Do you not consider yourself a serious novelist?ELLIS
I recently got into one of those weird, terrible fights writers can find themselves in with a friend who has for a long time been writing novels he can’t get published. For twenty-five years I’ve been trying to help him. He can’t rise to the occasion. He can’t write a novel because he doesn’t have the passion to write a novel. He’s writing a novel to make the money, get the film rights, become famous, whatever—all the wrong reasons. When he asked me to read the latest one, I told him, “Look, if this novel is superpassionate, and it really is about shit you’re going through, and pain, and it means the fucking world to you, by all means send it to me.” He said, “Yeah, it’s totally all those things,” and he sent it to me, and it was absolutely like all the others. I flipped out. I went ballistic on him. I said, “You never took this seriously! From the time you were twenty-three, it was always some kind of sterile exercise, like an imitation of a novel. And you never talk passionately about writers. I never hear you talk about books you’re reading. You just saw that a young writer in the eighties could make some cash from a literary novel. It was moneymaking to you.” And my friend was shocked, or pretended to be. “You know, it’s really amazing to hear you say that, Bret, because looking at your career and reading your books, I never thought you actually took it seriously. I saw your books as trendy knockoffs. I saw you as kind of a hack. I never thought you were really serious.” I mean, he’s not representative of the kind of person anyone should take seriously in literary matters, but when my friend said that, I’ll admit it gave me pause. I thought, What does it mean to be a “serious” novelist? Regardless of how my books have turned out, or how some people might have read them, I clearly don’t think I write trendy knockoffs. My books have all been very deeply felt. You don’t spend eight years of your life working on a trendy knockoff. In that sense I’ve been serious. But I don’t do lots of things that other serious writers do. I don’t write book reviews. I don’t sit on panels about the state of the novel. I don’t go to writer conferences. I don’t teach writing seminars. I don’t hang out at Yaddo or MacDowell. I’m not concerned with my reputation as a writer or where I stand relative to other writers. I’m not competitive or professionally ambitious. I don’t think about my work and my career in an overarching or systematic way. I don’t think about myself, as I think most writers do, as progressing toward some ideal of greatness. There’s no grand plan. All I know is that I write the books I want to write. All that other stuff is meaningless to me.
Another stand-alone segment from Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666—from “The Part About Archimboldi”:
Our hero Reiter (writer!)—who at this moment (or just before it, unbeknownst to the reader) adopts the ridiculous nom de thing Archimboldi (!!!)—secures a rented typewriter from a failed writer, an old man who takes the time to lecture on writing and camouflage and masterpieces and Jesus &c.—and writing as channeling (or maybe a type of divine madness), as a ventriloquist act (which I touched on here). (Perhaps I’m pushing the limits of copyright law here. Look, I think you should all buy and read this book and give copies to loved ones and enemies alike).
“I was a writer,” said the old man.
“But I gave it up. This typewriter was a gift from my father. An affectionate and cultured man who lived to the age of ninety-three. An essentially good man. A man who believed in progress, it goes without saying. My poor father. He believed in progress and of course he believed in the intrinsic goodness of human beings. I too believe in the intrinsic goodness of human beings, but it means nothing. In their hearts, killers are good, as we Germans have reason to know. So what? I might spend a night drinking with a killer, and as the two of us watch the sun come up, perhaps we’ll burst into song or hum some Beethoven. So what? The killer might weep on my shoulder. Naturally. Being a killer isn’t easy, as you and I well know. It isn’t easy at all. It requires purity and will, will and purity. Crystalline purity and steel-hard will. And I myself might even weep on the killer’s shoulder and whisper sweet words to him, words like ‘brother,’ ‘friend,’ ‘comrade in misfortune.’ At this moment the killer is good, because he’s intrinsically good, and I’m an idiot, because I’m intrinsically an idiot, and we’re both sentimental, because our culture tends inexorably toward sentimentality. But when the performance is over and I’m alone, the killer will open the window of my room and come tiptoeing in like a nurse and slit my throat, bleed me dry.
“My poor father. I was a writer, I was a writer, but my indolent, voracious brain gnawed at my own entrails. Vulture of my Prometheus self or Prometheus of my vulture self, one day I understood that I might go so far as to publish excellent articles in magazines and newspapers, and even books that weren’t unworthy of the paper on which they were printed. But I also understood that I would never manage to create anything like a masterpiece. You may say that literature doesn’t consist solely of masterpieces, but rather is populated by so-called minor works. I believed that, too. Literature is a vast forest and the masterpieces are the lakes, the towering trees or strange trees, the lovely, eloquent flowers, the hidden caves, but a forest is also made up of ordinary trees, patches of grass, puddles, clinging vines, mushrooms, and little wild-flowers. I was wrong. There’s actually no such thing as a minor work. I mean: the author of the minor work isn’t Mr. X or Mr. Y. Mr. X and Mr. Y do exist, there’s no question about that, and they struggle and toil and publish in newspapers and magazines and sometimes they even come out with a book that isn’t unworthy of the paper it’s printed on, but those books or articles, if you pay close attention, are not written by them.
“Every minor work has a secret author and every secret author is, by definition, a writer of masterpieces. Who writes the minor work? A minor writer, or so it appears. The poor man’s wife can testify to that, she’s seen him sitting at the table, bent over the blank pages, restless in his chair, his pen racing over the paper. The evidence would seem to be incontrovertible. But what she’s seen is only the outside. The shell of literature. A semblance,” said the old man to Archimboldi and Archimboldi thought of Ansky. “The person who really writes the minor work is a secret writer who accepts only the dictates of a masterpiece.
INTERVIEWER: Then what would be the best environment for a writer?
FAULKNER: Art is not concerned with environment either; it doesn’t care where it is. If you mean me, the best job that was ever offered to me was to become a landlord in a brothel. In my opinion it’s the perfect milieu for an artist to work in. It gives him perfect economic freedom; he’s free of fear and hunger; he has a roof over his head and nothing whatever to do except keep a few simple accounts and to go once every month and pay off the local police. The place is quiet during the morning hours, which is the best time of the day to work. There’s enough social life in the evening, if he wishes to participate, to keep him from being bored; it gives him a certain standing in his society; he has nothing to do because the madam keeps the books; all the inmates of the house are females and would defer to him and call him “sir.” All the bootleggers in the neighborhood would call him “sir.” And he could call the police by their first names.
So the only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost. All the wrong environment will do is run his blood pressure up; he will spend more time being frustrated or outraged. My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.
INTERVIEWER: Bourbon, you mean?
FAULKNER: No, I ain’t that particular. Between Scotch and nothing, I’ll take Scotch.
NPR’s Morning Edition featured James Baldwin today as part of their continuing “American Lives” series. Listen and read here. Their lede–
The writer James Baldwin once made a scathing comment about his fellow Americans: “It is astonishing that in a country so devoted to the individual, so many people should be afraid to speak.”
As an openly gay, African-American writer living through the battle for civil rights, Baldwin had reason to be afraid — and yet, he wasn’t. A television interviewer once asked Baldwin to describe the challenges he faced starting his career as “a black, impoverished homosexual,” to which Baldwin laughed and replied: “I thought I’d hit the jackpot.”
In the piece, NPR talks with Randall Kenan, editor of a new collection of Baldwin’s essays, speeches, and articles called The Cross of Redemption. The link above includes a great excerpt of one of Baldwin’s essays, “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare.” A taste–
The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love — by knowing, which is not the same thing as understanding, that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him. It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it. I think it is simply that he walked his streets and saw them, and tried not to lie about what he saw: his public streets and his private streets, which are always so mysteriously and inexorably connected; but he trusted that connection. And, though I, and many of us, have bitterly bewailed (and will again) the lot of an American writer — to be part of a people who have ears to hear and hear not, who have eyes to see and see not — I am sure that Shakespeare did the same. Only, he saw, as I think we must, that the people who produce the poet are not responsible to him: he is responsible to them.