And the absence of Flapdragons
[A bit of the novel in progress, A Republic of Books, to be found growing elsewhere on this ethereal site.]
For all of my life I have been taught and heard repeatedly all the wrong things about writing, and about how to write. I think of this as the E. B. White school of authorship with John Gardner and David Lodge as adjunct professors—all of them worthy practitioners of the craft, and all of them dead wrong. Dead for sure. As I will be, soon enough. And, in that they have the advantage of some professional success that I do not, this fight would seem to be unfair. Still, I persist with the thought.
These authors, as well as half a hundred others, ranging from Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain to William Zinsser, have indulged themselves in the mud-wallow of explaining what they do and what they do not do and why their methodology is the best, or at least the better. I admit I have not read them all, but I have read some parts of them all and you will find that in large measure they agree—and they are wrong.
The point is that they have missed the point of writing. The very purpose of it! The paradigm, if you will—one they have followed since the time of Dickens and that was wrong at the start and this business has much disintegrated in the interim. A clarified communication is not a reason to write. Clearer to whom? A grunt or laugh is enough for most of that. Nor is a fat paycheck reason enough. Nor fame (though glory might suffice). Nor approval. Nor any of the other bullshit foisted on generation after generation and now codified in writing programs at universities and writing groups gathered in living rooms and functions rooms at libraries across America. And good writing is most certainly not about the acceptance and approval of the agents and editors who make a living as the procurers and pimps of a much sullied profession. They trade their souls along with every new Stephen King contract.
But it should not be all about the money. Money is fine if the value is there. Money is great if it’s made and not stolen. But there must be a value to be traded for. And that is all about the content. You can argue that Stephen King’s name is of value and I won’t disagree. But King, or Dickens, or Hilary Mantel are not more than a small fraction of what is written (no matter how fast Mr. King tries to produce). What about the rest of it? The reason to write is a matter worth writing about. Good writing is a creation of time and effort as much as any small genius that might occur. It is God-like. But the subject of what is written is what matters most. Saying it well is the task. The craft, if you will. The art, if you can. As a writer, you have spent a piece of your life in the bargain. And after that, what follows is, for the most part, beyond the author’s hands. You may hewn this craft. You may polish it all you want. But if you have nothing to say, it will still be a sneaker.
I do not look down on prostitution, per se. Most of us do that to one degree or another in our lives. We sell ourselves, often for very little. But writing might be a more worthy profession if it were not tied to the pimps. Truly, the courtesan has much in common with the writer in that the practitioners in both trades might get a great deal more pleasure from their craft if they do it well. And too, doing it badly is not worth doing at all. But to do it at the beck and call of a pimp takes all the fun out of it.
I have mentioned before that I had a good friend who was a professional author his entire life, and earned a good living at it. His astonishment that I wasn’t willing to adjust my writing to the demands of the marketplace still resounds in my head. He told me that anyone who wrote without prospect of being paid was a fool. I told him I was that fool. And he was correct, of course, if what I wanted was his success. Though that pleased him, it never appealed to me.
And I do not disparage Dickens, or Hilary Mantel for that matter. I admire them both. They wrote and write about what matters to them, and have done it in a manner that appeals to a great many people. There is nothing wrong with that. But that can’t be taught. It is a personal chemistry that may be learned—as Michelangelo learned to cut marble. But if it could be taught, we would have to crawl over the statuary to get to the grocery (much as we now do stepping over those tomes by my instant whipping boy, Mr. King). The learning, which is a bringing to bear of soul and craft is done by the author. The artist. Whether a creation is drawn from the life of the author, or an imagined instance, the writer must care intimately about the subject or else it is hack work. The best of authors often seem to find themselves doing a little hackwork, trying to pay a mortgage. But for the reader, what matters is that it be worth the time taken from their own lives to read. It must be an enlargement of the life they know. Hack work, though it might briefly entertain, does not do that, unless the life of the reader is very small—again Mr. King comes to mind.
My evidence for all of this begins with the dead body of literature now lying in those morgues we call libraries, most of it rotting so badly it must be disposed of regularly despite the ever growing quantity of it being written under the aegis of writing classes preaching the mammon of fame and fortune possible to those who do it right, and the continuing reduction of space that is allowed for it as the corporal bodies of the books themselves are quickly incinerated or reduced to zero’s and ones, thereby diminished to pale images on screens—and thus made increasingly unimportant. The case I’m making ends with the realization that a computer can write just as well.
In the mean while, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Victor Hugo, Charlotte Bronte, Robert Louis Stevenson, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Willa Cather, and a few hundred others remain in print—on ink and paper—and continue to fill those library shelves, and are replaced when the pages become shabby with turning. How come? . . . Take your time. . . . Excuses may be deposited in the round file at the end of the library desk.
I may not be up to the measure myself, but at least I know which standard to follow into battle. And, most importantly, given the homogenizing advice of Gardener and Lodge and White, one particular distinction all of those ‘great’ authors have in common is that they do not write in the same way. They are not alike. Simply that. Toss your Gardner, Lodge, and White into the same file with your excuses. Not necessarily their own literary work, mind you. None of the three write the way they preach. To my own reading, they are often good. But you can rid yourself of their manuals on the craft. Besides, you’ll be needing a Virgil or Beatrice where you’re going.
But look at the consequences of what they have done! Most of an entire century of our literature is lost! Yes, to them! They are responsible for what they have written. I can name a hundred authors of as fine a merit as Gardner, Lodge and White that you will never read—that you never had the chance to read because you were given such dross in school and taught with such a heavy hand that now you hardly read at all. That is, if you are the general public. If you, in particular, are this far into my own small essay, you are likely of sterner stuff. But ask yourself, what have you read of late that has magnified or intensified the time of your own life, not diminished it.
That is the real crux of my own argument. A good novelist gives us additional time. A good story enlarges our hours. A great novelist defies the laws of physics, offering an experience of the present or some imagined past or future, at the same moment we are living our own adventures. When we have lived another year we can look back and survey what we have done and the best of the novels are there amongst the storms and the sun, spring flowers, and babies smiles, tragedies and deaths. They are part of us. Our lives are that much greater. We have gained time!
I am aware that there are some who read only to escape the lives they are living badly. But most of those will not hold themselves responsible for what they do, even as they complain about their petty aches and pains, much less for what they read. And I am aware that the schools are much to blame for the quality of education—no, not the schools themselves—the walls and floors didn’t do it. The teachers did. Blame them fairly. And, truly, the publishers and editors and their handmaidens, the literary agents, have much to answer for as well, since the days when the great Blanche Knopf published authors simply because she liked them.
What most disturbs me is the authors who have lowered their art to craft and then preached a doctrine of prostitution—the authorities who preached form and function without purpose—the perpetrators of the apparently not so grand larceny that, instead of enriching, stole another few hours from you in your search for some larger context to the pace of your own life.
Novelists and storywriters properly take upon themselves the role once played by the old woman at the stove, the aunt on the porch, the guy sitting at the end of the pier with his fishing pole, or the strange fellow on the bench at the bus stop. Gump may have been a fool, but he was a sage for the fact that he saw his life in context. He saw through time. And that is the role of the good writer. All the technique in the textbooks will not help with that.
What I argue is simply this: what the Whites, and Lodges, and Gardeners have instructed is only technique, and not very useful technique at that. They have not taught their readers who or how or what to write about—that is, tell a story worth telling. They have taught method. Like a theatrical Stanislavsky asking a girl from the wealthy suburbs to imagine being Tolstoy’s Lydia Ivanovna and act accordingly, or a Russian immigrant raised in New York to pretend he is a cowboy in order to ride a horse. It may be an interesting exercise but it will be artificial and likely injurious.
Mere technique changes from decade to decade. More from century to century. What was common usage in 1914 is not now. Technique is only a device. It may serve well for purposes of reader comprehension, or it may just as easily inhibit thought and reduce the experience being offered. And the worst of it is that there is an assumption these days, with most of these writing instructions, that the reader does not need to be told certain things. In fact, should not be told. Prose should be spare. Hemingway was the master of that. Less is more. But that hardly serves to enlarge the reader’s mind—expecting them to draw upon their own experience alone, having been raised in the flickering light of a television set. Does the reader actually know the smell of death? Of child birth? Of rotting heather? Is that important? Yes. And more.
And more. Why do so many characters in recent work act as if their philosophies are a given? Do all modern heroes actually think alike? Do all villains do their dirty for the same purpose? Having been properly instructed in the public schools, and well-trained by the major networks and the Hollywood marketers to the political correctness of the moment, can you now bear to read something that does not fit your reduced cosmology? Considering Dostoyevsky, for instance, can you read the thinking of Raskolnikov and understand his motive for the murder of Ivanovna? Is this made easier simply because she is a pawnbroker? Are his other good deeds sufficient to make you forgive him? Most of the crime literature of late is not so complex—well, Raymond Chandler aside.
Yes, I am aware that the same sterile and artificial authorship has spread to other artistic disciplines. Music. Sculpture. Painting. Clearly the academically approved writing methods of the 20th century reflect other aesthetic trends. But that becomes just another excuse and the reasons touted for it are as poor as the literature that attempts to capture it. A tautology. If the literature did not accept this reduction in the subject matter, devaluation of meaning and degradation of purpose, would the other arts have diminished on their own. Writing, as I see it, is the first of the arts. But the philosophy of life that is au-courant—seeing human beings as mere cogs on the wheels, or the meat ground between—is somehow pervasive. It is nihilism. I am not alone in rejecting that.
The great pity of the moment, beyond the needless loss of life to violence and the pain of lives lived in poor circumstance, is the waste of otherwise comfortable lives by those who should know better. And I ask myself why that should be? Why do so many people today spend the precious time of their short-term existence, even a full four score and ten, looking at the screen of a hand-held device filled only with the intelligence of others willing to do the same? Is it because their parents spent their own hours in front of the two-dimensional gray fields of glass on their television sets instead of looking into the stars? Whatever the reason, isn’t that a passive acceptance of nihilism?
Less than one percent of the population of this benighted country has listened to a Rachmaninoff concerto—I mean, listened, not passed through the sound of it on their way up an elevator. Is it elitism to wish beauty on the lives of others? And is it unfair to judge the best hip-hop against an average Duke Ellington melody? What sense is it that’s lacking there? Common sense, certainly. It is the lack of judgment, as well as the basis to make such judgements. And how much smaller is a life that has never heard A Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini? Measure that, if you can. Because you can’t. It is simply a dead loss.
And the greater part of that loss is time. Mistakes can be repaired. Judgment can be reformed. But time spent will never be regained. A glimpse of paradise known in a few moments of music, or poetry, or a novel will not be theirs. Instead, they have won or lost a petty game that will not be remembered by the very dawn that they will miss because they slept in the empty exhaustion of a wasted effort. And repeat.
And too, remember, my ‘art’ is at the expense of those who have made me safe. My debt is to them. Not to the taxman who takes his cut and serves the interests of the political kings, or of the crowd (aka, the ‘public’) that fill the benches of the virtual coliseum to see the spectacle. (I suppose, in the living rooms at home, those would be called couches.)
Understanding the collapse of Western Culture does not require a critique of a specific individual who has reduced his considerable talents to the lowest common denominator. The catastrophe is world-wide. The bankruptcy of our time is whole-hearted. As the good Lord Byron said, “When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; and when Rome falls, the World.” The West no longer believes in itself. Heart rent, it bleeds to death on the asphalt, beneath the wheel of the Toyota Carolla as much as the heel of the vandal.
Sadly, you know, I could go on. But the rant must be foreshortened here lest the larger work still be unfinished when comes the knocking at my own door.
So, as I was saying, I decided, as ephemeral as the effort would likely prove to be, that I should publish the bloody things, print-on-demand, one at a time, like they used to do in the monasteries of old, but instead of a monk amanuensis, I would use that robot artifice called CreateSpace, a bastard child of the Amazon gorilla and a Xerox machine, wherefore actual physical copies might then be obtained by any who could give a damn for a few dollars. Better that than the dust bin.
There is a very good article by Adrienne LaFrance that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly magazine recently. It neatly epitomizes what is in store for the electronic media product of our time: disappearance. Total loss. A sort of virtual EMP. Right now, the literature produced in Microsoft Word or Apple Pages a mere ten years ago is fading away if left unattended by updates. For the writer who made the mistake of dying just then, tough luck for anything they wrote that never found its way into ink on paper.
This vision of the future even caused me to imagined myself as a burglar, sneaking into houses and hiding physical copies of my own self-published novels there in the attics or basements, that they might be found in some future decade by another bookseller, just as I have done so often through the years. I am fool enough to have begun a short story on that line before yet another unfortunate depression of thought occurred to me—there would be no future booksellers.
I have proceeded in this process folly, nonetheless.
Should I have let the young scallop-faced woman in a hurry leave my shop empty handed? At least I’ll leave the novels built around political pederasts to the chain stores and to the higher altitudes of Beacon Hill.
By the bye, the category I had long before chosen for my own work, rather than merely fiction, or science fiction, or fantasy, or horror, or romance, or western (though I plead again for that particular tradition) is ‘honorificabilitudinitatibus,’ as it is found in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, if for no other reason that it allows me the citation as well as the use of three possessives in one sentence: “O, they have lived long on the alms-basket of words. I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word; for thou art not so long by the head as honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier swallowed than a flapdragon.“ That was Costard, in act 5, scene 1. This was, according to the first edition published at London by Cutbert Burby in the year 1598, “A Pleasant Conceited Comedie called, Loves Labors Lost,” and presented before her Highness Elisabeth the First for the previous Christmas.
By God, flap-dragons!
But now I have ‘lived long on the alms-basket of words’ myself.