I came across the following praise for Junot Díaz’s first book, Drown, while doing research on his The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It appeared in a Newsweek article that named Díaz one of the “New Faces of 1996” www.newsweek.com/id/101264/output/print. The article said that before receiving a six-figure, two-book advance, he was “just another 27-year-old fiction writer with an MFA”:
“Now he’s the latest overnight literary sensation. But luck had nothing to do with Diaz’s success. He earned it with his talent. … Talent this big will always make noise.”
Let’s leave aside that “overnight literary sensation” isn’t just hyperbole but a cliché. If big talent will “always make noise,” why couldn’t Herman Melville get an advance for Moby-Dick? (His publisher claimed he hadn’t earned back the money he received for his last book.) Why have so many other great writers died broke and neglected by readers?
To say that luck has nothing to do with literary success is an example of the American denial of luck, a romantic myth. Díaz has talent, a lot of it. But he was also lucky. He came along when doors were opening to groups – including women, blacks and Dominican-Americans like Díaz – whose voices traditionally had been suppressed. This change is the most important – and welcome – to occur in publishing in my lifetime.
But to say that even today talent “will always make noise” is to imply that publishing is an unfailing meritocracy and injustices no longer exist. This is untrue. The authors who are certain to “make noise” today aren’t those with the most talent – they’re the ones with the best chance of sharing a sofa with Oprah.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.