Being relevant

At a book reading, the author Gish Jen said that there is a need for writers to be relevant. I thought about that: what does it mean to be relevant? Does it mean bandwagoning? Or fighting to tell your story and not let others define you? To have art imitate life?

A friend and I were discussing this in an offhanded way. Some years ago a respected agent suggested that I revise my novel by having the setting entirely in Brooklyn. The book is a cross-country adventure starting in Brooklyn and ending in San Francisco. Brooklyn is a hot subject (Thanks, Lethem.) I’m sure it was excellent advice, capitalizing on a trend. But I didn’t change my novel for a couple of reasons: the agent’s story wasn’t the one I wanted to tell and by the time I rewrote the thing maybe Sheboygan would be the new Brooklyn.

 I think about authors that are/were relevant to their time: Hemingway, Updike, Ford, Steinbeck. Did they consciously sift the marketplace and society for the latest trends? I kind of doubt it. Although the Spanish Civil War and the Dust Bowl were hot topics of conversation, they probably wrote about what interested or affected them. 

Then of course there are authors that are relevant in any time. Thoreau. (You knew I’d get to him sooner or later, didn’t you?) It was a few years ago this week that I visited Walden Pond. I went to the clearing where his cabin once stood and jotted some notes making the whole situation very meta. There I was, using his life to do exactly the same thing he did: conduct an experiment. My experiment at Walden Pond was to find out if Thoreau’s experiment, to live deliberately with just the essentials, was still relevant to Americans 150 years later. As if to remind me how relevant he still is, I came across this quote by accident.

However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse.

Maybe being relevant is all of the above (bandwagoning, not letting others define you, art imitating life), but these things seem at odds with one another. That’s why I love what Thoreau wrote. If you live your life (paging Mary Oliver) then you’ll find that you are inherently relevent. It’s those who are trying to live someone else’s life, and therefore are not unique, that find fault and fall flat.

Maybe it means resonating with your audience, something no one can predict with 100% accuracy. Think about J.K. Rowling who was turned down by many publishers who told her that fantasy books were dead. Maybe only posterity will know if you’re really relevant or not.

What do you think? What does being relevant mean to you?

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