Wednesday, June 22, 2022

The Deracination of Literature

From Mary Gaitskill, at UnHerd, "We have fallen out of love with good writing":

... More recently, in 2019, Joyce Carol Oates came to Claremont McKenna where I was teaching and did an intimate Q&A. I brought up the writer John Updike; I was teaching a novel by him which was hard for students to read partly because he was sexist and backward in his racial attitudes, but even more because he described his worlds very, very densely. He would spend pages describing what a character sees driving down a country road at night. Students had a hard time even tracking it — they could, but they had to try. (Note: at least one of them, once he got the hang of it, loved it, which was great.)

I wanted to hear what Oates had to say about it because she’s of an older generation; she and Updike were peers. What she said was (paraphrasing again): yes, John could describe anything and everything but no one wants to read that any more, because (directly quoting) “people have moved on”/ I was really surprised by this. “Moved on”? We’ve moved on from the world we live in? How is that possible?

I want to make clear that I absolutely don’t mean any disrespect to Saunders or Oates, both of whom I admire. They were, after all, just talking off the top of their heads in a moment. (It’s possible that George in particular thought I sounded pretentious — and, actually, I can see how my words could sound that way. But these things are very real to me and deserve big earnest words, monster, gesticulating words.) In any case, their comments really stayed in my mind. Both writers are serious and brilliant people with sensibilities very different from mine and… they may be right. Perhaps — let’s face it, probably — literature has moved on. We don’t look at the physical world as we once did, and so we don’t write about it as we once did. And that is just one way it is being taken for granted and abused to the point of destruction.

That may sound rhetorical, but it isn’t. It is remarkable to me, based on the sample of humans that I’ve had in writing classes, both “kids” and adults, how many people: 1) express great concern about climate change and its effects on the planet, 2) are completely uninterested in other humans’ visions of what the planet they want to save looks, feels and sounds like, and 3) are even less interested in writing or just noticing what it looks like to them. Even as a writing exercise it’s hard for them to say, for example, what someone’s face looks like in a fundamental way. Which is not to say that they can’t do it. Some of them do it very well once they try. But it doesn’t occur to them in the way I think it naturally occurred to people of my generation.

Fascinatingly, one student told me that he didn’t like to describe what people look like because he thought it was like staring at someone which was rude. Another remarked in a similar spirit that in describing people you have to assign value to their appearance in terms of conventional beauty standards. This second statement is completely untrue; conventional beauty standards can be made irrelevant when describing a face if you want to focus on how the person’s nature animates that face.

The first concern, about rudeness, makes more sense to me. But it confuses social looking with artistic looking. Artistic looking is about care and respect. It is like saying: I see this human in my mind’s eye and this particular human is worth the most precise attention I can give them. Because they won’t be here forever and they are as amazing as any animal you might see in a documentary devoted to the heart-breaking beauty of endangered animals. That is not just respect, that is reverence. It is a more intense, focused version of reverence that normal, non-writers can experience or at least used to potentially experience all the time.

I am thinking of something I saw on the subway in the early Eighties, perhaps 1982. I was sitting at the end of the last car on an express train and saw three or four boys — in my memory they are 11-13 years old, maybe younger — grouped around the back window, staring out of it with pure absorption. Curious, I stood to look over their shoulders and saw what they were so raptly taking in: the piercing combination of speed and density as the train gathered momentum and hammered through the massive concrete and metal tunnels, our view herking and jerking with the cars, snatching bits of burning light in metal casement, underground signage, the track flashing and going dark as we clangored through stations, past dozens of waiting humans, personalities firing off bodily messages that our eyes saw before our minds could read them. It was beautiful and the boys were radiant with it, this wordless amazement of things.

I think I remember this so vividly so many years later because even though it wasn’t “nature” the boys were looking at, the way they were looking showed natural reverence, something no one had to instruct them about. (Probably I also remember because I was young too, in my 20s, and was unconsciously forming what mattered to me, in life and in the art I was working on.) I’m sure they were not even aware of me but still, witnessing their shared seeing was like a spiritual recognition similar to what I might experience alone in my room, reading the world through the eyes of a great writer.

That may seem an odd comparison, but it makes sense to me because it is a real-life example of what I was talking about at the start of this piece, how the deep nature of stories can be revealed through descriptive imagery of small things irrelevant to the obvious narrative — unexpectedly poignant things we notice intensely or just out the corner of our eye, glimpsed patterns outside the spectrum of our daily lives.

It makes me sad to think that those same boys, if they existed today, wouldn’t be looking out the subway window because they would be staring at a phone. But even so, they would still have that ability to see in them, waiting to come alive...