Really, just two passages I’ve stumbled onto these last couple of days. The first is from Eric Miles Williamson, a guy I really respect because he can seriously write. On the editorial board of some mystery-press a couple of years ago, I read a book of his in manuscript which I still think of just a whole lot, and wish I’d kept my copy of. Can’t even remember the title of it, even. But it really got to me. Anyway, East Bay Grease is of course what he’s known for, but none of that’s what I’m doing right now, here. This is all I’m doing — pulling a chunk from this piece he did for the LA Times:
What often passes for high “literature” today is writing that is impenetrable and onanistic: self-enclosed systems of game-playing that only the author and a small band of professors and masochistic devotees understand (or claim to understand). Of course Winfrey would never pick William Gass’ “masterpiece” doorstop of a novel “The Tunnel.” Why should she? Who can read it? And Thomas Pynchon? He might be smarter than the rest of us mortals, but that doesn’t mean he’s communicating anything to us other than the unpleasant reality that he can’t seem to stop writing volumes of brilliant gibberish, and the world will be none the worse when John Barth’s books are all out of print.
Which, I should have prefaced that with something like ‘This piece I’m pulling which just goes right to the core of me, and hurts.’ Didn’t want to prejudice you, though. Anyway, I mean, that’s my heroes he’s listing there, yeah. But, too, I don’t know; he might be right. If you’re writing for an elite little group of ‘smart’ people, then hey, I mean, your sales will show it, I guess. Not to say Against the Day didn’t sell like diet pills or anything. Or like The Road wasn’t selling even before Oprah got behind it. But yeah, it was no Suttree — wasn’t all thick and clogged with its own telling.
And by ‘thick and clogged’ there, what I mean is that I love that book. And John Barth, man. If not for (reading) him, I probably wouldn’t even be writing.
So who knows.
Second pull, which I think I’m going to have to key in here:
“Dorothy picked up on that right away. She wanted to hurt me as much as I had hurt her, so she said, ‘So that’s it! You guys all paint the way you do because you couldn’t paint something real if you had to.'”
[insert here a longish paragraph (for Vonnegut) wherein the narrator there, to prove ‘Dorothy’ wrong, sketches some perfect and touching little thing — a big victory, revelation, etc ]
“Dorothy was flabbergasted,” I said to Circe. “She said to me: ‘Why don’t you do that all the time?’ And I said to her, and this was the first time I ever said ‘fuck’ to her, no matter how angry we might have been with each other: ‘It’s just too fucking easy.'”
It’s from Bluebeard, I guess I should have said. Which, as near as I can tell, is pretty sub-par Vonnegut — doesn’t have those leaps of imagination plus surprising, obvious turns that his other stuff gets by on. And it’s not quite so subversive either. Meaning I have no idea why it gets all the praise it does on the back cover. But, I’m talking about that passage, not the whole book.
It’s something I’ve always kind of suspected: that the fiction which is all twisted back on itself in the cleverest of ways, maybe it’s not all (‘all’ in the ‘every time’ sense, not the ‘percentage of this work’ sense) because the act of telling this thing has twisted the writer’s pen fingers or whatever — which is honest, I think, because it’s hard to look at things straight-on sometimes [ie, the indirection results in the ‘art’], and ‘innovation’ can be a filter, or, too, often [okay, in my case, I suspect], some especially involved-with-itself camouflage — but just because the writer’s been over-educated. Knows too many tricks, if that’s even possible. Sees it all in ways that the normal human doesn’t, or cant’. And I’m not meaning to establish some category-of-intelligence/smartness-of-the-reader thing here. Or, if I do it anyway, I’m not necessarily putting those writers at the top, but more to the side, like an evolutionary offshoot (hunger artists, sure).
And you see this easier, I think, with music, how the guy you knew in junior high who was more into music than you thought possible, when you see him again twenty years later, he’s just as into it, but is no longer satisfied with the pop on the radio, but has this elaborate collection of pretty-much unlisten-to-able super-underground stuff.
Or look at the musicians themselves: Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel are unarguably still making some pretty cool sounds. Trick is, though, they can hear so freaking much, and have all of it and more going on at once these days, that the result’s not something you necessarily dial into. And there’s not enough left just at the surface for you to get by on. So you either get it all, or — more likely — you don’t.
So, stick figures, I’m saying. To myself, maybe. Not that I’m anywhere near doing the literary equivalent of the soundtrack for The Graduate or Say Anything. Just that sometimes you dress your stickman up in so many elaborate clothes that you don’t even realize he’s slipped away, is playing in somebody’s else far more readable story.1 Which gets back to my big beef with literary fiction, I suppose — that it’s left out that necessary and for-some-reason disparaged element of ‘entertainment.2‘ But man, give me something fast and sincere, please, even if the craft isn’t just over the top.3 I mean, my shelves are already lined with technically precise, overcrafted stuff. Art, however, it’s kind of better.
1 And yeah, I should give Vonnegut more credit — I’m tricking myself into thinking I’m coming up with something half-new here, when really the one art lesson Dan Gregory gives the narrator of Bluebeard is to say, over and over, some version of ‘The Emporer Has No Clothes.’
2 My beef, I say, yeah, but Chabon’s a lot more articulate with/about it.
3 So, yeah, my head-over-heels thing with PKD. However. The first two Bourne-books, say: loved them, lived them. By the the third, though, the writing had gotten so sloppy I just couldn’t slog through anymore. Or — and I wont’ name this book, as this writer’s still alive — I just tried reading something that had all the sentences in the right places, manages the scenes well enough, has all those kinds of pistons firing, but the elements in it, just at the story level, they were so black and white, so uncomplicated, the conventions and devices so undisguised, and not in an ironic way — and I really do like young adult/juvenile lit (which, as Neil Gaiman says when interviewed by his daughter, is the absolute hardest stuff of all to write)(not saying this book was YA lit) — that I just couldn’t pull my way through it. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve lost my taste for afterschool specials. Which I used to like plenty in junior high, yeah.