But anyway, I'm back now. As autumn arrives in western Ohio and the skies cloud to the color of television static (I think I just stole that comparison from a William Gibson SF novel I read 20 years ago), I'm foolishly ignoring Harlan's sage advice and writing for free again. (I've also been writing, like everyone else except Dr. Johnson's blockhead, for the marketplace. Those books will become available for purchase at Amazon as soon as they are finished to my satisfaction, and I'll be writing more about them in future posts. I've taken a profane oath [my left hand raised, my right on a copy of Dante] not to speak of anything I'm writing until it's published and available for purchase, so you'll just have to wait...)
A large backlog of reading notes, random thoughts, opinions, ideas, epigrams, quotes, etc. has built up in my notebook over these months of postlessness. Here's a hopefully interesting selection:
Adversaria, from the Latin adversaria scripta, "things written on the side," denotes, according to The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, "[m]iscellaneous collections of notes. The kind of things that most writers accumulate in a notebook, day book, journal or diary." These notes, then, are the adversaria of my blogless summer.
Imagine an SF space opera that takes seriously the all but insurmountable obstacle of space's vastness, the idea that practical interstellar travel would require voyages lasting centuries or millennia, that onboard civilizations would rise and fall during these voyages, that new cultures would evolve and struggle en route aboard vast space vehicles the size of Long Island, or even Australia. Has this novel already been written? Probably, but it never rose out of the genre bin far enough to flash a blip on the 'literary' reader's radar.
D. T. Max's biography of David Foster Wallace informs us that DFW told his writing classes that "a novelist had to know enough about a subject to fool the passenger next to him or her on an airplane." This is good advice. I've tried to fool passengers who've shared my armrest, and either it's harder than it sounds or I'm a poor liar. Probably both.
Stephen King is a good writer when he takes the time to be. But when he dozes, the clichés multiply like maggots in a murder victim.
As a novelist, Updike is a benevolent creator-god who loves all his children equally and expects his readers to love them likewise. This high aesthetic stance, which I admire, may blind him to the actual repulsiveness of his characters. This is one of several priggish criticisms laid against the late John by Wallace, Franzen and other Oedipal sons. I tend to disagree. By contrast, I see Updike at his best as an American Balzac. Yes, Updike--not that twitty, white-suited, self-promoting, right-wing honky Tom Wolfe--is the closest thing to a Balzac that postwar America produced. Updike is the writer who, to some extent against his rhapsodic, celebratory inclinations, provided the most damning portraits of the American white middle class in the age of affluence. The complaint that Updike seemed not to appreciate the repulsiveness of his characters can be rephrased along these lines: Updike the rhapsodist seems unaware of Updike the social critic. But can this really be possible? Surely a litdude as savvy as Uncle John would've known exactly what he was doing. Many of his critics are attacking, unknowingly, not the author's moral repugnance, but his vision of theirs (and ours). Wallace's notorious review, for example, might profitably be read as an unconscious attack on the aspects of Wallace's own personality that were most like those of Updike's characters. Wallace isn't criticizing Updike; he's laying into the Updike in himself.
Jean Genet, too often and too quickly pigeonholed as a 'gay writer,' might be best understood as the most beautiful of all surrealist prose writers. Genet, not Cocteau, is surrealism's aesthete.
Whenever I wane nostalgic (better and smarter than waxing that way) for a time when titles by Updike, Mary McCarthy, Bellow, Philip Roth and Gore Vidal occupied the bestseller lists now permanently reserved for the latest products of James Patterson's potboiling pseudoliterary sweatshop, I should remind myself that neither The Group nor Herzog nor Couples nor Myra Breckenridge nor Portnoy's Complaint topped those lists on the strength of its prose artistry or structural originality or incisive analysis of the Great American Mess. No, those books sold (and sold well, and kept on selling, and still sell today) because they were (in the term of the groovy day) 'racy,' they were (as Dr. Joyce Brothers would've said on The Mike Douglas Show) 'sexually frank.' Each of those titles was a succes de scandale. Those books bestsold not for their prose but for their pussies and pricks. They were among the first books by major American literary writers to deal openly, maturely and non-euphemistically with sex and adultery, realities not invented by the Sixties (as some of our contemporary conservatives seem to believe) but first freely and explicitly and non-judgmentally entering American literature in that decade. These novels generated excitement because they participated in a sexual, rather than a literary, revolution. By the Seventies and Eighties, when sex scenes were obligatory and old hat, literary fiction went the way of serious 60s and 70s cinema: it all but disappeared from the bestseller lists, vanishing under waves of blockbusting 80s kitsch.
William Carlos Williams' Paterson doesn't entirely succeed, and that may be the least important thing about it. The first three books are very good, the latter two less so, but the climactic third book, that dark and fiery "beautiful thing," was strong enough to carry me through. Those first three books are an exhilarating experience, a priceless artifact of the Good America that exists in my head as a rebuke to the Bad America of the Bushes and Cheneys and Limbaughs. Paterson, at its best, IS the city on the page. It is an epitome of American pluralism, a multivocal collage of the voices in America's head.
I increasingly distrust interpretation. Too often (or always?) interpretation interposes an abstracted representation of an artwork between the work and the audience. All interpretations are selective abstractions, and one of the pleasures of reading a widely interpreted book (Hamlet, Ulysses, Gatsby) is watching the text devour its interpretations--or better, drown them in the concrete overshoes of the text's superabundant materiality. The pleasure of a book or a painting lies not in the temporary illusion of mastery that interpretation provides. It resides, rather, in the moment by moment, sentence by sentence, passage by passage, page by page experience of the work. Criticism, while always parasitic, can be true to the work and nonreductive to the extent that it records these experiences, thinks about them, argues from them.
Beauty, like death, charges our lesser existence with meaninglessness. But unlike death, beauty does this in the name of life.
Whenever an artist lists rules for his art (e.g., Elmore Leonard's 'Rules for Writing'), we must understand these as descriptions of his own art rather than prescriptions for ours. Misguidedly 'following' such 'rules,' as too many novice writers do, is an easy and seductive way to relinquish your individuality and ensure that you'll never write anything worth reading, anything truly authentic. An artist must be egotistical enough to listen only to himself when he writes. My rule: trust your instincts and work from them; if you don't have any, don't write.
On May 19 of this year, I received an email from a fiction reviewer for the New Statesman (UK), informing me that in a new book by John Sutherland, ironically titled How To Be Well Read, a passage from my long-ago blog post on David Foster Wallace's Broom of the System is quoted at length but attributed to, of all people, Martin Amis. Some personages might be pissed off by mistakes like this and try to turn them into tempests-in-a-thimble, but my personage finds the whole thing rather amusing.
"The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power." -- Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark
Morrison's critical readings in Playing in the Dark are compelling, if occasionally overstated. The worst thing about the book, surprisingly, is its prose. Morrison seems to deliberately hobble her usually gorgeous prose to make it sound more typically academic, repeatedly using the ugly "X-ed and X-ing" rhetoric of critical theory. The result is exhausted and exhausting, irritated and irritating, etc-ed and etc-ing ad nauseam...
An American writer who does not attempt to imagine his way into the lives of traditionally 'othered' peoples (African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, lower-class whites, etc., etc.) is shirking his duty as an artist in a pluralistic society. That sentence seems so obvious to me that I hesitated even to type it. And yet it must not be obvious at all, for publishers' midlists and the NYT books pages overflow with novels restricted to the writer's ethnic group, class, or even life (the me-me-more-me syndrome). Writers need to think outside themselves, outside their families, outside their neighborhoods. Writers must gorge themselves until their imaginations grow as big as America, as big as life.
Late spring is my favorite time of year. The foliage tricks itself into tropical lushness before summer's droughty browning, and the land becomes a birdsong symphony in green.
Most people pass through life without the disturbance of a single original thought. A few others are socially crippled by their own authenticity. I find the latter more interesting, also more frightening. Updike's Rabbit books chart the trajectory of the first kind of life.
"The old, weird America," Greil Marcus's great phrase for the imaginative place that produced the Anthology of American Folk Music and Dylan's Basement Tapes, is a country I have accessed via Robert Altman's films, Sam Shepard's plays, the poetry of Whitman, Dickinson, Williams and Crane, Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe," Ellison's Invisible Man, Faulkner's novels, Moby Dick and Bartleby and Billy Budd and Benito... There are a thousand and eleven points of entry to the old, weird America, that sepia-toned, race-haunted place. It's like a black thunderhead bristling with lightning, every bolt a pathway to the interior. Grab hold of one and ride. Here's a flash of weird American lightning to get you started:
Ten Essential American Books, or The Real 'Common Core' (in chronological order):
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Other Writings
- Herman Melville, Moby Dick
- Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
- Emily Dickinson, Complete Poems
- Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson
- D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature
- William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
- James Baldwin, Collected Essays
- Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian