Writing right now, but back as soon as I figure out God and morality, politics, and the mysterious, tragicomic ways of the universe. Really, shouldn’t be long.
The discussion continues; scroll down for earlier posts. (And hey, you care about good writing, right? So buy a book. I would.)
This summer my favorite mystery writer died. This wasn’t a surprise; I knew they were terminally ill. I’d been following their postings on the topic, although even that seems intrusive. I’m not family, I have no right to grieve. I’m not even sure we’d have liked each other, in person.
But I was a fervent enough devotee to buy advance review copies of their most famous series off abebooks.com before the finished editions were available. I reread these books with no diminishment of interest, and who else can you say that about, except Christie? I’m talking about an emotional investment going back decades. I cared about the characters and vicariously observed, argued, and triumphed through them.
Until that final novel, with its shocking betrayal of trust. Well okay, not impeaching either of the two primary protagonists, but close, and this necessitated the sacrificed character acting completely out of character. Anyway, that’s how I see it.
While I assume this was an expression of personal rage, I realize I could be very wrong; it might have been a total coincidence, a planned digression for the series. But if not, was this really – I don’t know – legitimate? Fair? For some reason I’m still upset, digging away at this, and I’m not even sure of what I’m looking for. An apology? That’s absurd. Closure? I have no right.
I’m just a fan, with no rights at all. We all know how the fan-artist relationship can get crazy. But what about the presumption of safety inherent to this particular genre? What about the reader who was there from the beginning?
But my God, I’m screaming at a dead person over a laughably slight slap. If it actually was about sharing the pain, I hope it helped.
Photo credits: Jesper Sehested, write (CC BY 2.0) / Chris Bloom, Fan (CC BY-SA 2.0) / thierry ehrmann, le four alchimique…Nutrisco Et Extinguo (CC BY 2.0).
Is the novel still relevant? Last week I promised to let the questions lead the way, and I’m actually a little more forward. The definition of relevance seems key: what does that term mean, anyway? And relevant to whom, and why?
Importance might be the better descriptive: a work of art can be of enormous value to an individual, but not universally important. It might open your eyes, but the rest of the world is far ahead of you, and the subject’s been tweeted over forever.
Nothing can match the magic of reading fiction: the astonishing, irreplaceable gift of the novel is the opportunity to see the world through someone else’s eyes, and often an exciting but anyway a different world, as well. But the truth is, this perspective can be adequately accomplished visually, and perfected with accompanying narration. A predetermined view is limiting but you see it, you see it, it has the upper hand.
Look, our common cultural heritage is visual and digital; that’s a done deal. We tell our story in images shared to the planet: towers falling, presidents shot, steps on the moon. I have to admit, I came to this realization late, I thought images and all electronic media transient, but quite the opposite: hardcopy is vulnerable; images are forever.
Another thing: the writing on TV is the best going these days; that’s where the exceptional story-telling is, no question. TV is an interesting field, both confined as to reach yet wonderfully varied. More, it has universal immediacy; everyone experiences it at the same time, we all talk about it, and we encourage everyone else we know to stream it. This is preserving the medium by modeling behavior for coming generations the way reading is very seldom modeled these days, if ever. Getting back to that notion of relevance or importance, TV and the Internet have effectively commandeered one particular responsibility traditionally vaunted by the novel: the exposé, whether personal or cultural, business or political. This elite responsibility once flourished in fiction but we don’t need The Jungle or A Christmas Carol now we have CNN.com and 60 Minutes. Who has time for something as self-indulgent as reading now it’s not morally supported?
Oral tradition evolved into the written national epic, then into everyman’s story in local languages; the novel became specific and personal but it remained universal: War and Peace matters to everyone. Today books are built to confirm and conform, and no one dares speak to the great topics. Or have we simply given up on universals the way we’ve given up on objective truth? Are we gutless, slyly knowing, or merely conscientious? Whatever the case, we’re in a sterile, and self-referential literary office tower, where clever editors with identical educations iron flat every obtrusive speckled thing. More and more, the narrative voice sounds just like the protagonist from the last book you read.
Of course this is also about economics, the preferences of that very specific segment of the populace: People Who Read Books. Who are they, and what do they want, anyway? The entire industry exists only to serve them, after all. And if they won’t demand something better, maybe even great, it’s going to go on spiraling smaller and smaller, and I guess I’ll see you at the cineplex.
Okay, so I’ve followed some questions, and I can discern the faint outline of a path ahead. Any kind of movement matters, and this conversation will continue. Meanwhile I’m back to working on my own fiction, that nascent book about the Other, whether self-created projection, alien intruder, or Ultimate Concept.
Thanks for your interest. And please check out the Home page for info on Worthy of This Great City, if you’re at all interested in fresh fiction.
Photo credits: Revise_D, Novel (CC BY-SA 2.0) / www.gotcredit.com – Print (CC BY 2.0) / Sean MacEntee, old media new media (CC BY 2.0)
I ask because I’ve spent time this summer with crawdads and Evvie and stupid self-involved conversations with idiotic young women, and I wonder if the whole art form is over, and even if that’s maybe a good thing whatever my personal preferences.
Which are to passionately clutch my book to my heart and spew invective at the uncaring universe.
Only, if the novel can survive this current self-referential vapidity, what then? Where to, what next, and more to the point, how? And what is it, exactly, that’s savorless here: the form, or the stagnant, artificially sweetened thinking poured into it?
I know, I know: I’ve been down this road before, but I think I’m a proven, trustworthy pathfinder for this particular journey. (Those who’ve encountered my own fiction might disagree; I’ll take that argument.) But there are plenty of fellow travelers: this blog was inspired in part by a comment by Ross Douthat on the passing of Toni Morrison, quoted by Brigid Delaney in The Guardian: “Something has changed in the cultural status of the novel.” What a genteel little understatement! Delaney wonders about the impact of social media; I suspect that’s symptomatic of a wider, even more critical disturbance.
This is only a quick post on an off week, which is to say I haven’t thought all this through yet, but next weekend’s a holiday and I hope to post something better Labor Day. Until then, it’s a matter of letting the questions themselves point the way: is the novel still an important form, one that can move or enlighten societies, even nations? If not, why not? If yes, what the hell happened?
Photo credit: Ellen Forsyth, Fiction, genre sign Burton Barr Central Library, Phoenix Public Library (CC BY-SA 2.0)
A few summers back, someone threw a tennis or golf ball onto the roof of my little apartment building, where it clogged up the drainage system. My landlord came by to say the tenant downstairs was complaining about water coming through her ceiling. The wet splotch on my bedroom floor was nothing dramatic; we concluded an open window was to blame, and paid no attention to the slight stain on the ceiling. Cut to a week later and water was dripping from the stain, now a definite crack, at a rate that required a bucket but was still containable. Twelve hours later, it was a literal downpour, I’d been up over twenty hours dumping water into the bathtub from the big kitchen trashcan and every other large pot and bucket I owned, and all my towels were in circulation between my upper floor and the basement laundry. Early morning I came back from a laundry run to find the entire ceiling down inside my bedroom, slanting from tall dresser across the bed, broken into gigantic pieces, with stuff like wet gray wool hanging from above, and pieces of white plaster driven into everything. The entire room smelled sour. There’d been enough water to fill a swimming pool over my bedroom, and it had entered with force. I think I actually laughed.
So then a dehumidifier, painters, spackling, everything; I camped out in the living room, which was kind of fun. A section of the bedroom’s wood floors was in sharp waves; I was told they’d subside, but three years later and it’s still startling if I step on that area by accident. It’s hard to explain the overall effect of this kind of experience. I didn’t think much of it at first; it was all handled professionally and I was given a break on the rent to cover the dresser, so I thought I was fine.
But I’ve just recovered from – what? a minor depression? simply being overwhelmed? – to actually get around to making everything presentable again. It’s been exhausting: the dresser was part of a set, the backings of the framed prints were warped, family photos were ruined, never mind what happened to the drapes and quilt. Never mind that my low-grade leather living room set peeled beyond redemption. At first I patched the bald spots with shoe polish, which dripped and ruined the carpet.
You have to pay someone to haul all that stuff away.
Now I have new furniture, which is reassuring. And now enter the great big company that brings anything I want right to my door, so I don’t want to hear about them being employee-abusing, small-business-destroying vultures, at least not right now. They sent me a duvet, which I love. And throw pillows. And picture frame mats and backings. And spray paint for the wicker pieces. And touch-up paint for the woodwork. And a living room rug and then another rug for the hall. And some new houseplants. And flower pots and potting soil and plant food. And surge protectors. And an electric blanket and a regular blanket and towels. And a laundry hamper and some kitchen appliances and a shower curtain and regular curtains and a wok. And a throw quilt for the new sofa, and storage bags for the closet, cutting boards, a vacuum cleaner, and an alarm clock. And a good deal more, every restoration breeding a further desire.
They attempted to send me a white wicker wastepaper basket. UPS got it as far as a facility in NJ and there it stayed. Strange; did someone really need one that badly?
So I clicked onto Chat, which is something I enjoy, which tells you a lot about me. Chat said they were sorry, and if it didn’t arrive by Sunday let them know and they’d send another.
Sunday evening I logged onto Chat and let them know it hadn’t arrived, and they ordered me another white wicker wastepaper basket, which made it to a facility in NJ and stayed there. Note that lots of the other stuff I order through this same mega-company processes through the same facility with no issues. Why white wicker wastepaper baskets? Drug smuggling? Some obscure fetish?
I logged onto Chat and explained, whimsically I think, and they were apologetic; Chat is consistently apologetic, which is one of the reasons I like it so much. They agreed there was a serious problem and promised it would be reported immediately. Also they refunded my money, because I wasn’t about to try again. Then I ordered a white wicker wastepaper basket from another vendor that specialized in home decor.
They sent me Marvin. He came in an unmarked cardboard box, wrapped in an unmarked plastic bag, with the plastic loop for a price tag attached to him but no price tag. Marvin the anonymous. His photo doesn’t do him justice: he’s grayer, and mottled, and kind of mushy. Looking at him, you have to wonder why anyone would create him on purpose: an existential expression of the concept “wastepaper basket?” I went to the vendor’s website and connected to Chat. They were very apologetic; they would refund my money, but unfortunately the item I wanted was out of stock. They helped me order a similar white wicker wastepaper basket. As for Marvin, I uploaded a photo of him at Chat’s instruction, and they said that rather than return him, I should just hold onto him for a while. If I didn’t hear from them in a few weeks I could donate him to a charity. I swear this is true.
A few days later, a white wicker wastepaper basket actually arrived. Hurrah!
A few day later, another white wicker wastepaper basket arrived, a twin to the first. I decided to keep it for my refurbished bedroom and logged onto the evil humungous company’s Chat and told them they needed to bill me all over again because the item did finally arrive, and they understood, which was pretty impressive.
A few days later, another white wicker wastepaper basket arrived, so I had four: three identical white ones and Marvin, in his box, in my bedroom closet. I printed out a return label and left a white wicker wastepaper basket at the UPS pick-up at my office building.
And I started wondering if the whole incident of the bedroom ceiling falling in and flooding out my apartment might have affected me more than I first realized. The flood, and possibly some other things, all resulting in a predilection to Chat.
Me and Marvin, the endearingly pathetic, squishy piece of grayish braided something or other I’ll be throwing out.