From “American Writing Today: A Diagnosis of the Disease,” a manifesto William T. Vollmann published in the Spring ’90 issue of Conjunctions. The image here, along with the image of Vollmann in his press flak jacket (1992), are from the anthology Expelled from Eden.
From “Obscenity and the Law of Reflection,” collected in Henry Miller on Writing.
Salon has posted a new interview with Lydia Davis. From the interview:
I can’t write incorrectly. I find it very difficult to just relax and have spelling mistakes and grammar mistakes and punctuation – I cannot do that. But I can’t do that even if I write a shopping list, so that’s not surprising. I can’t be casual, so it’s more correct. Sometimes I have fun writing it nicely – doing parallel constructions or, you know – but of course it’s more relaxed than a formal story, but it’s still a piece of writing that has an effect whether it’s a really good friend or a business email so I’m still quite conscious. It’s amazing how you can write something quickly and when I reread it – I always reread my emails – I make mistakes and I’m confusing and you’d think after all this time I could write a quick email that would be absolutely perfect, but I can’t.
No literary quality can be attained by reading writers who possess it: be it, for example, persuasiveness, imagination, the gift of drawing comparisons, boldness or bitterness, brevity or grace, facility of expression or wit, unexpected contrasts, a laconic manner, naïveté, and the like. But if we are already gifted with these qualities—that is to say, if we possess them potentia—we can call them forth and bring them to consciousness; we can discern to what uses they are to be put; we can be strengthened in our inclination, nay, may have courage, to use them; we can judge by examples the effect of their application and so learn the correct use of them; and it is only after we have accomplished all this that we actu possess these qualities. This is the only way in which reading can form writing, since it teaches us the use to which we can put our own natural gifts; and in order to do this it must be taken for granted that these qualities are in us. Without them we learn nothing from reading but cold, dead mannerisms, and we become mere imitators.
From Arthur Schopenhauer’s essay “On Reading and Books.”
When Skizzen first became aware of it, he laughed, for he had miss-spelled “spell.” Well, not exactly. The additional l was a typo. “Spelll.” It was a machine-mad error, but the extra l could be easily deleted. That was one of the great virtues of this new invention. If words magically appeared on the screen (he was often unaware he was typing his fingers flew so fast, so briefly did they need to light upon the keys), they could be sent away just as readily. Not like a note that would leave of its own accord yet could not be erased and could not be said to have disappeared. He had been saying that a spell had been put upon mankind. Writing, not saying. He had been writing that a spell had been put upon our race. As if Circe had changed us into swine so that our little noses were wrinkled by concealed snouts, and inside those of us who possessed a male member a hog’s reproductive implement curled—a pig’s … sexual implement—a memoir of the moment of enchantment. Anyway, we did not see how foolish, how absurd, how wicked we were being. That was the gist.
Joseph had pursued a request for some books that he had asked the library to acquire as far as the library entrance, where a smilling young man had greeted him with this suitcase fulll of magic. We ordered some of these computers, he said with some excitement, and they just came. Want to play? The Music Department had been threatened with digitization, but their three-person claim on modernity was weak. So Professor Skizzen dutifullly sat at one end of a long library table and began pecking away: It is as if a spelll had been put upon mankind. How quickly the spelll enveloped the screen. We oinked and thought it singing, he wrote. The young man approached bearing his grin like a tidbit on a salver, so Skizzen hit DELETE and saw nothing more, neither his practice sentence nor the grin. Go on, the young man said, take it for a spin. Our new system will make it easy for us to keep records, he boasted. The bursar is out of his mind with delight. We rolled in the mud and believed we were bathing, Skizzen wrote, with his best hunt-and-peck. He knew Grin was grinning again, over his shoulder. Let the piker peek, Skizzen thought, I shall complete my edifying lines about the spelll that been put upon mankind. “We fought one another and afterward celebrated the carnage” soon materialized. With writing, he said aloud, the writing inscribes the letters, letters build the words, and, subsequently, the thought arrives—handmade like kneaded bread. With typewriting, you get letters by hammering them into existence. Or out, with x’s, if you don’t like them. With this sweet machine here, you issue a requisition. Well, now, I hadn’t thought about it that way, the Grinner said. With pen and ink, before we write, we think, because we hate the sight of corrections. With the computer we write first and think later, corrections are so easy to perform. I like the delete key best; it has a good appearance, Skizzen said, typing furiously. “We ate our farrow and supposed it was a splendidly healthy, indeed toothsome, way to dine.” Joseph determined to leave something behind as an animal might to signal its presence, so he keyed: “We eagerly awaited our own slaughter, as though we were receiving an award.” Now he spoke it as he played it. “Our haunch would hang in the smokehouse to season, and those of us who remained to feel would feel, like parvenus, that we had Arrived.” I’m glad you got these, he said to the Grin, though the young man didn’t seem to have any more grins to spend. I wonder how many unordered books these cost me. He slid his words the length of the long table where they disappeared over its edge into delete. Then Skizzen took his goatee away where it would be better appreciated.
From William H. Gass’s novel Middle C.
The problem of education is twofold: first to know, and then to utter. Every one who lives any semblance of an inner life thinks more nobly and profoundly than he speaks; and the best of teachers can impart only broken images of the truth which they perceive. Speech which goes from one to another between two natures, and, what is worse, between two experiences, is doubly relative. The speaker buries his meaning; it is for the hearer to dig it up again; and all speech, written or spoken, is in a dead language until it finds a willing and prepared hearer. Such, moreover, is the complexity of life, that when we condescend upon details in our advice, we may be sure we condescend on error; and the best of education is to throw out some magnanimous hints. No man was ever so poor that he could express all he has in him by words, looks, or actions; his true knowledge is eternally incommunicable, for it is a knowledge of himself; and his best wisdom comes to him by no process of the mind, but in a supreme self-dictation, which keeps varying from hour to hour in its dictates with the variation of events and circumstances.
From Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay “Lay Morals.”
When one considers how vast and how close to us is the problem of existence—this equivocal, tortured, fleeting, dream-like existence of ours—so vast and so close that a man no sooner discovers it than it overshadows and obscures all other problems and aims; and when one sees how all men, with few and rare exceptions, have no clear consciousness of the problem, nay, seem to be quite unaware of its presence, but busy themselves with everything rather than with this, and live on, taking no thought but for the passing day and the hardly longer span of their own personal future, either expressly discarding the problem or else over-ready to come to terms with it by adopting some system of popular metaphysics and letting it satisfy them; when, I say, one takes all this to heart, one may come to the opinion that man may be said to be a thinking being only in a very remote sense, and henceforth feel no special surprise at any trait of human thoughtlessness or folly; but know, rather, that the normal man’s intellectual range of vision does indeed extend beyond that of the brute, whose whole existence is, as it were, a continual present, with no consciousness of the past or the future, but not such an immeasurable distance as is generally supposed.
From The Art of Literature by Arthur Schopenhauer.
Style is the physiognomy of the mind, and a safer index to character than the face. To imitate another man’s style is like wearing a mask, which, be it never so fine, is not long in arousing disgust and abhorrence, because it is lifeless; so that even the ugliest living face is better. Hence those who write in Latin and copy the manner of ancient authors, may be said to speak through a mask; the reader, it is true, hears what they say, but he cannot observe their physiognomy too; he cannot see their style. With the Latin works of writers who think for themselves, the case is different, and their style is visible; writers, I mean, who have not condescended to any sort of imitation, such as Scotus Erigena, Petrarch, Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza, and many others. An affectation in style is like making grimaces. Further, the language in which a man writes is the physiognomy of the nation to which he belongs; and here there are many hard and fast differences, beginning from the language of the Greeks, down to that of the Caribbean islanders.
To form a provincial estimate of the value of a writer’s productions, it is not directly necessary to know the subject on which he has thought, or what it is that he has said about it; that would imply a perusal of all his works. It will be enough, in the main, to know how he has thought. This, which means the essential temper or general quality of his mind, may be precisely determined by his style. A man’s style shows the formal nature of all his thoughts—the formal nature which can never change, be the subject or the character of his thoughts what it may: it is, as it were, the dough out of which all the contents of his mind are kneaded. When Eulenspiegel was asked how long it would take to walk to the next village, he gave the seemingly incongruous answer: Walk. He wanted to find out by the man’s pace the distance he would cover in a given time. In the same way, when I have read a few pages of an author, I know fairly well how far he can bring me.
Every mediocre writer tries to mask his own natural style, because in his heart he knows the truth of what I am saying. He is thus forced, at the outset, to give up any attempt at being frank or naïve—a privilege which is thereby reserved for superior minds, conscious of their own worth, and therefore sure of themselves. What I mean is that these everyday writers are absolutely unable to resolve upon writing just as they think; because they have a notion that, were they to do so, their work might possibly look very childish and simple. For all that, it would not be without its value. If they would only go honestly to work, and say, quite simply, the things they have really thought, and just as they have thought them, these writers would be readable and, within their own proper sphere, even instructive.
From The Art of Literature by Arthur Schopenhauer.
Let’s put it this way. Say you’ve got really serious art, and it takes really hard work, whether it’s painting or music or literature. That stuff’s not fun in the way commercial entertainment is fun. I mean fun — like eating a Twinkie. It’s like slipping into a warm bath after a hard day. It’s an escape. It’s a relaxation. And that’s fine, and that’s entirely appropriate. The danger comes when the escape becomes the overriding purpose. And one of the ways it seems that television has affected me is that my expectation for the amount of fun and pleasure to work — that ratio is very different than they are for my parents. I think my pain threshold is lower. My expectations are higher. My level of resentment at having to do anything I don’t particularly want to do that isn’t pleasurable is higher. I think a certain amount of that comes from the fact that for six hours a day I receive certain messages — you know, ‘relax, we’re going to give to you, you don’t have to give anything back, all you need to do is every so often go and buy this product.’ But animals have fun. My dogs play. And watching them play — there’s a purity of intent and a lack of self-consciousness that I wish I could achieve when I was experiencing pleasure. But Plato and John Stuart Mill both take books to talk about different types of pleasure. In my own personal life, I like really arty stuff a lot of the time. But there’s also times I watch an enormous amount of TV, and I’ve read probably 70 percent of Stephen King’s books. And I’ve read them basically because for a little while I want to forget that my name is David Wallace, you know, and that I have limitations, and that I’m sad that my girlfriend yelled at me. I think serious art is supposed to make us confront things that are difficult in ourselves and in the world. And one of the dangers is if we get conditioned to confront less and less and experience more and more pleasure, the commercial stuff’s gonna win out.
From a 1997 interview with David Foster Wallace by David Wiley, originally published in The Minnesota Daily, and archived here.
“Authors” — Voltaire
(From Philosophical Dictionary)
Author is a generic name which can, like the name of all other professions, signify good or bad, worthy of respect or ridicule, useful and agreeable, or trash for the wastepaper-basket.
We think that the author of a good work should refrain from three things—from putting his name, save very modestly, from the epistle dedicatory, and from the preface. Others should refrain from a fourth—that is, from writing.
Prefaces are another stumbling-block. “The ‘I,'” said Pascal, “is hateful.” Speak as little of yourself as possible; for you must know that the reader’s self-esteem is as great as yours. He will never forgive you for wanting to condemn him to have a good opinion of you. It is for your book to speak for you, if it comes to be read by the crowd.
If you want to be an author, if you want to write a book; reflect that it must be useful and new, or at least infinitely agreeable.
If an ignoramus, a pamphleteer, presumes to criticize without discrimination, you can confound him; but make rare mention of him, for fear of sullying your writings.
If you are attacked as regards your style, never reply; it is for your work alone to make answer.
Someone says you are ill, be content that you are well, without wanting to prove to the public that you are in perfect health. And above all remember that the public cares precious little whether you are well or ill.
A hundred authors make compilations in order to have bread, and twenty pamphleteers make excerpts from these compilations, or apology for them, or criticism and satire of them, also with the idea of having bread, because they have no other trade. All these persons go on Friday to the police lieutenant of Paris to ask permission to sell their rubbish. They have audience immediately after the strumpets who do not look at them because they know that these are underhand dealings.
Real authors are those who have succeeded in one of the real arts, in epic poetry, in tragedy or comedy, in history or philosophy, who have taught men or charmed them. The others of whom we have spoken are, among men of letters, what wasps are among birds.
“Breakfast” by Gertrude Stein
From Tender Buttons
A change, a final change includes potatoes. This is no authority for the abuse of cheese. What language can instruct any fellow.
A shining breakfast, a breakfast shining, no dispute, no practice, nothing, nothing at all.
A sudden slice changes the whole plate, it does so suddenly.
An imitation, more imitation, imitation succeed imitations.
Anything that is decent, anything that is present, a calm and a cook and more singularly still a shelter, all these show the need of clamor. What is the custom, the custom is in the centre.
What is a loving tongue and pepper and more fish than there is when tears many tears are necessary. The tongue and the salmon, there is not salmon when brown is a color, there is salmon when there is no meaning to an early morning being pleasanter. There is no salmon, there are no tea-cups, there are the same kind of mushes as are used as stomachers by the eating hopes that makes eggs delicious. Drink is likely to stir a certain respect for an egg cup and more water melon than was ever eaten yesterday. Beer is neglected and cocoanut is famous. Coffee all coffee and a sample of soup all soup these are the choice of a baker. A white cup means a wedding. A wet cup means a vacation. A strong cup means an especial regulation. A single cup means a capital arrangement between the drawer and the place that is open.
Price a price is not in language, it is not in custom, it is not in praise.
A colored loss, why is there no leisure. If the persecution is so outrageous that nothing is solemn is there any occasion for persuasion.
A grey turn to a top and bottom, a silent pocketful of much heating, all the pliable succession of surrendering makes an ingenious joy.
A breeze in a jar and even then silence, a special anticipation in a rack, a gurgle a whole gurgle and more cheese than almost anything, is this an astonishment, does this incline more than the original division between a tray and a talking arrangement and even then a calling into another room gently with some chicken in any way.
A bent way that is a way to declare that the best is all together, a bent way shows no result, it shows a slight restraint, it shows a necessity for retraction.
Suspect a single buttered flower, suspect it certainly, suspect it and then glide, does that not alter a counting.
A hurt mended stick, a hurt mended cup, a hurt mended article of exceptional relaxation and annoyance, a hurt mended, hurt and mended is so necessary that no mistake is intended.
What is more likely than a roast, nothing really and yet it is never disappointed singularly.
A steady cake, any steady cake is perfect and not plain, any steady cake has a mounting reason and more than that it has singular crusts. A season of more is a season that is instead. A season of many is not more a season than most.
Take no remedy lightly, take no urging intently, take no separation leniently, beware of no lake and no larder.
Burden the cracked wet soaking sack heavily, burden it so that it is an institution in fright and in climate and in the best plan that there can be.
An ordinary color, a color is that strange mixture which makes, which does make which does not make a ripe juice, which does not make a mat.
A work which is a winding a real winding of the cloaking of a relaxing rescue. This which is so cool is not dusting, it is not dirtying in smelling, it could use white water, it could use more extraordinarily and in no solitude altogether. This which is so not winsome and not widened and really not so dipped as dainty and really dainty, very dainty, ordinarily, dainty, a dainty, not in that dainty and dainty. If the time is determined, if it is determined and there is reunion there is reunion with that then outline, then there is in that a piercing shutter, all of a piercing shouter, all of a quite weather, all of a withered exterior, all of that in most violent likely.
An excuse is not dreariness, a single plate is not butter, a single weight is not excitement, a solitary crumbling is not only martial.
A mixed protection, very mixed with the same actual intentional unstrangeness and riding, a single action caused necessarily is not more a sign than a minister.
Seat a knife near a cage and very near a decision and more nearly a timely working cat and scissors. Do this temporarily and make no more mistake in standing. Spread it all and arrange the white place, does this show in the house, does it not show in the green that is not necessary for that color, does it not even show in the explanation and singularly not at all stationary.