Prose on greatness and caprice in literature

The gift of literature is having it race your thoughts so you don’t have to.

Aspiring writers often hear from older writers—perhaps retired restaurant owners and the like, amenable to company though they are, if undistinguished in conversation—that it is silly, or even insulting, to write with the ego.

They say, “don’t aspire to be great, no one ever succeeds like that.” They say, “be yourself, find your voice, you can’t aim so high you fall.” They say, “don’t be pretentious,” as if the arts of poetry or fiction aren’t built upon pretense. As if at once writing literature and writing humbly isn’t a pretense prone to tension.

When they talk about greatness, they’re shitting in their hands.

The canon is full of egoists and so is its audience. (The niches, too, are full of egoists). The great writers thought they could be great as much as the bad writers thought they could be great. It is not difficult to figure this out. Anyone who tells you otherwise has bought the fallacy of counter-intuitive illogic because they have unwittingly swallowed so much cognitive dissonance they can’t figure out why the greats aren’t the worsts in the first place. Of course great writers wanted to be great. Haven’t you witnessed the contests of humility in which the more pious among us partake?

The bookish people (who do more service to literature than its writers ever will), the madmen scribbling on their walls, the geniuses (much genius is posed, but like any other pose, it eventually sticks), hell, even your local janitor thinks he is a great man. Pride keeps this whole civilization thing going. Besides pride, what other engine of culture thrives so powerfully on our intellectual habits? Unmitigated misery?

But don’t forget: God forbids erudition (the nerve!) and it helps to be a Pole. And it helps to remember objectivity is bullshit every time unless you’re dealing with the physical sciences, and even then, the hoary humanities impress upon science the idea that it too is arbitrary and unfounded, which it largely is once examined philosophically. If objectivity is a question in science, then objectivity is a myth in literature.

The success of authorship, like any other profession or hobby, is contingent on time and place. The argument goes that certain great works of literature could only be produced by the right people at the right time: otherwise, the book itself would not exist. This is true. What is equally true is the caprice of criticism that makes that book great. Wilde knew this and in this respect we might think of him as the first post-modernist.

So you’re an author and everyone in the world is your audience. We have already a problem with fortune in the light of what is passed for literature today, even if some of it is ultimately worthwhile: if you’re somehow oppressed in a special manner at a special time, then writing well is not as important as writing in your type. Your audience expects you to fit the type—in diction, content, style, character, voice, and smallness. If you do not fit this type, if you write as an individual—as an individual aspiring to greatness—you will be writing to yourself, perhaps the only audience worth both catering to and berating harshly. You must understand that if we think there is an objective aesthetic (keeping in mind aesthetics is thought to appeal universally as a discipline) to literature, then objectively, there has been more great literature burned in house fires than has been published to the masses, circulated in salons, or touted by the avant-garde.

The fashions rule the present and retrospect defines what was great in the unfashionable. There is no way around this.

The following observation is descriptive, not prescriptive. The gay man must write so and so about sexuality and misery and never about the care of grandfathers if he expects a plural audience…the Latino writes for white audiences unless he writes for Latin America, in which case he writes for the local oligarchy…the middle class writer either scribbles for his incestuous Bohemian collective, or if further down writes (quite on accident) scripts for the Lifetime channel that express solely the solipsism of pampered womanhood, or further down yet writes techno-babble wrapped in the inanity of hip culture in which no one lives anyway.

Here is my prescription: if you wear black-framed glasses, stop writing. You disservice the only genre that has existed in a nearly-pure form since the beginning of civilization. You cannot wear a writer’s garb since you would feel like a fool if you walked around in book pages. It is fine enough not to want to sew your own books in the manner of previous centuries, but you will not hide yourself in the cloak of metonymy: ugly glasses do not a reader make, but a reader does make a writer. Of all the vices of enlightened society, bigotry alone is acceptable in literature.

And here’s another sorry truth. If white liberals think your life is worse than theirs and they can profitably talk about your work while they’re not doing any work, you have it made. All you have to do is keep irony out and seriousness in. Mocking conventions is not the same thing as mocking the very genre in which you write. The white liberals—for in this country, many Democrats are poor, and many Democrats are not leftists, and many leftists are paradoxically wealthy—consume literature. They do not digest it, they do not let it gestate. I speak in stereotypes because that is what an audience is, and it is what an audience wants you to be even as they decry the gamut of stereotypes invading culture in general. Your audience praises individuality and lets it rot in the coffin for a decade or two until it festers in the canon. The typifiers support the type, but as an aspiring writer, you needn’t do any such thing. You don’t owe that to your writing cohort if you have one, nor to your audience. You must think you are great and you must realize the one thing all substantial writers have in common is the habit of reading literature. But a talent for ego and a lack of literature will only make you sweat as you interrogate your own work. I say all of this peaceably because I am a white liberal and we subsist almost wholly on criticism to begin with.

Suffer you will, for you share in the common lot of our species. But if you’re convinced greatness is diminished in the wanting of it, or if you’re convinced any market principle applied to literary fiction results in anything but the caprice of criticism and fashionable, marketable miseries, then you haven’t had a chance to interview your favorite literary friend whose inner thoughts are, quite secretly, bought for the “democrat’s porn.” Literature has always been at once an introverted and a conspicuous enterprise, but now that the loners are mingling with the cultured, it should be no surprise to find out the emperor has neither wardrobe nor library.

It is a sad day when 18th century polemics are more interesting than a Top Ten List. The probably-incorrect and cynical conclusion that all authors are meager while alive but great after they die cannot be the case. But the idea that one expresses more creativity by describing his morning ritual of breakfast and bath instead of life and death and history and the fundaments of thought itself—one thinks of Hemingway, who wrote fiction as well as he massacred his theory—is ludicrous, and it has been sold to you by charlatans masquerading in the ultra-modern slang of coffee-shop intellectuals and readers of magazines who wear their brains instead of cultivating them. And in the meantime, they’ll praise your work (or anyone’s work) and warn you not to be great and you will know the irony of their dysfunction.


~ by Jeremy on June 6, 2013.

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