished with the copyedited pages of Long for This World (just in time for the deadline), and the thing is real and alive — painfully flawed in some areas, but a work of my imagination and skill and vision.  Not for nothin’, as they say.  

I asked my agent if her colleagues at the recent London Book Fair seemed depressed about the future of the industry.  She said no, not depressed, because people are still passionate about books, and that isn’t going to change.  They are, however, she said, humbled.

I like that.  A friend of mine once said to me that humility is simply self-truth — nothing more, nothing less.  Neither grossly inflating nor grossly diminishing one’s star.  Humility seems good counsel, perhaps the best counsel, for an artist forging ahead into today’s particular reality.

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