Saturday, March 22, 2008

It ain't me

I recently came across a quote I had dog-eared in Typing, Matt Cohen's memoir:
My discovery of my own voice came along with the realization that I was the kind of writer who wrote much better when I was writing about other people. Only when it was about other people did my writing seem to have the freedom, the texture, the conviction, that had been so lacking from my earlier efforts, all of which had centred around various imaginary versions of myself.
Cohen spent a long time trying to write the kind of proudly solipsistic, defiantly avant-garde and non-linear prose that he saw as a kind of challenge to Canada's Scotch-protestant culture and that was big among his literary peers at the fledgling House of Anansi and Coach House presses. Somewhat to his own horror, he found himself – after a couple of failed novels of just that sort – drawn more and more to the idea of writing about the lives of seemingly boring and non-avant garde people in rural Ontario.

Probably not hard to figure out why I marked that particular quote.

Beckett's novel trilogy spun my head around when I first read it. And while I am not nearly as hot for the stuff as I once was, I spent a couple of years gobbling up everything by and about Donald Bartheleme I could get my hands on.

On the other hand, Alice Munro's stories, however brilliant they are individually, still tend to make me a little restless after about three or four in a row.

And yet, in my own writing so far, I see very little Beckett (though there is definitely some, in altered form) and no Barthelme at all. But I do see repeated attempts to achieve the kinds of effects that Munro is a master of, effects that bring with them a certain amount of dryness and distance, along with the itch for lives depicted with a little more raucousness and mess.

Thinking about the first novel about to drop out the chute – which I try not to at this point, focusing instead on the mechanics of publicizing it, and on the second novel currently in the works – I worry that it could have been more raucous and less dry. But I don't regret at all the fact that my own consciousness does not appear as a major character.

This has been a very self-indulgent post about literary self-negation.

ADDED: Before anyone makes the objection, I should say that I'm only talking about myself here, and only about the way I mostly write right now. I am fully aware that some of the greatest works of literature were born out of thinly veiled autobiography.

And I reserve the right to one day write a series of novels about Jason Whitelore, the handsome and unconventional young dreamer from nowhere who is forced to make his way, aided only by his boundless charisma, wit, and libido.

I'm also in the middle of Reinhold Kramer's upcoming bio of Mordecai Richler, a writer who made a lot of sweeping (though mostly dead-on) statements about novelists shamelessly (if backhandedly) congratulating themselves in their fiction, and whose best novels do exactly that.

1 comment:

Ross McKie said...

The novel and psychoanalysis (yes, of course-- I know, "Boo!"):

"This has been a [very self-indulgent] post about [literary] self-negation."

The charm of the form still accentuates, much like memoir, that hazardous trek toward self-discovery, even if we proudly proclaim that we are heading nowhere, individually and collectively. If you wanna get smarty-pants about it (oh no!), 'semiotically', we (inevitably) become the subjects of language's story, tirelessly searching out our own perfect meaning.

Damn, what does it all mean, man?