Here and Now‘s Robin Young spoke last July with Andrew Sean Greer about his book Less, which just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Aired earlier this month, the NPR interview focuses on how and why Greer developed his “hapless” Arthur in the way he did. Dubbed by the author as a “gay Job,” the protagonist, we are told, is “a middling novelist who, faced with his lover’s impending marriage and his upcoming 50th birthday, embarks on a series of adventures that go comically awry.”
I’ve never been drawn to humorous novels (the mournful in me seems always in search of its reflection), so I confess that I likely won’t read the book. Still, I was very interested to learn about Greer’s prize-winning approach to writing it, and I listened attentively to what he told Young. One thing he said stayed with me:
“[Arthur Less] is nobody,” he tells the listeners. “That is the whole thing. He’s been attached to a genius, and he’s had some amount of success in his own career, but really by middle age if you haven’t had great success you’re kind of invisible in some way.”
Stuck on that last part, I have been reflecting on the nature of success and invisibility. As a child and then as a young adult, I learned from both the women and the men in my family (and from the larger culture in which I also was raised) that success, for a female, meant being skeletal and sunken-cheeked; hipless; melon-breasted; alabasterly flawless; deadly alluring to, though ultimately submissive in the presence of, men; and emotionally tucked in at all four corners.
Because I could never conform to this ideal feminine, I spent my younger years suffering profoundly over what I thought was a personal failure: It turned out I had a body and a spirit I could never tame, no matter what I tried; there also was in me an acute physical and psychic sensitivity that was ever pained by the inevitability of human ham-handedness.
I saw that loving kindness was at the same time required of a woman and dismissed as her central weakness. Her intelligence, too, was frequently trampled, mocked, disregarded, or even questioned: Years ago now, in response to something I told him during a winding conversation we were having about spirituality, a man I lived with for a time asked me if I was expressing an idea of my own or if I had read it somewhere. When I was accepted into a doctoral program at Berkeley, an honor for which I had toiled, and expressed to my mother that I was worried about whether I would successfully complete it because I wasn’t sure I could afford to pay for tuition, rent, and food (among other expenses), she said, “Don’t worry about finishing. It’s enough that you got in.”
It’s little wonder, then, that I have faltered at every step — doubting my strength, my intelligence, my own kind of beauty. Unsurprisingly, I have never earned much money, despite money being the signatory of success, and I have struggled mightily with poverty and with the looming spectre of homelessness. Partly this was to do with being a woman and a single mother in a society that values neither. Partly it was to do with the being I was when I came whole into the world.
Now, at 66, I am beyond middle age and have few, if any, external trappings that would signal to Greer or to those like him that I am a success. Although I have taught college for more than 20 years and have been devout in my commitment to it, I have always earned what has amounted to slightly more than minimum wage. I have never sought tenure; nor have I looked to become valued in academic circles for my publications or for my teaching prowess. And, despite having written nearly all my life, at middle age I had not achieved “great success” as a creative writer either. In fact, ruminationville, now a little more than six years old, has managed to attract just 315 followers. To those who have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers, this is a mere drop in the proverbial bucket.
Yet, I am grateful for each person who makes a decision to read what I write here. Some tell me my work has been affecting. I value, too, every student I have taught, and I know I have made a difference in some of their lives.
To a scattering of people, then, I do not think I have been invisible. Or without success.