this morning, i had the guilty pleasure of listening to this excellent episode of endnotes:
and i must confess up front that i have not yet tackled infinite jest (it’s on the list), though i did have the decided pleasure of brief interviews with hideous men, which is also one of my favorite titles ever.
i suppose it’s natural that i would be doing some thinking about Writing, moreso than i ever have before. i’ve put writing away twice now, and twice come back to it, with mixed feelings. at this point i am past the “young author” demographic; many people i went to school with are now mid-career, and i am starting yet again. all of which begs the question of why?
in the bbc programme, they play pieces of an earlier interview with wallace, and one of the things he talks about is the purpose of Literature—and i do think he is talking capital-L stuff here. that moreso than any other art form, it can bring you out of yourself and place you squarely in another’s consciousness. which in turn hit that resonant yes in me, to the point where i had to drag the little mp3 player bar backwards and hear it again . . .
yes, i was late to work as a result of all this.
it struck a chord; it was almost a relief, to hear it stated. because one of the things i’ve noticed, since i started writing all those years ago, is a kind of flattening and homogenizing of art, all the myriad forms of human expression compressed and boxed into “products.” writing must now compete, i am told: it is in the pit with television and music and movies and it all must fight for an audience with an ever-shortening attention span. the new writers i meet nowadays are not reading the classics or comp lit or even that much fiction of any stripe; they’re reading screenplays and plot for dummies and debating 3- or 5-act structure.
which is not to say plot is not important. but to approach writing as just another product is to risk losing those things which are unique to writing, including that self-transcendence that wallace spoke of.
i came back to writing this time after a long talk with a good friend who was in much the same mindset that i was. we had both been through the academic and literary mills and hadn’t made it, we are both older now—should we even bother? yet we got to talking about our early reading experiences, the books we read in high school and college and loved so much we couldn’t put them down then or now, that we’re still lugging around crumbling dog-eared copies, sometimes two or three of them. books that were not always “literary” or “classics” or “groundbreaking”, books that sometimes sported the dreaded puffy covers and were picked up in supermarkets.
we should just forget about everything else and write that kind of book, my friend suggested. the book you can’t put down, the one that pushes all your buttons. just for your own pleasure.
what wallace made me realize, though, was that part of the pleasure was that feeling of self-transcendence, that i found in everything from L’Engle to King to Joyce to Murakami. it’s a little like falling in love: you meet a character and step inside them, you feel them from the inside-out, and you are transformed. even if the character is repulsive? you are transformed. it’s the closest a constructed thing can come to Life, i think; not even Real Life, but Life as it Can Be, when we dare to open ourselves to another person, and accept their opening in turn.
in the face of that? banging out a few 80,000 word novels each year, using plots #43 and 67 and 24, one eye on the trends and the other on reader reviews, it seems a great pity. all that time spent, and the words blowing past like flipping through channels—does no one else, reader or author, want a little more? i do.
i’m not sure if this novel can hit that mark; it wasn’t begun with any clarity of intent, and even as it swells and expands i’m not sure if it will get there. but it might. and it’s certainly worth trying for.