Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday Filler: Pointless Rambling!

I've been reading some new novels and some old novels the last couple of years, and I think I've noticed something worth mentioning. Yes, whenever I notice anything I think it's worth mentioning because of my tremendous ego, but this might actually be important. Anyway, if you compare the books of D.H. Lawrence and Samuel Beckett and Virginia Woolf with the books of Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth and Jhumpa Lahiri and Iain McEwen, for example, you might think that the older books (hell, Lawrence and Woolf did some of their most famous writing ninety years ago) are, well, old-fashioned and that the more recent books have their finger on the pulse of modern life. You might think that because modern writers are more casual in the way they write about sex, and appear to have less respect for the form of the novel, and are awash in a sea of metafictional irony, that they are more sophisticated than their forebears. And you know what? You'd be wrong.

For some time now, bouncing as I do from reading the most recent literary fiction to the classic works of the Western Canon, I have been feeling that something in today's novels is lacking. And what that is, I have come to see, is emotional depth and honesty. Yes, you have protagonists in Roth who are not charming and have selfish motivations and you've got people fucking around behind their significant others' backs in every other novel these days and you've got antiheroes and you've got explorations of madness and you've got people who are conflicted and hide their true feelings and you've got the constant irony of people not really knowing anything about those closest to them and being surprised when their One True Love is leaving them. But that's all very old stuff, and books that were written ninety years ago explored all of this already, and did a Much Better Job Of It and got A Lot Closer To The Emotions of the Characters.

Nowadays everybody who's writing literature is giving knowing looks and winks and there is a lot of insincerity and holding-at-arm's-length of characters and their emotions, and I think more of it's being presented as a sort of prettily written but clichéd entertainment (or--worse yet--social statement) than a real exploration of life. Freedom bothered me a lot because all of the action seemed to take place behind a wall of glass, as if Franzen was putting on a puppet show but didn't actually care a whit about his characters and really didn't want to get too close to them. They'll admit that they sometimes despise themselves and each other and that they're really all very selfish people, but that's as deep as the analysis goes. And I see that over and over in book after book. Modern writers, I have decided, are writing in too shallow a manner, too cowardly.

This is all a bit rough and not well thought out, I know. It's something I'm working on. But it does seem significant that Virgina Woolf and David Lawrence, writing ninety years ago, were able to expose more truths about the human heart than anyone writing today seems to be able to do. Literary writers of today: we aren't trying hard enough.


  1. Scott, first off, your post gets me excited about writing. So, thank you! I also want to throw out some ideas that are also not well thought out. I'll compare Lahiri and Woolf since I'm familiar with those two writers and not others. To me, the two have different subject matters. I feel like Woolf is investigating what it's like to be human (in this civilized world) while Lahiri is investigating what life is like in a more natural/random sense. I almost see Lahiri's work as more of a view of nature rather than humanity. For me, then, it becomes a comparison between two unlike things, and that's valid to me. And it makes me wonder if there are contemporary writers who are investigating the depths of human experience the way Woolf did. Maybe we just don't know about them? Is it worthwhile for a writer to try to do what Woolf already did, or should she or he strive to explore a new avenue?

  2. When I think of my own writing, I realize that I view people more as natural beings than civilized beings. So, I tend to introduce randomness in my stories (think of my kidnapping story and what happens in the middle). I see my characters as interacting with a chaotic world and that's what I find myself focusing on. What Woolf does is interesting to me, but when I try to explore the same subject matter in my own writing I find myself bored. I don't know.

  3. Is a cheetah's heart more shallow than a human's heart? It's probably less complicated somehow, at least in my view. But the two are equally emotional to me and equally worth capturing in writing to me. And...I'm drifting off into outer space with my thoughts but this is fun to think about!

  4. I'm nothing if not self-absorbed. Mighty Reader will tell you that sometimes I fall completely under the spell of whatever book I'm reading, and that book becomes the Greatest Book Ever Written and all other books are substandard works writ by hacks. On the one hand, I enjoy finding books that fill me with that sort of enthusiasm about writing, but on the other hand I get terribly short-sighted for a while, which is just what you see going on in this post. A week from now I'll look at this and wonder what the hell I was talking about, and I nearly deleted this post because I know how I am.

    Anyway, yes. We writers are all focusing on different things and there is no single avenue of approach to writing. I'm reading Woolf and while reading her I figured out how I want to do something in the book I'm currently writing, so I'm holding Woolf up as the Messiah of Literature for a few days. But certainly I'm not trying to write like Woolf and certainly the way she writes about character is not the way I'm writing about character.

    So there's all that, but I am still nagged by the feeling that a lot of modern literature trades more on form and irony and postmodernist play than it does on character. By which I mean that I don't see a lot of writers going as deep as Woolf did. Today that strikes me as a bad thing. Tomorrow I might not even see it.

    Also, I have either a headcold or some awful allergies and my skull weighs about 100 lbs right now and the universe is all blurry. So I am likely being merely incoherant. That happens, too. But I'm happy to have excited you about writing!

    Maybe my real conclusion is that Scott G.F. Bailey hasn't been trying hard enough. Everything I say is all about me, remember.

  5. "So there's all that, but I am still nagged by the feeling that a lot of modern literature trades more on form and irony and postmodernist play than it does on character."

    I agree with this and I find modern writing less interesting because of it. Your post also makes me want to try harder. I will try to make something great this weekend in Joshua Tree! I'm starting draft 2 of Cyberlama!

  6. I fall completely under the spell of whatever book I'm reading, and that book becomes the Greatest Book Ever Written and all other books are substandard works writ by hacks.

    Scott, I'm the same way. While reading Woolf right now, she is the Ultimate Genius of Writing and I want to be Just Like Her. But not really. I just finished a short story, and I can see that it was influenced by Woolf. I even intended to do something similar as what she's doing in the book I'm reading, but within the first paragraph I hit a wall that clearly said "Write Your Own Damn Way" and I stopped and said, "Huh," and kept writing and I love what I wrote and I still see some of Woolf's influence in it, but it's ultimately mine.

    See, I don't think it's necessarily that writers these days are doing anything different consciously (of course), but that it's more of a reflection of what we've become as a society and people rather than what we're writing. Our writing just reflects that, and that's probably even more of a tragedy than what you're saying in your post because that means as a whole we are thinking less deeply about things, and we are feeling more removed from who we are and what we create. That's sad. I really hope to better myself and my thinking and my writing. I want to be a braver writer. I want to surprise myself around every turn.

  7. "it's more of a reflection of what we've become as a society and people rather than what we're writing. Our writing just reflects that, and that's probably even more of a tragedy than what you're saying in your post because that means as a whole we are thinking less deeply about things, and we are feeling more removed from who we are and what we create."

    Michelle, that's sort of my feeling about life in general these days, and it really bugs me.

  8. I can't say I've read a lot of Woolf (I don't think), but I wonder if we're not falling into the trap of "all the ancients are better than us" syndrome. I'm not saying Scott's arguments don't have merits (because they do in most cases), but there is also a tendency to not tout the skills of current authors as highly as those who have come before.

    Having said all that, I do agree that on the whole the general skill level displayed by authors is not always as high as some key authors from the past.

  9. Eric, I think the argument for why the old books seem better is because all of the older work has been filtered out by time...if you believe that society has somehow preserved the best work and lost the worst work. Among modern writers, there are potentially great ones, but seeking them out is harder. So, statistically you're more likely to find a mediocre modern book than a mediocre classic that has been preserved. I don't think all the old works are better than all the modern works otherwise I don't think I could stand to be a writer. I have to hold on to the belief that I can be better than Tolstoy!

  10. Eric: I don't think I'm really comparing "all the ancients" with modern writers, especially because I'm aware of how, when Woolf (or whoever) was alive, 99% of her contemporaries were writing forgettable crap the way 99% of all books today are forgettable crap, and it's just that right now we're awash in all the crap but when we look at the "classics" we're just looking at the 1% of books that have survived the process of historical winnowing.

    My point is that I read about equal amounts new and classic novels, and modern novels just seem to lack a true awareness of humanity compared to the classics. But as Michelle suggests, that might not have as much to do with approaches to literature as it does with modern culture, which really does sound like an old man's complaint. Now, I am an old man, but Michelle has no excuse!

  11. I'm getting a t-shirt that say "I can be better than Tolstoy!"

  12. It's hard for me to read classics and feel like I can never, ever write like that - that my work will never outlast time, and that it's part of the crap that will be filtered out. The crazy thing is that society can be oh so fickle, and who knows what will last and why. Woolf certainly set out to be different from all the other writers out there. I read the other day that she had major issues believing her work would last. That was one of her greatest fears, and I think it's probably at the heart of every writer's fears.

    I also don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with "lighter" fiction that probably won't last longer than 20 or 30 years. What's amazing to one person sucks to another, and everything has its place and merit. I think Time is the only true judge on that front, though. What lasts and is treasured in our generation from the past says a lot about who we are, I think. That's comforting to me. It means that since we're even talking about the distinctions, we see something we value and would like in our own fiction - and we're going to reach for that. I just wish MORE readers loved the classics and talked about them like this. I brushed on this in my post yesterday on my blog.

  13. But yes, I have no excuse, as you say, Mr. Bailey! I'm just rambling and thinking aloud, anyway. I love these kinds of discussions. :)

  14. While I agree that because of the filter of time we are comparing the best of the old books to the everyday of today's, I too see a lack of emotion and character in a lot of current novels. They are polished and shiny and have lots of smooth words and and people went here and there and did this and that but by the end nothing has happened. I know there are books better than that out today but I do see a lot of it.

  15. I think it has to do with writers being a little more private these days. The best, most honest and meaningful writing, is incredibly personal. Writing about something so close to their hearts can be painful.

  16. "I think it has to do with writers being a little more private these days. The best, most honest and meaningful writing, is incredibly personal."

    Maybe so. I have a theory that with the ubiquity of cell phones and similar devices, the barriers between public and private spaces have begun to erode and people are reacting to that in odd ways. One of these ways might be that, because we're all constantly exposed to what used to be private moments of other people, we are backing away from intimacy when we can, including in our art.

    As an aside, I also think that the ubiquity of cell phones is allowing people to treat the whole world like it's their own living room where they can do anything they like, and this contributes to the loss of basic politeness and the increase in noise. People scream at their children or lovers over cell phones while riding on the bus and have the most extraordinarily private conversations only inches away from total strangers. And then we all wear iPods to shut out the noise of our fellow humans.

  17. YES YES YES I completely agree with you, Scott. And it's the same for non-fiction. Go read one of Bacon's essays or Pascal's Pensées or The Imitation of Christ and once you've gotten past the differences in language, what they're saying is luminous. And then you go read a modern non-fiction work and it seems flat and commercial and stale...

    Is the difference irony, perhaps? Has standing apart from your subject and looking at it through a distrustful filter become so ingrained in us that we can't write with sincerity?

    A few months ago I listened to an author's opinion that Dickens, were he writing today, wouldn't get published. From a purely practical standpoint, she was right. No publisher would put up with the overblown descriptions, mawkish treatment of the sentimental bits, and the endless repetition of character quirks.

    But I think she also meant he SHOULDN'T be published because of his writing tics, and there she was wrong.

    The only thing I'm reading lately that comes even close to the brilliance of bygone days is The Pale King by David Foster Wallace. Who has gone to join the other great writers in the beyond. That's a work that contains a great deal of irony, but it's sincere irony. If Wallace had chosen life and the book had reached second, third or fourth draft, would this have changed? I hope not. I hope there are still editors around who can recognize great writing.

  18. Jane: Bacon rocks. I remember reading a biography of him a few years ago and the excerpts of his prose made me want to read more (which, thankfully, I did). You're right that even nonfiction doesn't seem as energized or alive as it could be.

    There's irony and there's irony. The best fiction turns on dramatic irony and unexpected outcomes (unexpected for either reader or character), but there's the viewing of the writing project with irony that's really, I think, come down to more like cynicism. And if you are cynical and mercenary in your approach to art, I'm inclined to think you aren't actually going to get very close to making real art. All you are is a merchant with a product.

    I think DFW was well aware of the artifice of art, but he didn't look at it with a jaundiced eye; he was doing something worthwhile, something to bring people and ideas together, not to share the private joke that we're all too sophisticated to have deep and real emotions. I was never a big fan of Wallace's writing, but I am sorry he's gone; he was looking into the heart with absolute sincerity while, yes, playing games with the form. Just like Beckett and Woolf and Shakespeare, whom I all love.


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