On Obscurity and the Long View

Janina Degutytė. Poezija/Poems. Trans. M.G. Slavėnas. Lithuanian Writers’ Union, Vilnius, 2003.

I’ve been thinking about the issue of obscurity lately, because I’ve wanted to write about a book that’s been sitting on my desk for months now. It’s an English translation of the work of a Lithuanian poet, Janina Degutytė (1928-1990). She wrote her best verse during the Soviet years, and lived openly as a gay woman in a time and place when this was unheard of. She died shortly before her country regained its independence.

My colleague and friend, Mary Gražina Slavėnas published the translations of Degutytė’s poems in 2003. Her book is a labour of love if there ever was one, for can it get much more obscure than Degutytė? What is the significance of the work that Slavėnas put into ensuring that a trace of that oh-so-talented but ever-so-obscure poet remained in a language that was not her own, I wonder. It’s somehow defiant as a gesture — the translator thumbing her nose at obscurity.

I came across Degutytė in my work on Epistolophilia. The (obscure-in-her-own-right) librarian about whom I wrote my second book used to send much-needed heart medication from Paris to the Vilnius poet. In doing so, Ona Šimaitė may have saved Degutytė’s life, and gave her many years of productivity.

I’ve always been attracted by little-known writers, by lives lived on the margins, and in minor languages. A historian friend once laughed at me (though not unkindly), saying “This is what you literary people do: find some obscure author no one’s ever heard of, and voilà, you have a subject.”

In a way, my historian friend was right.

If I have a vocation, it is this: to gather and preserve traces of lives the memories of which I feel are worth saving. Though I see the value of writing books about Shakespeare, Beauvoir, Pushkin, and other iconic figures, this is not my calling (or at least it hasn’t yet been). For me, there’s something thrilling and even weighty about publishing the first real account of someone’s life.

But is there still room for the obscure, unknown and hopelessly uncommercial?

Our industry is changing, and it somehow seems easier and simultaneously, paradoxically more difficult to publish than ever before. As much as I can, I try to ignore the building anxiety surrounding book production, and concentrate on the work of writing. Amidst all the noise, I continue to try and take the long view. I remind myself that libraries, at least, are eternal.

I build homes with poems, wrote Degutytė in “Undeliverable letters.”

I try to do the same.

In my way, I build portraits with words, memorials with paper, and memories with imagination. Even if my work might find but a few readers today, I tell myself that a trace will always remain in the stacks of great book repositories. And most days, this is enough to keep me going.

But lately, with library closures and increasing percentages of library budgets going to electronic resources, I have started to wonder if this long view is naïve. Can we continue write for the stacks? Who will ensure the safeguarding of important (though rarely commercial) works?

The discussions I hear in the media and among writers vacillate between euphoria (anyone can publish now!) and despair (anyone can publish now…). Can a writer like Degutytė (or like me, for that matter) hope to be noticed in this climate?


I hope.

You built so many houses

to keep people safe and warm.

I would also like to build.

I’ll give it a try. Janina Degutytė, “Undeliverable letters.”

Me too.

For more on this collection, click here.

[Photo: barnimages.com]

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7 Replies to “On Obscurity and the Long View”

  1. This is a beautiful post and also a subject that has been on my mind a great deal lately, as I have been trying to find a publishing home for my memoir.

    Thank you. I’ll give it a try as well.

  2. Sarah wrote the following elsewhere and, with her permission, I post it here:

    “I am moved by your passion, perspective, and commitment to your authors “on the margins,” Julija… Yes, the (relative) eternity of the great libraries is an awesome inspiration. (I’ve been feeling that way about buildings, too… As much as I might occasionally recoil and flippantly pass judgement on what I feel is a hideous perversion of architectrual aesthetics as I walk by some monstrosity or other, a little voice inside asks me “but who’s going to be in this spot a hundred years from now, you or the building?”) But I think you should take heart, renew your hope… for instance, the internet, as immaterial as it may often seem, is a repository that has proven its staying power… these vast online archives are here to stay, perhaps at least as permanently as the great library collections… (oh, and a helluva lot easier to navigate, aren’t they, and, at least as easy here to serendipitously stumble upon “unknown authors,” as in the stacks)….”

    Thank you, Sarah, for your words. Of course, you’re right, the electronic archive is here to stay, and perhaps I should take more solace in that fact and in the ways electronic archives have opened up access to texts than I have in this post. Maybe I need to move through this melancholy that I’ve been feeling about the apparent demise of physical books and archives before I can really celebrate the electronic archive (on which my work, ironically, depends so heavily already!). I must admit that I do worry about the ephemeral quality of much of our digital data. It’s almost as if the more easily accessible it is, the more easily lost and corrupted it is too (I’m thinking, banally, of my photos here, which I fear losing constantly). That said, I’ve just started reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch on my new e-reader, and it’s a revelation.

  3. Why do we write? Are we compelled to find release, to share our thoughts or for the recognition? There are as many reasons as there are authors.

    But obscurity is often a matter of time for work that has the ability to move us. Van Gogh was obscure until well after his death. Bach was unknown until Mendelssohn-Bartholdy revived his work.

    When we are touched by the work of a writer, we share that experience with others. Whether that writer will ever know of their influence, is beside the point.

  4. Julija, your post is thrilling and upsetting at once. I’ve agonized over the same.

    If you feel called to, and rewarded by, the objective of saving this woman from obscurity, then the question has to be, “For what audience?” No matter how laudable your efforts, there has to be a chance that someone will see it. Electronic media will prove better at that than the traditional.

    As to your question of preservation, data may be more ephemeral than paper, but also more ubiquitous (finally got a chance to use the word!) I see a future researcher silently thanking you for the passion you put into your work.

    BTW, I’ve always thought a dramatized story of Emilie du Chatelet would be fascinating! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89milie_du_Ch%C3%A2telet
    Best wishes.

  5. Wonderful piece.

    I wonder if electronic publication will lead to a homogenization of writing. The optimistic me hopes that it will encourage writers (like you) to publish. It seems there are a lot of writers hoping to cash in on the Kindle fever, following in the footsteps of Amanda Hocking, and more than ever formulaic novels are popping up. But I also have found some great pieces on sites like Smashwords that I wouldn’t normally read. Short story fiction, literary writing that isn’t mainstream enough to be picked up by major publishing houses, etc.

  6. What a beautiful sentiment. All of us who write today fear getting lost amid the next “hot” topics. I worked in a library when younger and I love that it is a physical repository for the wisdom of the world, just waiting for me to discover it.

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