Friday, August 7, 2009

To See What I Mean

Part III.

Remember how I talked about anxiety? And how anxiety can lead people to read for different purposes, to seek out different kinds of reassurance (aka comfort)? Well, I think the anxiety I experienced from reading Gardner was that there was some idea or tendency for people to engage with literature in a limited way, with a certain set of rules to this engagement, and a certain set of expectations that had to be met in order for that literature to be deemed worthy or useful or good. And I believe that the assertion or belief that fiction’s content is exhausted, that its purpose is to simply remind us of what is already known, devalues what it is that fiction actually does (not just what fiction says). Now, I do concede that there has to be some recognizable truth in a work of fiction – if we don’t buy it we will emotionally and intellectually disengage from it and the piece will have no meaning for us – it won’t matter. But if we open a book or approach a story with the idea that we are reading it to confirm, or to better clarify and articulate that which already resonates within us, aren’t we just glorifying what we have already become? How is that progress? How does that “crack the door to the morally necessary future”? Doesn’t that assume a) that we are already know everything and that b) we are too lazy or gentle with ourselves to keep these things in mind or articulate them for ourselves?

I don’t know about you, but I sure as fuck don’t know everything. And by ‘everything’ I’m not speaking of everything in the universe, but just on the topic of human emotion. I can be pretty damn stubborn about what I think I do know, but I assure you, I stick my neck out with the reassurance that I am presupposed as a complete ass and that I will be forgiven my trespasses, excused with the same flippancy conceded toward drunk uncles and developmentally challenged children. Besides, who’s listening? Does anyone else have a problem here with the idea that we know everything? That life is not mysterious? Isn’t that kind of permission to die? As in: oh yes, no need to worry, we’ve figured it all out, you can rest now? We may know some things, that murder is bad, for instance. But murder is sometimes necessary? Or forgivable?

How about this: Suppose I’m willing to believe we know everything (which we don’t), or that we will one day reach a point at which we know everything there is to know about human beings and their emotions: we still don’t know dick about what to do with this information. I don’t think that many of us know the first thing about how to behave or what to actually do when life confronts us. And when it does, when life shoves its dirty little mouth at us and we’re breathing its full stink, we’re likely going to act how we’re going to act, despite everything we might want, feel, intend, know what to be true or untrue. So how is the premise that literature instructs us how to live by reiterating old truths useful in any sense? Do we read to close a circle we know already exists but that we like to see clarified, getting darker, more solidly permanent? To get a better sense of where that perimeter lies, to make sure we stay inside it?

Or maybe, it might just be morally necessary to engage with literature because the potentialities of language will never be exhausted, because each word choice and syntax reveals a way of thinking that is not already ours, because we need to see things differently. Because language can transform the nature of how we see and how we know. Because narrative is not just content but action taken toward content. How to proceed, what to do . . .

I’m anxious that one of the dangers that can exist in fiction that seeks to reaffirm or reiterate already known truths, is that this kind of fiction can (not necessarily does but it can), with repetition, teach a certain learned, limiting relationship of the reader toward the world. That if we approach narrative with a rigid set of expectations and rules for how the narrative can produce meaning (such as the ones set forth by Gardner), a reader may be in danger of accruing a very limited set of lenses with which to perceive and know the world. That the limitations of the ways we engage with narrative may be a limitation on how we engage with the world and with each other.

Now, I understand that I am prone to somewhat reactionary, over-the-top fits of contempt and rage concerning things most people, or at least a fair number of people, would consider rather innocuous or of very little concern. I am unreasonable, malicious. Cold, unforgiving, dismissive. I can be a bit of a prick and I’m not only judgmental but enjoy being judgmental. I’m a snob when it comes to people reading ‘for entertainment’ or ‘leisure.’ Fuck you. Fuck you and your Jennifer Weiner on the best fucking seller list. Go check the NYTimes. See if I’m lying. Fuck your mass market murder mysteries, fuck your Harry Potter. Yes, Harry Potter. Go fuck yourself. See I got this problem (yeah, not just the one, ha ha. assfuck) with equating pleasure with effortlessness. With thinking that a good read is something that doesn’t force a person to think too hard. Something that tickles the pudgy brain flaps but has everything set out for the expected gratifications: description enough to make the setting convincing, empathetic characters, a narrative that assumes your immediate complicity. And I’m not just referring to the easy listening crap of the trash romance and mass market set – I’m talking about any form of literature that doesn’t cost you anything. That doesn’t leave you bleeding, spent on the floor, gasping for breath, torn up and trembling. Now, a reasonable person would say there is room enough in the world, on the shelves, for all kinds of different strokes for different folks, but as I said, I am not a reasonable person. Rather than pick up ‘The Kite Runner,’ I would prefer if you could just slap me, then push me onto the ground and shit all over my face. Make sure to tell me about your feelings while you’re doing it, too.

Let’s take a breath. Are we okay? Was that a little much? The shitting on my face? Just breathe a minute. We’ll get through this. You and me: we’re in it together.

Monday, August 3, 2009

To See What I Mean

Part II.

I knew there was something I didn’t trust reading Gardner, some vague suspicion that the man was grand-standing; making loose, provocative proclamations that weren’t accounting for everything; that he was drunk. Let me throw you a bone here (probably too many bones, more bones than you’d care to chew on, all from Gardner’s ‘The Art of Fiction’):

“Thus the value of great fiction, we begin to suspect, is not just that it entertains or distracts us from our troubles, not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.” p. 31

“None of this high minded rhetoric is meant to deny the fact that fiction is a kind of play . . . It is sometimes remarked, not by enemies of fiction but by people who love it, that whereas scientists and politicians work for progress, the writer of fiction restates what has always been known, finding new expression for familiar truths, adapting to the age truths that may seem outmoded. It is true that, in treating human emotion, with which we’re all familiar, the writer discovers nothing, merely clarifies for the moment, and that in treating what Faulkner called ‘the eternal verities,’ the writer treats nothing unheard of, since people have been naming and struggling to organize their lives around eternal verities for thousands of years . . . But the fact remains that art produces the most important progress civilization knows. Restating old truths and adapting them to the age, applying them in ways they were never before applied, stirring up emotion by the inherent power of narrative, visual image, or music, artists crack the door to the morally necessary future.” p. 80

That’s not enough for me. Literature does more than that.

I only recently discovered my true qualm with Gardner, and it’s something that should’ve been evident from the first, but that somehow didn’t dawn until weeks after I’d given up being angry about it. The thing with Gardner is that his primary concern in terms of what he identifies as good and moral writing versus ‘less useful’ writing has to do with a story’s content. His arguments are focused on plot and character. He does talk about the differences between first person and third, omniscient vs. restricted narrator, etc, but his focus on what he argues as the morality in a work of fiction is almost entirely content driven. I’ll throw you some examples:

“ . . . the writer who denies that human beings have free will (the writer who really denies it, not jokingly or ironically pretends to deny it) is one who can write nothing of interest . . .For the writer who views his characters as helpless biological organisms, mere units in a mindless social structure, or cogs in a mechanistic universe, whatever values those characters may hold must necessarily be illusions, since none of the characters can do anything about them, and the usual interplay of value against value that makes for an interesting exploration of theme must here be a cynical and academic exercise.” p. 43

“Though we do not read fiction primarily in order to find rules on how to live or, indeed, to find anything that is directly useful, we do sympathetically engage ourselves in the struggle that produces the fictional events. Reading a piece of fiction that ends up nowhere – no win, no loss, life as a treadmill – is like discovering, after we have run our hearts out against the timekeeper’s clock, that the timekeeper forgot to switch the clock on. The only emotions such fiction can ordinarily produce are weariness and despair, and those emotions, though valid and perhaps even justified (finally) by the nature of the universe, are less useful to the conduct of our lives than are the emotions we exercise in other kinds of fiction. Not even Aristotle would argue that fiction ought [ital] to be cathartic; he says only that such fiction is most satisfying. But certainly more is involved than simple pleasure or displeasure. At least in comparison with the resolved ending (Aristotle would have said if the question had come up), the ending in logical exhaustion is morally repugnant.” p. 54-55

Now, for those of you familiar with my fiction (the select, blessed few), ya’ll know I don’t give a shit about plot. You think I know ‘what happens’? I don’t have any fucking idea – that’s someone else’s business, not mine. I mean, I’ve been working on this – it’s a problem: I piss people off. Or to give you an example of how I go about selecting a book to read, if I happen to pick one up at random at a bookstore: I don’t read the back cover. I’m not interested in the synopsis: it’s not going to tell me whether or not I’ll enjoy reading it. The context, character and storyline don’t necessarily tell me anything. What I do is flip to a random page. Sometimes the first but never more than a third from the back. And I read the prose. The language is what’s going to get me to read it. What a book is about can be anything, I’m interested in how it’s told. Now, of course plot is important, and every book that’s worth its salt has well-constructed, beautiful sentences, but I’m without question much more concerned about sentences than I am with plot. In terms of the ol tree vs. forest routine, I’m looking down at a piece of bark I chipped off in my hand, already forgetting it came from the tree beside me.

So no fucking wonder my panties get all in a bunch reading Gardner. He’s all “meow meow content content” and I’m all “woof. Shut the fuck up already.” I totally agree with the whole free will package; characters need to have agency or no one’s going to give a shit, but is anyone nowadays really worried that free will doesn’t exist? Does anyone honestly question that anymore? Maybe I’m out of the loop but come on, grow the fuck up already.

I was not upset because Gardner was assigning values to different kinds of plots (to use his terminology, energaic vs. logical exhaustion) but that he would identify the value of fiction as located in its content; what the story says (or values) by means of its plot. And for me, much of what I adore about literature and one of the primary reasons I involve myself in it is that narrative has the ability to teach me how to see. Narrative can rewire and expand upon the way I perceive and engage with the world. This has very little to do with ‘what happens’ in a story’s plot but everything to do with how the story is told.

Remember that Gary Lutz story I talked about? Probably the first post on this bitch, little story called ‘Mine’? Narrator wanting to see the father ‘eye to eye’? Is it coming back to you? Nothing really ‘happens’ in the traditional, progressive sense. The plot or ‘fictional dream’ (that’s Gardner) progresses from one scene in the life to the next, descriptive explanations of a particular summer, adding layers rather than necessarily progressing forward. So while I doubt it would qualify as ‘useful’ in terms of Gardner’s standards, it does consist of a narrator who displays quite cunning and skillfully displayed agency. Agency in how the narrator sees, perceives and then proceeds to tell.

Where I am going with this? Is this your question? We’re going to Brian Evenson. We’re going to Brian Evenson and demonstrating how he fucks a reader’s world up, how meaning (remember Samantha? There’s a reason I talked about that) can be derived not just from reaffirming a reader’s belief, and not solely by means of the content, but by changing the nature of the relationship we have toward narrative. By clipping the traditional strings of narrative that hold the reader so snuggling in place.

But ya’ll bitches ain’t ready yet.

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