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Losing: The Soul of a Writer

Category : Book Review , Hot Topics

In June 2013, the New Yorker paid tribute to Vasily Grossman, unheralded Russian war correspondent and novelist. Unheralded to me, at least. Apparently not to the rest of the literate public.

The full title of the New Yorker essay is "Vasily Grossman: Loser, Saint." The saint part didn't interest me. The loser part did. I stayed up all night thinking about how great writing depends not just upon loss, but upon truly being a loser.

Loser implies weakness, emptiness, deprivation, and immiseration. However, Tolstoy (Grossman's muse), Proust, Fitzgerald, Pynchon were to the manor born. Tolstoy and Proust literally. Fitzgerald could claim Francis Scott Key ancestry. Pynchon descended from Puritan William Pynchon, the founder of Springfield, Massachusetts in 1636. No losers there.

Likewise for Melville, Hawthorne, Kafka, Joyce, Faulkner, Hemingway. Virginia Woolf, Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace. All emerged from middle-class backgrounds. Even Vasily Grossman occupied the upper-middle levels of the Russian social ladder and received his formal education as an engineer. And Dostoevsky -- who experienced desperate poverty as a result of his political/literary imprisonment in Siberia (and mock execution), chronically desperate health, and rampant gambling addiction -- also trained as an engineer.

The middle class and upper class origins of our greatest novelists should surprise no one. Literacy itself has typically required some threshold level of wealth. The experiences of Edgar Allan Poe and James Baldwin, two freakishly gifted writers who somehow rose...  Read More

Peter Schwartz


Writer. Philosopher. Reluctant Entrepreneur.

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