On the other hand...
As we turn the corner into 2023, I want to briefly come back to our most recent Office Hours on the subject of the connection between teaching and writing.
My goal here is to exploratorily and playfully toss a few topics into the ring, for us to incorporate into our discussions next year…
I said, and it’s true, that I’m pretty thick-skinned about my work. But I want to say that, speaking for myself, if I read the work of someone whose work is esteemed, and it doesn’t speak to me, I don’t want to stop there. I assume that there is a collective wisdom at work in the realm of criticism and that there must be more for me to learn – that I haven’t yet broken the code on that writer.
A failure to connect with a story might teach us something about the story but it can also teach us something about its reader. And any work of art can teach us something deep about ourselves, by way of our reaction to it. But this is only true if we stick with it – try every entryway into the work that we can think of. We might set it aside, respectfully, with a feeling of, “Sorry, not ready for you. I’ll come back to you someday.” Or we might try to read it from a slightly more technical position, using some of the tools we’ve discussed here.
If someone says that they don’t like a certain story, my main question is: “Where, precisely?” That is, when in the process did they first start to fall away from the story? And why? What does this tell that person about his or her style of reading?
There is a world of difference between saying, “This story is no good,” and “This story first started to lose me on page 6, paragraph 4, because…”
And trying to complete that sentence, with increasing precision and specificity, is what being a good literary critic is all about.
When I first read Dubliners many years ago, I loved the first few stories but the rest of them went right past me. I read them but didn’t get them. My attitude was not, “Joyce really fell off after those first few,” but, rather, “Well, this is on me. Maybe, in time, my reading life and my actual life will advance to the point where these stories will come alive.” That is, I assumed that the vast critical apparatus wasn’t entirely wrong – that there was a collective wisdom that resulted in the high esteem in which that book and its writer were held.
And this was correct, as it happened – I read Dubliners again last year and was amazed by the second half of the book. It was as if I’d never read it before. Or, as if I’d grown into it while it sat there on the shelf all of those years, waiting for me to catch up.
Our lives as writers and readers and human beings are best served, then, I think, by an ongoing feeling of humility – taking the “blame” on ourselves, if a piece of writing alludes us, while resolving to keep working at it.
When, finally, I’ve come to really feel that a story or a writer isn’t for me, it’s only after a long period of trying to see how I’m failing to rise to the occasion. (And this process is exactly equal to “learning how literature works.” As we take on more difficult stories (stories that may, at first elude us), we are expanding our understanding of fiction’s repertoire of effects - expanding our understanding of the different ways in which a piece of fiction can work.)
If I’ve done my best to understand that writer on his or her own terms, then and only then might I pronounce someone “not my cup of tea.” At that point, I can precisely articulate our differences and these differences tend to be more philosophical and technical, now that I understand what she’s trying to do – now that I’ve experienced the story on her terms. I read Writer Z and think, “Yes, you’ve made that case very well, through your art, but I think, in the end, I don’t agree with your approach. It doesn’t seem a good fit with my experience of the world.” (This, as opposed to “I don’t know why but I just don’t like this; it doesn’t grab me: it must stink.”)
I’m reminded here of that old cartoon: A guy is standing in an art museum. He says to the guard, “Yes, these paintings aren’t half bad.” And the guard says, “Sir, the paintings are not what is being judged here.”
This is all, I think, especially true once a work has stood the test of time; a form of due diligence, so that we don’t, in our spirited opinionatedness, override the wisdom of readers and critics who have, in fact, worked harder than we have to find the good in that particular work of art.
The stance a writer enacts towards his own work is sometimes, I think, misunderstood in the public realm. There’s a seemingly common assumption among readers and reviewers that a writer who has published a book was, at the time of the writing, in full control of the work and, now that he’s done with it, is absolutely, whole-heartedly, a fan, advocate, and defender of the work he’s done - he’s absolutely sure it’s good. (I get the sense sometimes, reading reviews, that the critic feels the writer was trying to pull a fast one, trying to get away with something. Critics will also often identify a certain tension or difficulty in a book as if that disqualifies it, whereas the writer has known about that tension or difficulty from the beginning and has been trying, through craft, to reconcile or exploit that tendency.)
For me, writing a book is not about knowing something and then conveying it. It’s certainly not about getting away with something. It’s a struggle with something so difficult that it takes all of my resources, and some I didn’t previously know about. Mostly, I don’t know what it’s a struggle with – that’s what I’m trying to find out. And the struggle is not triumphal; it’s just intense.
A Story Clubber sent me this wonderful quote from Witold Gombrowicz's Diary: "Yet I am saying: let each person do what he was called to do and what he is capable of doing. Literature of a high caliber must aim high and concern itself chiefly with not allowing anything to impede its range. If you want a projectile to soar, you must point the barrel upward."
To get a piece of writing to live, you have to be in relation to it in a way that leaves it slightly beyond you. You’re flailing, you’re trying everything, you’re grasping at straws, you’re following a trail, you’re achieving unintended results, sometimes you’re going beyond the limit of your talent, other times you’re avoiding things that you know you can’t do well, and so on. You are allowing to the table certain parts of yourself that, in real life, you might try to hide or conceal; you are recreating parts of yourself that you’ve since grown out of or discarded: you literally don’t know what it is you’re trying to do.
I don’t mean that the story is beyond your control – we are, ultimately, responsible for every punctuation mark, and when we send something out, we are essentially saying “I approve this message” – but there are elements in our most powerful work that require us to approach the writing with a kind of disciplined abandon, that makes the result comes out a little crazily – misshapen, partial, wild, not in a linear relation to reality; out of sync, somehow, with our “real” selves; imperfect, in other words.
We are, of course, trying to be understood, but when we are understood correctly, at the highest level, the ideal reader reaction is not, “Yes, I get it, this is totally cool with me, that corroborates my already existing view,” or “No, sorry, I didn’t immediately get it, it’s not for me,” but, rather, a kind of stunned feeling, a feeling that some essential energy has been passed along, like it or not, and that the full delivery of that energy may be ongoing – the work of art may keep unfolding for many years to come, regardless of that first readerly reaction.
I’ve often talked about this idea that, while writing, the writer should imagine the reader over there on the other side of the book, and should imagine that the reader to be just as smart, worldly, curious, as himself. This is a form of respect the writer shows for the reader.
The converse is also true: the reader should imagine the writer over there on the other side of the book. Why would that writer be working so hard, if there wasn’t something serious going on, if there wasn’t something urgent he was trying to communicate, to the best of his ability?
Better to assume that the writer is on a continuum with you – with your life, your concerns – and that he has gone deeply into his story to find a new way to express some truth common to the two of you, and that this new truth may, at first, seem strange to you, and may take some getting used to.
Gombrowicz also wrote this, to a disgruntled reader: “Does my story bore you? That is evidence that you do not know how to read your own from it.”
When a story doesn’t land for me, I might try to read it again, with this credo in mind: “The writer’s life is not so different from mine; her truths must be somewhat similar to mine; what, then, is new about this way of expressing our commonly held truths?”
One thing I try to model in my teaching is openness – the idea that, to really look at a piece of writing with an open mind, analytically and critically, trying to get to the bottom of it, is a source of pleasure and power – even if that piece is one’s own. We don’t have to be afraid of negative views of our own work. We can wade right into them, in service of the next work, and of the form itself.
I learned this early, at Syracuse, when one of my professors got a negative review in The New York Times and then brought the review into class the next day, to discuss it with us. I’m sure the review hurt, but he saw a teaching moment and took it. What generosity of spirit! What he showed us was that if someone is a true artist, the next book is the main thing. He was trying to really receive the message from that review, to extract from it whatever might be helpful (and to discard what in it was false or misguided).
What I understood him to be saying was something like: Our work is of us but is not Us. We are producing it and are wholly responsible for it, but that particular work is not all that we are. It’s a thing we’re making. We hope it is imbued with something of us and we work hard to shape it so that it is, but, once it’s done, we go right back to the drawing board, happily, and try to find another, new, fresh, manifestation of ourselves. Each of these manifestations is only partial. We are not wedded to any of them (again, they are not Us, they are just of us.) We are making a series of playful gifts to send out into the world. (Playful but serious. We don’t just spit them out. We labor over them, to make them seem playful, playful in service of the deepest things.)
To get to the end of one’s life and see that one has left behind a series of these spirited encoded messages would be…nice. Evidence of a life lived with energy.
And there we will still be, even if only barely, still an evolving mystery to ourselves.
The world is so complex and lovely and sometimes cruel that to even make a dent in it, we have to give it our all – which means getting out beyond conscious control of our gifts. And beyond simple pride in our gifts. (Or simple shame.)
This is another way of saying that we want to view ourselves as practitioners of a difficult art form that no one ever has, or ever will, fully understand. So, we approach things with a feeling of reverence and humility and self-effacement and even bafflement like, “Jeez, this very important thing is also really difficult. It will always confound me and anyone who tries it.”
This means seeing oneself, at every stage of the game, no matter how successful or not, as just another writer, trying.
On Sunday, I want to review the basic principles by which we’re working here, and then, per some of your requests, apply these principles to a more contemporary, less realistic, and decidedly stranger story…
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