A Prophet's Handbook: Melissa Pritchard's A SOLEMN PLEASURE
"We are in danger, I believe, of becoming accustomed to indifference, of being kept within writing workshops, conferences, and seminars where we write and read to a dwindling, closed circle of admirers. Nearly resigned to this peripheral fate, we are then tempted to take ourselves too seriously as far as ego recognition goes, in terms of literary prizes, grants, and publications in journals, yet not seriously enough as essential witnesses to our time." - excerpt from Melissa Pritchard's essay "Spirit and Vision" from her new collection (emphasis mine).
Other writers have railed against the modern literary industry - that it is navel-gazey, that it is conformist, that it eagerly dooms itself to obsolescence. These accusations are far from wrong and certainly merit debate but usually make for tiresome reading. At best they are the battle cries of writers already artistically entrenched, glorious to the rallying army but of little practical value to any given foot soldier hacking away at journal submissions, manuscript drafts and freelance portfolios. At worst these critiques are mordant potshots off the starboard bow - mostly noise and smoke to their originators but a veritable death-trap to less sea-worthy vessels already on the verge of foundering. It's tempting to ignore these squabbles entirely - to draw the drapes, don the noise-blocking headphones and just write. That is after all the point of the entire drama, right?
Melissa Pritchard's latest book, A Solemn Pleasure: to Imagine, Witness, and Write touches on these bitter contentions, but her sights are set on something altogether more luminous - on writing as vocation and spiritual practice. In the essay quoted above she traces the lackluster early years of Walt Whitman's career preceding the birth of his unprecedented marvel, Leaves of Grass. If you went to school for literature, this is a story you more or less already know, but Pritchard is an artful storyteller and reweaves the familiar with a seeming ease that can only come from a lifetime of dedicated labor to one's craft.
In brief, Whitman wrote some poems and some fiction that ranged from mediocre to pallidly acceptable and paid his bills. Then, out of nowhere, he self-published the magnum opus that would blow the lid off American literature and for his troubles died bankrupt and largely disgraced. Here, Pritchard says, we see an artist quintessentially Ahead Of His Time. His work fulfulled his consuming connection to an all-encompassing spirit and spark decades before the world was capable of accepting, let alone validating his accomplishment. "What woman or man, what prophet," Pritchard asks, "is the Whitman of our time?"
Pritchard's book may be the handbook of the modern writer. There are Whitmans of our time, and her works are potent catalysts. She speaks to the joy of writing, the "solemn pleasure", not as indulgence but as necessity. The struggles of the greater industry are not the battlefield on which tomorrow's masterpieces will be won - that front is entirely personal and can only be claimed on the page.
"Spirit and Vision" is only one of fifteen essays in Pritchard's new collection from Bellevue Literary Press. In their own words, Bellevue "is devoted to publishing literary fiction and nonfiction at the intersection of the arts and sciences because we believe that science and the humanities are natural companions for understanding the human experience." Pritchard herself is both a novelist and international journalist by trade. We'll be discussing the book on Thursday, June 18 in the Used Book Cellar of the Brookline Booksmith (279 Harvard St.) and anyone is welcome to attend. Feel free to contact the moderator with any questions at [email protected]
The Brookline Booksmith
Brookline Booksmith opened its doors in 1961 as Paperback Booksmith with the slogan "Dedicated to the fine art of browsing." Constantly changing with the neighborhood around it, Brookline Booksmith has served the people of Brookline and Boston with its eclectic mix of titles, literate and helpful staff, and seemingly neverending schedule of book signings, talks and poetry readingsSee other articles by The Brookline Booksmith