(According to N.B. Notewell, weekdays are the only days. I’m not as far behind as it seems.)

Three sentences in to “True Confessions,” James Joyce pops up in what is, I think, a successful bid for Supportingest Supporting Character in the book. This time around, he’s tutoring Ettore Schmitz, a Triestine businessman, in English. When Schmitz finds out that his tutor has literary ambitions (this is before Chamber Music, even), he brings to lessons one day copies of his two novels, Una vita and Senilità, published under the name Italo Svevo. Joyce reads them and loves them, and when World War I and the closure of his paint factory leave Schmitz with nothing to do but write, he passes the final product on to Joyce again. This novel, called La coscienza di Zeno (translated into English as The Confessions of Zeno, and then recently again, in a William Weaver translation Acocella highly recommends, as Zeno’s Conscience), so impresses Joyce that he persuades Schmitz to send it on to some of the most influential literary editors of the day in London, New York, and Paris, with the end result that Italo Svevo becomes known as the Italian Proust. He’s famous for two years, then his chauffeur crashes the car; Schmitz is the only one who dies.

The essay has some more biography in it, but it’s not all that interesting, outside of the sweet romance between Schmitz and his cousin Livia. The rest is a breakdown of Svevo’s novels, which Acocella strongly (and persuasively) advocates for. She praises their modernity, unprecedented in Italian literature at the time, and, particularly in the case of Zeno, their humaneness. It’s a good overview of Svevo’s work, but it honestly isn’t one of the stronger essays in the book. Acocella seems to hint in the introduction to Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints that she included this one because it illustrates what part luck can play in a writer’s life, and that’s true, as far as it goes: Schmitz got lucky in having Joyce as a tutor, and unlucky in dying just as he was super-famous. In the end, though, the essay basically amounts to “These are good books; here’s why; you should read them,” which is fine, but apparently I’m looking for something else this time around.

Here’s what I’ll say: It’s a fine essay, and I have nothing substantive to say against it, even if I’m having to scrounge for reasons to recommend it. Perhaps I need to give it another shot.

After rounding up the book’s every target and knocking them all down in one determined opening essay, Acocella changes tack entirely by moving to a surprise item. “Blocked” is about neither an artist nor a saint; it’s a history of writer’s block, winding from a quick genetic overview to a taxonomy and demystification of various species of block.

Drawing on Zachary Leader’s Writer’s Block, Acocella says the concept was basically invented by the English Romantic poets, who characterized their art as coming purely from outside themselves and therefore subject to blockage. (I can go along with her on this one; I’m happy blaming Wordsworth and Coleridge for all manner of evils, not least this and this.) “After the English Romantics,” she writes, “the next group of writers known for not writing were the French Symbolists,” and then a large number of postwar U.S. American writers, who bring psychoanalysis into the picture. In fact, it was a psychoanalyst named Edmund Bergler who coined the term “writer’s block” in 1950.

Bergler gives Acocella a springboard to discuss proposed causes—and therefore treatments—of writer’s block. Here she recounts Bergler’s explanation for block: “Oral masochism, entrapment in rage over the milk-denying pre-Oedipal mother. Starved before, the writer chose to become starved again—that is, blocked.” This sounds like total hooey to me, and Acocella passes over it without comment—except to note Bergler’s unusual confidence. As psychology shifted focus from the unconscious to neurochemistry, so did its explanations of writer’s block; treatment with either Prozac or Ritalin became common. Acocella mentions one writer who even speculates on which brain structures produce creativity and which interfere with it (which reminds me unavoidably of research I read about on Language Log demonstrating that people are more likely to believe utter nonsense if it’s tarted up with neuroscience). There are even magnetic and cognitive-behavioral cures proposed.

The dogged pursuit of a cure for writer’s block throughout the 20th century presupposes an essential thingness to writer’s block that Acocella objects to. (You can see how she might, given her admiration of perseverance.) Brandishing Occam’s razor at multiple high-profile cases of block, she carves out one unremarkable reason after another that these writers might have stopped writing, whether temporarily or for good. There’s nothing mystical or even really unusual behind these stoppages:

Dashiell Hammett: alcoholism. F. Scott Fitzgerald (“famous at twenty-three, washed up at forty, dead at forty-four,” Acocella writes; she has a gift for the pungent phrase): alcoholism. (“When an alcoholic writer stops writing, do we call this block or just alcoholism? … Such cases lack the bleak dignity generally associated with block. Instead of the lonely writer, at his desk, staring at the blank page, we get a disorderly drunk, being hauled off to detox.”) Jeffrey Eugenides: pressure to reproduce a huge first-novel success. Harper Lee: …no identifiable reason, really. Ralph Ellison: “It is sometimes said that a writer can be stopped when he outlives the world he was writing about, and for. That may have been true, in part, for Ellison.” E.M. Forster: realized he was gay but couldn’t publish a gay novel.

(I recently listened to a back episode of This American Life called “Quiz Show,” in which Ira Glass spends some time talking to a Jeopardy champ named Bob Harris. Harris explains a mnemonic technique that involves creating a mental picture, and illustrates it with the story of how he memorized the titles of E.M. Forster’s novels. He has a friend with a beautiful large living room with giant windows, so that’s a room with a view; he has this other friend called Howard, so he pictured a “30-foot buttocks” just outside the window: Howard’s end. Ira jumps into the narration and says, “You don’t even wanna know how he fit A Passage to India in there.”)

Henry Roth took 60 years off between books for two main reasons Acocella can see: psychological difficulty in telling the possibly autobiographical incest story he knew would be his next book; and a crucial unfulfilled need for a full-time editor.

Then comes the wind-down. Writer’s block, according to Acocella, is basically a thin, showy umbrella propped up over a host of unglamorous, unremarkable obstacles. To some extent, the existence of writer’s block as an idea becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of writer’s block as a phenomenon: she appeals to the philosopher Ian Hacking’s idea of “dynamic nominalism” in an argument that “some writers become blocked simply because the concept exists, and invoking it is easier for them than writing.” But Acocella is sympathetic to the self-preserving aspect of writer’s block. Art is difficult, she says, and makes the artist vulnerable. Small wonder, then, if artists unconsciously find themselves putting it off. (It is slightly strange, at the end of such a pragmatic piece of writing, to see the author slip gently into Romantic ideas about art and Freudian ideas about its production.) But if you want a career in it, you’ve got to keep hacking away.

I’m not sure that “A Fire in the Brain,” the essay on Lucia Joyce, James’s daughter, was Acocella’s best choice to open the collection. In some ways it’s pretty representative of the rest of the book, but it’s not quite focused. (Speaking of which, Joyce appears to have had a pronounced case of strabismus, obvious even in the three-quarter-profile photo facing the essay.)

The occasion of the essay was evidently the publication of Carol Loeb Shloss’s biography Lucia  Joyce: To Dance in the Wake, which left Acocella unimpressed. In fact, although she mentions the book’s title early on, Acocella then studiously ignores the book for the first two-fifths of essay, heading instead straight for the biographical sketch. When she does finally take up Shloss’s book, it’s to administer a mighty smiting.

Her primary complaint against To Dance in the Wake is the liberties Shloss takes with documentation and fact. In the absence of almost all primary sources—none of Joyce’s letters remain, nor her diaries or poems, nor even a novel she was supposed to have been writing—Shloss, according to Acocella, tells the story the way she wants to. Joyce, perhaps dancing mutely in her father’s study while he works, communicates to him through her own art, wordlessly giving him the theme of flow for his Work in Progress. “This elevation of Lucia to the role of collaborator on Finnegans Wake,” writes Acocella, “is Shloss’s most spectacular act of inflation, but by no means the only one. The less she knows, the more she tells us.”

After this stinging rebuke, Acocella relents: “In some sections, however, Shloss forgets that she is writing a symbolist poem or a Laingian treatise and starts writing a biography. That, of course, is when she has some information to go on.” The bits Acocella seems to appreciate most involve empathetic recognition of the terrible circumstances of Joyce’s life, such as losing all her possessions when she was stuck in her first institution, or receiving awful experimental treatments for schizophrenia.

The last section of the essay places To Dance in the Wake into the tradition of the “biography-of-the-artist’s-woman” and characterizes that genre by means of examples. It then explains what might be gained from books in the genre: “All these biographical studies, subtle or not, are valuable, and not only for the sake of justice (when that is what they achieve) but because they tell an important truth about how artists get their work done.” This is where Acocella comes around to her book’s topic of ego strength, but it seems a little harsh to conclude that the schizophrenic Joyce “encountered obstacles and threw up her hands.” In fact, this whole coda feels irrelevant to the rest of the essay. With it in place, this one essay beats every drum in the book’s trap—biography, book reviewing, intellectual analysis, genre criticism, and ego strength—which makes it a decent opener, but it reads better without the final meditation on the artistic perseverance of a mentally ill woman.

Let’s start at the very beginning: a very good place to start. In the introduction to Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, Joan Acocella writes that she originally misunderstood her own motives for selecting the essays to republish in this collection:

I thought I was simply choosing the pieces that I liked best, and wanted to send out into the world again. But as I read through them, a single theme kept coming up: difficulty, hardship. I am not referring to unhappy childhoods. … [T]hat story—early pain, conquered and converted into art—is not what interests me. My concern is the pain that came with the art-making, interfering with it, and how the artist dealt with this.

In that first paragraph she draws the map that will guide most of the essays in the book: they will be sure-footed, elegant biographical studies (often disguised as book reviews; three of them originally appeared in the New York Review of Books and one is the preface to the New York Review Books Classics edition of Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity), particularly focused not on the alchemy that transmutes base suffering into shining art, but rather on the human fallout of meeting the demands of art. Acocella wants to counter Edmund Wilson’s image of the artist as Philoctetes, afflicted at once with great talent and isolating stigma. Instead, she plans to foreground what she calls “ego strength”—“meaning (among other things) ordinary, Sunday-school virtues such as tenacity and above all the ability to survive disappointment”—and the way possessing that ego strength can carry an artist to more successful times through periods that crush those who lack it.

It’s an interesting project, and if it sounds like it might become a bit sentimental, Acocella’s tone reassures me that it won’t. Her voice is lucid and controlled, and she is clearly unafraid to engage with her material, to make judgments when appropriate, and to communicate those judgments with confidence. This introduction makes me want to keep reading (mission accomplished!), but it also makes me want to sit down with Acocella over coffee and talk art and literature; she sounds like a blast.

All right, then. I opened this joint up because I had a lot I wanted to talk about; yet a perusal of my archive would indicate that I am a shy, retiring creature who can only be driven to speak by a build-up of pressures and urges that finally leads to a gush of words and then leaves me sated for another month or so.

Those who know me can tell you that is not so. If ever you find that you need an enthusiastic gabber, I’m your guy.

So I’ve come up with a plan to make this place more generally reflective of its proprietor, and also to get me back in the habit of reading, thinking, and writing critically. I recently read Joan Acocella’s book of essays Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints. I thought it was very good, and the essays make for smallish chunks of text that are well suited to blogging about, so what I’m going to try to do is post on one essay approximately every day, until I’ve got all the way through the book. There are 31 essays in it (the hidden track is about writer’s block); if I can stick to the plan, that’ll be a month’s practice at regular, committed blogging, which I hope will be enough to get me into the habit.

So in the words of a professional twice over—an analyst and a therapist—“Let the great experiment begin!”

(Image from the Balboa Observer-Picayune.)