Archive for April, 2013

have you read michael noll’s blog, read to write stories? it offers great interviews and insights into contemporary fiction, plus writing exercises based on whatever michael’s reading. it’s a fine blog, and i would say that even if he hadn’t taken a hard look at my story, “the archived steve,” here.

Check out Marc Schuster’s great review of Vs. Death Noises here.

And, if you haven’t yet, purchase the book here or here.

You may have heard that Ms. Flannery O’Connor is one of the great lights in our fiction. Lately I’ve been rereading her essays and letters, taking down the hard truths, and trying to make sense of them. Problem: she offers too many truths for one blog post. (Note: I can imagine how much use she might have for a blog post.) Anyhow, right here I just want to note and respond to some ideas in her essay “The Fiction Writer and His Country.” It’s in her book, Mystery and Manners, which you should own.

Some background: Ms. O’Connor is writing in response to a vapid fool who would like contemporary writers to describe 1950’s USA in a more complimentary manner. She dismisses him curtly but takes the opportunity to elaborate her own relationship to storytelling as a Christian, Southerner, and artist.

“The country that the writer is concerned with in the most objective way is, of course, the region that most immediately surrounds him, or simply the country, with its body of manners, that he knows well enough to employ.”

Generic but fine writing advice: be specific. Be specific about what you see, what you know, what you hear. The greater your specificity, the more your vision of the real comes alive. This vision of the real is not the same as what is real. It is also far removed from the generality, either good or bad, of a nation of some hundred millions of people. Do not try to capture all. Please, God, kill the whole idea of the Everyman, especially the one Philip Roth wrote. Kill his Everyman so dead that I cannot remember it. Hey, I love Roth. I’m trying to pray off my man’s mistake.

“The anguish that most of us have observed for some time now has been caused not by the fact that the South is alienated from the rest of the country, but by the fact that it is not alienated enough, that every day we are getting more and more like the rest of the country, that we are being forced out not only of our many sins, but of our few virtues.”

The racial system of the South through and after desegregation was monstrous. This is not arguable. But Ms. O’Connor foresaw the modern flattening suburbanizing unpleasurable decadence made cheap by Visa and Comcast, cheered on by our political non-leaders. It has reduced much of our lousy character, but perhaps it has reduced all character. This may be the challenge of the fiction writer: how to make characters in a time of general characterlessness. Alienation is also distinction. The specifics of our alienation are the meat of fiction.

I’m not sure this is entirely true. I think that mass homogenization is more a perverse desire than a fact. Maybe it’s just an illusion. We live in an age of mass individualism. No people has ever been more often alone—and lonely—than we are now.  Subjectivity has increased to levels we cannot quite calculate. The problem now is how to simulate that subjectivity in a manner many of us can understand.

“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural … to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

I want to say that David Foster Wallace said that realism’s new task it to make all this reality strange. He may not have. Someone almost certainly said it, and if it was him, then Ms. O’Connor said it before him. Anyway, I agree. If a writer is to communicate his vision, it is through these distortions, these tweaks of what is all around us. The world must be and must not be recognizable. In 2013, these distortions may come—and are coming—in all sorts of ways: twisted forms, wild syntaxes, unsuspected descriptors. Check out the recent works of Jenny Boully, Padgett Powell, and Blake Butler for three different, wonderful approaches. The artist is never making the world. He is ever re-making the world.

“Where the artist is still trusted, he will not be looked to for assurance. Those who believe that art proceeds from a healthy, and not from a diseased, faculty of the mind will take what he shows them as a revelation, not of what we ought to be but of what we are at a given time.”

This sort of revelation is produced by the distortion. The distortion is not the thing to be resisted. It is not a barrier to understanding. Understanding is not the point. Distortion makes a mystery of the mundane, elevates all that to the realm of the beautiful. It is essential to the aesthetic.

“When we talk about the writer’s country we are liable to forget that no matter what particular country it is, it is inside as well as outside him.”

This relation of inner to outer country is most important in a time of increasing subjectivity—especially when in the midst of that subjectivity we are more joined than ever by our technology. Our aloneness is strangely evolving: we can speak or play with hundreds of people without leaving the house, without ever knowing their manners, looks, and hearts. Our ways of feeling and understanding one another are changing too rapidly for us to keep up. A modern writer must try to describe this relationship between the personal country of our minds and the increasingly borderless world.

“To know oneself is to know one’s region. It is also to know the world, and it is also, paradoxically, a form of exile from that world.”

The last part describes beautifully the writer’s position vis a vis the inner and outer country. To find a vantage point requires an increasing ability to detach oneself from the world. If that detachment is done well, the writer will necessarily create the distortions of reality so that, for a time, the reader can be exiled. In that wonderful exile, we can know ourselves in a new way.