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.