Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Recluse or gadfly?

Image Source: The Internet
Sometimes, such as right now, I am given to wonder how important or useful it is for a writer to be engaged with, and alert to, his own culture.  Is it better to sequester oneself, monklike, so as to avoid distractions and petty desires and dedicate oneself fully to one's work?  Or is it preferable to fling oneself into the river of crap, in the hope of finding some choice flotsam?

This occured to me today because I just started reading Nabokov's Glory, and found I had to force myself through the first couple of pages.  I love Nabokov and I'm sure I'll get into it soon enough, but I decided to go back and figure out what the problem was.  And it was that the opening pages of this novel are written too narrowly for a particular time and culture (the Russian intelligensia of 1932).  There are allusions, references, assumptions that the young Nabokov expected his readers would understand, and at the time they probably did.  But I don't--not instinctively, anyway.  The pages make sense, of course, but they leave a vague sense of obscureness, of exclusion.

You won't get this with Chekhov.  As Rhian was saying yesterday, he holds up awfully well.  One feels he was writing for the ages, not for his culture.  The work is ostensibly about his culture, but its true subject is universal human emotion.  You don't need a footnote in "The Lady With The Dog" to tell you that Yalta is where Muscovites went on vacation.  It doesn't matter; we get it.  What matters is the bit where the civil servant leans out of the carriage and tells Gurov that the sturgeon was a bit off, and Gurov is for some reason deeply wounded.  He desires a certain kind of succor and instead is confronted by his alienation from other people and their petty concerns.  This is universal--as long as people read short stories, this scene will make sense.

I can't help but feel as though all the September 11th novels we've seen so far will be forgotten very very soon.  The novels of contemporary manners, the novels of urban snark and hip self-consciousness: they are too much about what we think we are, not what we actually are.  When we immerse ourselves in the here and now, we lose sight of the fact that most of our daily worries are about things that will be gone in a century, if not next week.  But it's hard to write about what will be left.  Those are the things that hurt us the most, that make us feel the most helpless.

Which is not to say I'll soon be deleting my Twitter account.  Life in 2011 is too damned much fun.  I think I'll try to lock my cave door a little more often, though.

17 comments:

5 Red Pandas said...

Hey John, since you're not deleting your twitter, you better add me:

@5redpandas

5 Red Pandas said...

I completely agree with you about September 11th novels. They seem so insignificant, maybe because we haven't yet lived out the aftermath.

Off topic, possibly, but part of our cultural moment, I think:
I always think it's odd when a student asks me if I think the world will end in 2012. They're so casual about it and I always say no, but it bothers me. Maybe because they're teens they can't really believe in the possibility of their own deaths but what a f'ed up question to ask your librarian (well, that, and if I have condoms for them).

Michael Garberich said...

This issue already throws both sides on the table and they seem, at least to me, so objectively inarguable that the only approach is to unseductively synthesize them, which has become a boring rhetorical habit.

It seems just as likely that a writer will produce a work that endures by scrounging through the dumpsters of the present day as she will if she buries herself in details of any other time, past or future.

The problem doesn't seem to be the scrounging of those materials, but the artless or deluded or unsympathetic placing of them in the fiction. Am I saying Nabokov was artless? No, deluded and sympathetic? Well, I haven't read it. But that's the difficulty of every other bit of the writing, too, right? I don't know. I don't have much experience with it.

Did you read Laura Miller's Guardian essay on the internet and novels? (Not much there, frankly.) It feels like you did, but this could just be synchrony.

Also, when Michael Silverblatt was interviewing Keith Gessen (n+1 editor) one of them and I think it was MS said something to the effect of "if you're always dealing with current events then you're always relevant and once you get in the business of always being relevant it's very difficult to walk away from."

In an mostly unrelated note, I've found that Michael Silverblatt tends to have the best answer for every question I have or didn't have or will have or could have about literature. Your interview with him was great, too.

jrlennon said...

I didn't read the Miller piece, not yet anyway, but I think Silverblatt was right on the money about being relevant. I think the desire to be relevant is what made Freedom, for instance, such a disappointment, much as I enjoyed it.

I wouldn't say Nabokov is artless or deluded in those opening pages, just not at his best.

Pandas: following!

rmellis said...

I have some sympathy for the 9-11 novel -- people of our approximate age don't have a lot of large events or social movements to have ideas about. The problem is that these books still feel exploitative. How to be relevant? Blow up some buildings! Ugh.

We definitely have this idea that if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you have to write about Big Social Issues. Observing the raindrops on a leaf or the off sturgeon won't cut it unless you've also got mountain-top mining or terrorists in there too.

Not that I think it's important to be "taken seriously." I don't.

gvNL said...

More a recluse than a gadfly, at least that’s what I’m trying to be. I’ve wasted enough years and life is too short, it’s as simple as that. I shy away from the internet, television etc. as much as I can and subscribe to the Wilde adage that “Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern; one is apt to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly.” No better example than Chekhov to illustrate that.

Besides that, having kids and two daily hours in the train is enough to stay in touch with the river of crap. A flood actually.

k. said...

This is an issue that often comes up in workshops when someone has a pop culture reference, and I think we need to make a distinction between novels written FOR a specific time and novels written OF a specific time. Good writing is not willfully blind to the culture in which it exists, but it shouldn't be victim to the superficialities and transitory nature of pop culture (acknowledging those aspect, however, is not necessarily being victim to them). I haven't read Glory, so I can't comment on that specifically, but I'll trot out another example: David Foster Wallace's story "My Appearance," published in (I think) 1989, about an actress who goes on Letterman. The story is definitely of 1989, but it is not for 1989. The distinction is that even if Letterman were a fictional character, the story would still work just as well, and someone completely unfamiliar with the show would still understand it. But it's not just a matter of understanding it -- the story will continue to be relevant because it's not about David Letterman anymore than Equus is about horses.

I'm not saying every writer needs to fill her stories with references to Jersey Shore, but in 2011 a lot of Americans live a media-saturated existence, which is important to writers because it does influence those eternal concerns that make writing so-called timeless (e.g., human connection), and when I see a writer (again, usually in a workshop) trying too hard to avoid basic facts of our contemporary life for fear of it dating the story (being evasive, in other words), the story winds up feeling vague, like an old movie that couldn't afford sets so they just pumped a fog machine, actors walking in a cloud. But of course, it's a balance. And it's not a new struggle either. Writers have always had to figure out how to acknowledge and use their contemporary culture without being victim to it -- if anything, writing is an attempt to resist that victimization, but not by sticking our head in the sand.

When Junot Diaz published Oscar Wao, people asked (i.e., complained) about all the Spanish, and he said that in every novel there's going to be about 10% that you just don't understand because of some cultural divide, but people usually don't notice it as much. In his case, people noticed it because it was italicized and untranslated, but it would be inauthentic the remove it; it would be turning on the fog machine. I think a lot of what we're worrying about here exists in that 10%.

5 Red Pandas said...

"Diaz, a sense of greater satisfaction came from getting the New Yorker, where the author writes a column, to change their `style sheet', if only to accommodate what he believed in. "I was opposed to letting them italicise any Spanish that I wrote in my columns. I stood my ground and now, no references to a foreign language are carried in italics in the New Yorker,'' Diaz said."

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/jaipur/Create-relevant-literature-for-future-gen-Junot-Diaz/articleshow/7337450.cms

Seems Diaz wants to do more than just assert Spanish words in his writing- he wants it to be seamless. This is a big shift. I was impressed with how Gish Jen's latest book used pin yin for all the Chinese words. Not only does she use pin yin, she uses the tonal marks that (if you know how they work) allow you to pronounce the Chinese as it's meant to be pronounced. She translated those words, but still, you could read them as they actually sound. (I think it's safe to say many more people in America have a passing understanding of Spanish than those who have a passing understanding of Mandarin Chinese!)

I think this assertiveness of foreign (to English-speakers) languages is an interesting development to watch.

If you're an untested writer people will warn you not to be too obscure. However, Diaz has earned/been granted the right to thrust all the Spanish he wants into our faces (he does have the NYer seal of approval, remember).

I noticed that in a recent story I wrote I had a character check the time on her cell phone. This was right for this character, but this could only happen now. Many people don't wear watches or even own many clocks anymore since every electronic device has one. I got rid of my alarm clock because when I couldn't sleep the red numbers were a terrible taunt. I use my ipod as an alarm now.

jrlennon said...

k., I love that Letterman story, and I think you're right--but I also think that it's hard for most writers to know the difference between writing for one's time and writing about one's time. It requires a sophistication in perspective that few of us are capable of. And so those of us who are smart enough to know about the problem but not smart enough to know if they're doing it right, might default to not engaging the cultural moment at all. I've been guilty of this from time to time.

5rp, I've had some arguments with grad students about untranslated Spanish. I never minded it in Junot's stuff, but I think that he's slyly being more inclusive than he claims he is. His obscureness is strategic and subtle, not defiant--at least not on the page. I do know that he likes to be defiant in interviews and panels (I've conducted/moderated a couple with him), but I think he cares more about connecting with a broad audience than he admits. In fact this is part of what makes him so damned good. His appeal is wide but his work seems entirely uncompromised: quite a feat.

Sasha said...

Personally, I think it's the writer's responsibility to communicate their character's POV as authentically as they can onto the page.

Swaths of untranslated foreign language frustrate that goal, because in the character's POV all of those "foreign" words are as easily understood as any of the words in English. So instead of actually getting into the character's head, it's more like the reader is just having a conversation with him. Which, while sometimes fun or interesting, isn't (to me) what fiction is about (to me, that's more like journalism).

On the other hand, I think it's impossible to be faithful to a character's POV without showing what objects/cultural practices she's got to deal with in the world she's in--so I think keeping things like the character's relationship with her cellphone, etc, truthful is necessary.

Every story requires world-building, not just Science Fiction. But just like those Sci Fi stories aren't all written in made-up languages but rather in a language the reader and characters share, I think all kinds of fiction must be in order to get a real feel for what it's like in the character's head.

k. said...

Though it might be crass to invoke movie on a lit blog, I think it's appropriate: The Social Network is a great example of a story being of a moment but not for a moment. Another example (back to books!): Roth's The Human Stain is very much a novel of 1998, but it will continue to be read, and for good reasons (among those good reasons is not: Roth's misogyny). The fact that it's clearly a post-Lewisnksi (sp?), post-Columbine, pre-9/11 novel does not make it irrelevant at all.

But on the issue of 9/11 novels, not to be all Fox-Newsy here, but I think it's pretty unfair to discredit novels that try (however successfully or unsuccessfully) to deal with 9/11, and to lump them in with, say, Snookie's "novel" (yes, I know that is my second Jersey Shore reference on this blog, and I'm comfortable with that). (I also know that's not really what you [JRL] said, that I'm being hyperbolic here, but you get the idea.) I guess it comes down to this: is the specific historical moment a means to an end, or the other way around?

Ultimately, though, these are concerns I deal with whenever I sit down to write. But I do think that taking an ostrich-like view of the contemporary landscape is inherently dishonest and, ultimately, the easy way out. You're right, JRL, it is hard to navigate these things, but that's our job.

jrlennon said...

"Swaths of untranslated foreign language frustrate that goal, because in the character's POV all of those "foreign" words are as easily understood as any of the words in English. So instead of actually getting into the character's head, it's more like the reader is just having a conversation with him." That is exactly my argument.

And k, good examples.

jrlennon said...

BTW, try reading the Sacajawea parts in Brian Hall's "I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company." I think they are an amazing synthesis of cultural integrity and reader comprehension.

rmellis said...

Apologies for skipping my posting day, but this is a good post and I want to let it linger.

jrlennon said...

Oh man, PLEASE! :lol:

5 Red Pandas said...

It seems that large swaths of untranslated foreign language is probably not working in your favor. I tend to skip over things like that, and if it's meant to impart meaning to me, I'm losing out. I also tend to trudge through unnecessary prologues that feel like an introductory cough.

I could see how some untranslated foreign language can do some work for you, though. When you're inclusive to some readers, and keep others at arm's length you're forcing some kind of reaction to your writing that might not be there if you worked harder at being inclusive to a larger audience. I think when this is deliberate it can be a statement of sorts.

I felt this way to an extent with Diaz's narrator, especially in his last few chapters set in Washington Heights. I didn't feel very put off by the Spanish. Hell, I grew up and lived in Washington Heights for more than 26 years, but the way his narrator spoke about his perceptions about the incursion of White people into the neighborhood I immediately felt like he was deliberately making me feel both included and excluded, depending on how I chose to see myself. I could have seen myself as a long term resident and survivor of the neighborhood, suspicious of the gentrifying newcomers (Which were White, but not exclusively. I'd say this was more about class but it's often easier to see race rather than class.) which is a label I could rightfully claim for myself, but then again, would his narrator see me that way? Not if he were to go by my appearance. That whole element of the story made me think harder and have a stronger reaction to the story than if his narrator hadn't had such strong opinions.

In the end, though, as a writer I'd aim to use culture and language in ways that work for a story, not solely to make political statements. If I happen to find a way that uses those elements in a way that seamlessly serves the story, *and* makes some kind of larger statement, then I'll just be grateful I didn't write something preachy or didactic.

In the case of Sept. 11th novels- I simply haven't read anything that satisfied me at the end. I might be too close to the event having seen one of the towers smoking as I sipped my coffee and crossed 5th ave to go to my crappy publishing job. It's like my dad with the 60s and Vietnam. He never feels that anyone gets it right, and he feels like too many people have ridden the wave of nostalgia for too long in an exploitative fashion. He actually said, "I bet you'll be glad when all the blow hard baby boomers just die and stop talking about themselves."

Why does the minutiae and detritus of our immediate culture, or that culture in which we feel most personally invested in, make us so uncomfortable when we see it on the page?

Michael Garberich said...

JRL, what are some of the novels slotted in the category of "contemporary manners"?