William T. Vollmann’s essay “American Writing Today” was published over 20 years ago in Conjunctions, but it’s still relevant today (I read it in the indispensable Vollmann reader Expelled from Eden, but you can read the entire essay online). Concerned with the solipsism and insularity of contemporary American writing, Vollmann tells us: ”I now propose to set forth our responsibility, and some rules for reform. This first requires that I set right all the woes of the world.” The second sentence’s naked irony punctures the seriousness of the project proposed by the first sentence; this is classic Vollmann—earnest, ironic, and self-effacing at all times. Here are Vollmann’s rules, which are somehow both tongue-in-cheek and totally sincere at the same time:
1. We should never write without feeling.
2. Unless we are much more interesting than we imagine we are, we should strive to feel not only about Self, but also about Other. Not the vacuum so often between Self and Other. Not the unworthiness of Other. Not the Other as a negation or eclipse of Self. Not even about the Other exclusive of Self, because that is but a trickster-egoist’s way of worshiping Self secretly. We must treat Self and Other as equal partners. (Of course I am suggesting nothing new. I do not mean to suggest anything new. Health is. more important than novelty.)
3. We should portray important human problems.
4. We should seek for solutions to those problems. Whether or not we find them, the seeking will deepen the portrait.
5. We should know our subject, treating it with the respect with which Self must treat Other. We should know it in all senses, until our eyes are bleary from seeing it, our ears ring from listening to it, our muscles ache from embracing it, our gonads are raw from making love to it. (If this sounds pompous, it is perhaps because I wear thick spectacles.)
6. We should believe that truth exists.
7. We should aim to benefit others in addition to ourselves.