gall and gumption

Wednesday, July 13, 2005


Oh man, this is a theme I could warm to. I'm glad to see someone on the case. One author he does not mention, though as soon as he mentions Rabelais and Cervantes I feel sure he's thought about it, is Sterne. If you want to understand the full implications of what this guy is saying you could do worse than read The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. It has, to the highest degree, the quality of "plasticity."

It takes the most responsible of writers to see why irresponsibility is so important. As for "plastic", the word is not for nothing borrowed from the visual and three-dimensional arts, reminding us that immediacy in a novel is no less tactile, and can only be moulded out of the vitality of language. Between them, irresponsibility and plasticity point the way to pleasures we have lost.

Well, I don't quite see that we've lost these pleasures. I read Tristram Shandy once a year, I can always find a copy. All of Dickens is there if you want to find it, and Faulkner, and Gogol. I think W.G. Sebald, though he's hardly a comic writer, had that quality. I'd say Jamaica Kincaid has it, Naipaul has it sometimes. He used to have it more, before he became so afflicted with bile. If he means that there are few contemporary writers who know how to do it and that the trends that he describes here militate against a writer doing it, I'd tend to agree.

But what's a writer to do. I get a mixture of inspiration and depression when I go to those media conferences or workshops where literary agents and editors get up and tell writers how to get articles published. On the one hand it becomes clear to me that the practicalities of sending out a manuscript or a book proposal are much simpler than I tend to imagine. I mean, they keep saying they will read the stuff, don't they. But then when they start talking about what they want to see in a book I get depressed.

"We want great writing," they say. They set out a list of items that make up great writing: strong plots, vivid characters, showing, not telling, not too much exposition, no long descriptions of scenery. In my head another list is running and I am drawing a red line through names: Faulkner, Gogol, Trollope, Richardson, Lawrence, Hardy, Sterne, Cervantes, Dickens, Eliot, Dostoevsky, Lampedusa, Levi, Proust...

I go to bookstores and look at the new "literary" fiction, the stuff with the stylish covers, and I look between the covers and I rarely ever see anything that makes me want to buy. It's not even the money, it's the thought of the commitment to reading it all the way to the end, of being stuck with the prose. It turns out that there are whole categories of great writing that would never make it past my editor's desk.

No chick lit, needless to say. No autobiographically-based novels of life in the sixties when Mom and Dad used to pile everyone into the station wagon and drive across the country and little Reptilia, your narrator, always got carsick. I would do away with parents altogether, especially those dimwit but kindly Midwestern parents who visit their sophisticated daughters in New York and reveal at the most inopportune times how infuriatingly nice they are. To hell with all of them, I say. No talking dead children. No Southern belles or whatever they call themselves these days. No women who make more than $100,000 a year and live in apartments in New York that are the size of a small airstrip.

No banjo players, no black harmonica players full of earthy soulfulness. No old black ladies full of wisdom, let us lay that specter to rest, for de love of Gawd. No earth mothers, no saintly mothers, no psycho mothers. No evil insensitive fathers blighting the lives of their marvellously talented children.

No paintings, no novels telling the story of paintings.

In the realm of nonfiction no one would ever be allowed to remodel anything again: the Tuscan and Provencal villas with their marble countertops and their colorful local builders, won't touch it.

I have more to add to this but I've got to get doing some stuff so I'll try to get at it later... I hope.