Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"And here we are... the last island of beauty in the world"

One of the sustaining illusions often held by people who dream of being writers, especially those growing up in an environment hostile to art, is that they are like rare palace beauties, and outside dwells the rabble. It can be very useful thing to tell yourself.

After you've grown up a bit, and had a few things published, and met a lot of people who love literature and art and yet have no time for the palace beauties, you tend to drop that illusion. At its worst, it can lead you away from the actual sources of good, engaged writing into dead aestheticism. It can also make you sound like a precious little shit.

Like David Guterson, for example:
On this day off my writing, I began to think about my novel-in-progress and by the time I got to Ritzville I had to pull off the interstate, not only to buy a notebook but to cry because I felt badly for some of the people in my book. Inside the mini-mart, two young duck or goose hunters dressed in camouflage gear were getting self-serve coffee, and while I picked out a notebook, their conversation - which was frankly, I thought, a lot of idle foolishness - distracted me, and then I had to stand behind them in a line to make my purchase and, it couldn't be helped, listen to more of their sadistic banter underneath all of that mini-mart wattage. You would think this interlude would break the spell, but the road toward Othello was so overwhelmingly perfect in the darkness that the world dissipated within 15 minutes and I was "writing" again.
Personally, I think that, even if you never drop the "us and them" perspective, which is understandable, then it's more fruitful to realize that, as a writer, it's their world, and you are a parasite within it, living off it and contributing little of value (at least as far they are concerned). You steal and leech and hoard and spy, bleeding off as much from the host culture as you can and, hopefully, turning all that into art. Given that, it's best not to expect gratitude. You need them more than they need you.

Does that mean literature is not important? Absolutely not. Some of the most important things are almost completely useless, relatively speaking.

What it does mean, however, is that the "sadistic banter" of duck hunters in a store off the interstate is more interesting than the tears of a middlebrow novelist. After all, some of the greatest fiction is filled, from a certain perspective, with nothing but "idle foolishness."


ognir.rrats said...

"and then I had to stand behind them in a line"

What a tragedy...a line no less. The customs of the peasants are so vile.

storeboughthair said...

Yes, DG sounds like a middlebrow pseud (than which there ain't nothin' worse) but let's not get too sentimental about "sadistic banter" -- that way hairy-chested, Murphy J. Sweat schlock often lies. Everything in the world is material (for a writer) -- even, if you're a satirist, self-involved artistic tears.

nathan said...

Mr. Hair,

I agree completely. I'm not arguing for lunchbox lit; just that this 50th generation photocopy of photocopy of 19th-century romantic perspective on the role of artistes in the world is nothing without the laudanum and sodomy, and it's probably a clue as to why novels by writers like Guterson feel so drained of life.

Nabokov was no slouch when it came to snobbery, but he would have made of that interstate mini-mart the kind of a fictional set-piece that writers commit to memory.

Even elitist disdain is fertile ground for fiction, as long as the disdain is your own, and you can do something with it. Reeling off a bunch of tired clichés in the name of ART doesn't help anybody.

lunchbill said...

It has certainly helped Gutterson and his publisher.