Saturday, March 1, 2008

My Minifesto

I indulged in a hysterical flameout in the comments of the last post, on the subject of integrity, elitism, and art. But it feels inadequate and reactionary, and I thought I ought to take a moment to say what I think the whole point of writing is.

First off, I'm with Rhian--I think that it's silly to say that more writers should produce "traditional" short stories--which, in the context of this argument, seems to mean direct, clear narratives with a satisfying emotional arc. There is, of course, nothing wrong with a story like this--I've read and enjoyed many in my time, and the template for this kind of story is eternally burned into my mind, as it is into the minds of every contemporary writer.

But the idea that this kind of story should regain primacy in the publishing world is simply absurd. Why? Because a good writer does not write a story in order to please people. He does not write a story to earn praise, or to be loved, or to satisfy his publisher, or to satisfy his mom. A good writer doesn't write so that she'll feel better about herself; she doesn't write to become famous, and she doesn't write to get money. We might well hope to achieve these things as a result of our writing--and huzzah to those who manage to--but these things are not the goal. They are ancillary to the purpose of the work.

A good writer writes the way she does because there is no other way for her to write. A good writer writes the way he does because there is something in himself that he has to get out, and his story is the only way to do it. A good story--a good anything--is the result of passion, honesty, integrity. A good writer writes because that's what she has to do.

Sometimes the product of this effort is accessible to many people, and becomes famous. Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov. Sometimes the product is strange, difficult, obscure, and off-putting to most. Gertrude Stein (as Rhian said), late Joyce. But the writer doesn't have any control over what other people think. And he doesn't write based on what other people think. The reason Finnegans Wake is still in print isn't that it's beloved the whole world over. It's in print because it's unique, mysterious, and fascinating to a small number of dedicated fans.

If I could choose to be a genius whose work everyone loved, or a genius whose work was difficult and obscure, I'd pick the former. I want everyone to love me. But the truth is that I don't get to be a genius of any kind, and I don't get to choose how popular I am. I only get to choose how to express what I need to express. Once I do that, I throw it out there and hope for the best--and when the work is poorly received, it hurts. It really does, because what is actually being poorly received is me--the most absolute core of what I am. This is why most writers--the ones with integrity--don't read their reviews. Because the work means too damned much to them, and there's no point in hearing that you are hated.

If writers, on the whole, all tried together to please more people, then all writing would start to be more similar. The thing that makes writing exciting--its uniqueness, its personal signature--would begin to fade. The point is moot, of course, because no writer who's any good would listen to a nonsensical suggestion like this. Good writers do not give a crap what people want. All they want is to make something that they powefully believe needs to exist.

And again, sometimes vast amounts of people agree. Mr. Munroe, in the previous comments, mentioned the unlikely bestsellerdom of Cormac McCarthy--what could have been less likely? But keep in mind--as Skoog reminded me on the phone yesterday--that he wrote half a dozen flops before he hit it with All The Pretty Horses. He was writing for his own reasons, not our reasons. Somehow, though, our reasons came around to line up with his.

Does anyone honestly believe that, say, John Barth is some kind of fake? That he produces his metafictions not because he loves producing them, but because he wants to impress people? Does anyone think that what David Markson really wants is to write sprawling bestsellers, but he does his weird little novels to show how smart he is? That Lydia Davis could in fact be writing chick lit, but she's too pretentious to admit it?

Seriously. You cannot possibly believe that. They write these things because they love writing these things, because they're the things they can write. And the people who read them--you can't possibly believe people read Ben Marcus to impress girls. You can't possibly believe people people read Donald Barthleme to piss of their parents.

Some people like this stuff. Some people love it. Who in their right mind would banish it from the earth? Who could possibly want to narrow the huge, bizarre, glorious variety of human expression? What fool would deny human beings their peculiarity?

At the moment, folks, the short story is not a popular form. Movies, pop songs, TV shows--those are popular forms. Some of those things are awesome, and thank goodness for it. (My friend Brian, reading a draft of my new novel, couldn't resist pointing out how much it appears influenced by "Lost.")

But the short story, for now, is in the best possible place--it's a vehicle for pure artistry. And people are doing brilliant work in it. If you want more happy endings, petition the publishing houses. Start a magazine. But leave the goddam writers alone. They're not writing for you. They're writing for themselves, and for the future.


myles said...

Art is what is good for the artist. Everything else is commerce.
Doesn't matter if it's in the New Yorker or on the back of a beer coaster. Alice Monroe or Amy Hempel or Jim Shepard. If it's a good story, if it's done with integrity, then it's worth having. There's no such thing as too much art, and it doesn't matter how many people read it.
(by the way, Tim Winton is good. Also read David Malouf and Cate Kennedy for some taste of current Oz short fiction.)

Anonymous said...

Will do. I like Peter Carey a lot, too--Theft and My Life As A Fake were terrific.

K. said...

I think debates like these, about "selling out" vs. art, arise because people like to see a difference between "pure art" and popular entertainment (I've worked in enough independent music stores to have my share of "sell out" debates). It's easy for people to forget that an essential part of art, especially writing, is communication. Yes, I write because it's what I have to do. But it is not *just* the act of putting something down on paper; it's communicating with a reader (of course I don't expect to write bestsellers, but I still want my writing to connect with people). I think this is in line with what you're saying, JRL. In art, that need to create is not a solipsistic need; it is, above all else, a need to connect. And I think this is -- to some extent -- behind even the most base entertainment... no, I'm not saying Johnny Knoxville is an artist (nor am I saying that The Making of Americans is not a piece of art just because I don't get it: yes, even Gertrude Stein was trying to communicate with her writing), I'm just saying that behind everything on the art/entertainment spectrum is the need to connect; those two categories are not (cannot be) mutually exclusive. I believe that art fails only when it fails to connect with anyone other than the artist, when it serves only the artist. It is dangerous for any artist to view art and popularity as mutually exclusive.

Anonymous said...

You're certainly right--most of us do indeed write with readers in mind. But the reader I write to is an abstraction--a perfect reader to whom I can communicate my idealized vision. This reader doesn't exist, but feels very real nevertheless, at least while I'm writing.

The need to create something, even if it's private, depends upon the assumption of its being seen...if I were the last man on earth, I probably wouldn't write a thing.

myles said...

If I was the last man on earth, I'd probably still write. (It'd be a film, maybe with Charlton Heston and some zombies....).
No, seriously, for me the primary thing is satisfying myself with what I do. Communicating it to others is important, but that's only after the art is done. I, too, have an ideal reader, a sort of Platonic audience, but it's probably just an idealised version of me.

(If you like Carey, you should read "Bliss" from 1981. It's his best book. And "Exotic Pleasures", a short story collection.)

Emma P said...

I think the most talented writers will gravitate to where there is a market, not only because of the money, but because they want to be read. That's why the quality of most short stories, poetry and plays seems to be declining - because the only people who read them, in general, are people who write them. And good writers don't want to stay in those backwaters.