Lives of the Civil Servants: The Choices We Make

Jesse Browner

I was born in New York City but grew up in England, where my first name, Jesse, is given only to girls and can actually be used as a euphemism for wimpy or effeminate. As a result, I was always embarrassed to give my name when asked, and mumbled it under my breath. And then, one summer at sleepaway camp, someone thought I said “Chas,” and I jumped at it. For six glorious weeks I was known as “Chas” instead of “Jessie boy.”

Today, when people ask me what I do, which happens quite frequently in New York, I usually say something like “writer-translator,” because I know that if I said “novelist” they would ask me what I had written, and they would almost certainly never have read any of my books, and that would be embarrassing all around. I flirted for a time with “international civil servant,” but my wife thought it rang falsely humble, and it began sounding oddly aggressive in my mouth, too, like a challenge. When you say “writer-translator” or “translator-writer,” it’s easy to deflect the follow-up question by talking about your translations of twentieth-century French masters or your job at the heart of an international organization that everyone has an opinion about. After that, you can ask them what they do, and with a little deft bobbing and weaving you need never acknowledge that you’ve written five books they’ve never even heard of, let alone read.

My wife doesn’t understand this attitude at all. She’s a high-ranking editor at a major publishing house (which, because of conflict-of-interest issues, is of no help to me) and she knows how hard it is to get any kind of book published, especially in the current market. To her, my writing career has been a demonstrable success despite my inability to make a living at it, because all my books have been published by reputable, even prestigious, houses, and have enjoyed generous critical receptions; and also because, in principle, the financial rewards should be secondary, since I’m not supposed to be in it for the money. My friends, too, profess to admire and envy my publishing record. But being vain and insecure at the same time is like mixing two incompatible drugs, and praise filtered through the resulting haze tends to sound like condescension. I know objectively that they are being truthful and sincere, but no matter what they may say, what I inevitably hear is: “That is such an impressive accomplishment for a civil servant! I do admire a man with a passionate hobby!”

Yes, it would help if more people had read my books. I was raised on the moderns but do not write like them, so to me my books are paragons of stylistic transparency and heavy plotting, and should in theory appeal to a broader audience than they seem to attract. They may be modestly lyrical in places, but to my mind the judicious restraint of their lyricism only highlights the universality of the moral, social, and emotional quandaries they address. I certainly write them to be read and would like more people to read them, although with two daughters on their way to college in the coming years I have long abandoned the hope that my books will ever make me financially independent. I personally believe them to be very accessible, but even my most successful book has sold no more than six thousand copies—and that’s before returns, according to my wife’s reading of my royalty statements. She points out that many of the writers I admire don’t sell any better, but that is scant comfort, because I have read and admire them but they have not read or admired me.

Many writers, when confronting the unexpected failure of a project to which they have devoted several years of their lives, look outward for the cause, firing their agents or blaming their publicist or publisher. That is not my way, and would not be even if I did not adore my agent and my publicist. The first question I ask myself is what I did wrong; the second thing I tell myself is that the book is not as good as it should have or could have been because I wrote it at four in the morning. If I had devoted the time and attention it needed to become what it ought to have been, it would have taken twelve years to write instead of four. By that calendar, I would now be only in the middle of the first draft of my second book, but at least I would have assured myself that I had done everything possible to nurture the first to its full potential as a work of art—instead of wondering if I could have done a better job had I not been a civil servant.

My wife insists that my work has benefited from my immersion in the “real world” and its commonplace concerns. If I were locked away in some ivory tower, her argument goes, or—God forbid—free to write six or eight hours a day in a quiet office equipped with an espresso maker and a view of a pond, I would be isolated from all the frustrations, complexities, and bankable opportunities to observe human nature in action that make my writing uniquely mine. Perhaps she agrees with Milan Kundera that “the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.” They could be right, I suppose, but I can think of no writer of my acquaintance who would be willing to trade his eight-hour writing day for my eight-hour real-world day. He might be tempted by my pension, or my health care, or my six weeks’ paid vacation, but sharing my “real world” of writing productivity reports, attending management seminars, administering leave requests, and adjudicating staff disputes—on top of my bread-and-butter editing and translating—might be something he felt would add little to his artistic vision.

Probably, then, the core question raised by my career arc in the civil service is, Has it damaged or delayed my “development” as a writer? And if it has, what does that say about the artist’s obligation to clear the decks of worldly clutter and distraction in order to be dedicated exclusively, or as exclusively as possible, to the practice of art? Would it have been wiser of me to set all else aside, even at the risk of personal unhappiness, isolation, and loneliness, in pursuit of what I once believed to be a higher truth? Should I have quit my job because it might have made me a better writer, or at least given me the opportunity I have never had to work exclusively and compulsively on something that, until relatively recently, I claimed to be the only thing I had ever wanted?

I’m sorry to say that I am not yet ready to answer that question. I am, after all, in midcareer. If my next book, or the one after that, were successful enough to allow me to consider leaving the civil service, I suppose I would be compelled to consider it seriously. But the fact is, I just don’t know if I would be a better writer, or a more successful human being, if I had signed up for the Geoff Dyer school, and I never will know. Most of us spend our time making decisions the consequences of which we cannot predict and are helpless to undo. The potentially positive outcomes of the road not taken are as unknown to me as they are to everyone else. And when you have healthy, happy children and a good marriage, it’s all but impossible to ask that question anyway, because imagining a different path means fantasizing about a forbidden, alternate universe in which they don’t exist.