Saturday, May 05, 2012

TAKING BARRY LOPEZ AT HIS WORD


Okay, so now here’s the writing scene from an entirely different corner.  Barry Lopez is from the Asian-influenced environmental/mystical/poetic scene on the West Coast that takes writing VERY seriously.  At the website above you can hear him explain concepts that are pretty foreign to best seller lists.  He sells well, many books and for a long time, but he’s not one of those notorious mega writers and does not WANT to be.  In fact, loathes the whole concept of the celebrity writer as well as “best-seller” books.
His approach to writing is near-religious, certainly moral/ethical, leaning to poetry, striving for the universal in the particular, not afraid of fancy language.  It is analytical, sometimes political, and not always easy to find in libraries.  I don’t know whether I can come up with a list of twelve writers in this mode, but I’ll give it a try.  Many would be classified as “nature writers.”   Barry Lopez, Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver, Ken Wilbur, sometimes Peter Matthiessen, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gaston Bachelard,  Mary Austin, Stan Rowe, Don Gayton.   Major academic streak because most of these people make their living by teaching.  Also some overlap with travel writing.  Maybe with philosophy, though I would exclude the post- and deconstruction people on grounds that they are a separate category.
As far as “features” go, I started making a list and then realized they were all about the author in spite of Lopez’ protestations against celebrities.  These writers often have devotional practices, political influence, eschew modern technology, and try to remain private -- but accumulate devotees.  They are mostly positive, even transcendent, or at least aim to be.  The “type” is more 19th century English naturalist except for the dark “other”-but-equivalent writers, who tend towards French poet maudits, full of defiant evil and deviant sex.  Americans lean towards adrenaline and find their “gods” at the extremes of exertion.  
Each of these “types” have their constituencies but there’s not a lot of crossover, though I have to wonder about genre writing lately -- all that stuff about S/M in historical romances that my cousins claim they skip when they read, because they are reading only for “history.”  Or maybe medical writing where the wonders of technological medicine blur over into miracles, conveniently skipping Big Pharma which belongs with genre.  Or politics.  “So ugly.”
There is a lot of talk about culture and story (rather than narrative).  Lopez says story is necessary in the midst of crisis in order to pull things together, driven by the storyteller’s earnest response to the reader’s need.  (Like preaching?)  Yet they try to be multi-cultural, meta-cultural.  
Lopez locates the value of the writing in the content, not in the author -- how is that really different from the list of “features”?  I think the answer is that both this kind of writing I’m trying to describe now AND the major mega best-sellers in “Hit Lit” pre-date the corporate ownership of publishers.  They were not “marketed” as though writers were movie stars in the old studio system.  The corporate shilling of writing is what has made epublishing inevitable.  I’ll come back to that some other time, but I think it is a subject for someone with more thought muscle than I have. 
Lopez says (and I agree) that there can be a book that smacks you amidships and changes your life -- but no else has ever heard of it.  It wasn’t famous, it didn’t make a lot of money, but it is transformative for the reader in the most immediate way.  Gospel.  Not pandering.  It’s confusing that it might easily be a genre best-seller.  Books don’t stay in their categories.  Anyway, categories change over the years. 
Lopez rules out anything negative, cruel, hateful, oppressive, excluding, etc.  I part company with him.  It think ruling out that dimension makes us shallow, accommodating, sentimental and ineffective.  It conflates this stream of writing with “liberal” politics that want to make everything candy and pretty.  It is certainly not consistent with any indigenous culture I know, all of which have no such luxury as denying starvation, trauma, plague, genocide, and general evil.
Story is the enemy of forgetting,” says Lopez.  Okay.  What about maybe story is the enemy of suppression and denial?  Is he going to push away stories of war and crime?  He also says, “How can we go deeper without being terrified.”   Now he’s coming close to the truth.  Stories that terrify and go untold because of that terror.  
So does he tell us how not to be terrified?  Not for me.  He leaps to the “spiritual interior of words” which is all very pretty but doesn’t help me.  "The story takes care of us," he says.  The story of crucifixion?  He eschews advertising and politics.  How virtuous.  That could make a person famous.
My book along these lines is currently called “The Molten Chalice” and I was startled that googling the title gets me pieces that I’ve posted to my blog.  It’s still not quite the same as the end-point document, but some of the tentative thinking.  This post, too, is tentative.
Lopez says if you can’t feel that the author knows you are there, you should not read what they write.  WHAT???  Then he says that if people feel the author didn’t know you’re there -- who you are -- stick your head up and point yourself out.  (Write him a letter -- he doesn’t do email.)  Well, I’d have to spend the rest of the day on that one.  There are so many people who deny that I exist.  And I’m not alone in Invisiblestan.
There’s a famous sci-fi story (lately much of our good moral writing seems to be in the sci-fi genre) about a planet where all the misery, evil, and torture has been eliminated.  It is all borne by one person, who is locked away -- screaming in darkness where no one knows she exists.  Is this moral?  (It IS Christian.  Except that all the bad stuff is still here, so Jesus’ suffering appears to have been ineffective.)  Maybe you know people who live this out -- what? you say -- but there ARE people suffering, unknown by us, to spare the rest of us.  What is unexpected is that some of the people who are suffering the worst find that they can paradoxically convert that pain to their own pleasure, to become ecstatic, to feed on it.  Barry Lopez will deny that.  Makes me curious why he would.

4 comments:

Art Durkee said...

I'm not sure your reading of Lopez is accurate here, because it's off the mark from a lot of his other writing. Maybe it's an interpretation issue? I haven't yet read the essay you're quoting from, but from having read all of Lopez, I'm pretty sure I disagree with your take on what he's saying. I'll read it when I have more time, though.

Two books that changed my life, that hit me hard, that changed how I thought about the world, and also changed how I write, were written by Lopez. For me, he's on the select shelf next to Loren Eiseley and John McPhee. William Least Heat Moon, Annie Dillard, Lyall Watson, Peter Matthiessen, a few others. Wendell Berry, too, although I sometimes think Berry is more reactionary than necessary. Jim Harrison, Gary Snyder.

Eiselesy belongs on your list, as one of the best ever in this genre. Robinson Jeffers belongs on that list as well, looming large.

prairie mary said...

The url I posted is for SPOKEN words and not Lopez' writing. I haven't read a lot of his books, so I was reacting directly to what he said.

I should have thought of Eiseley, who really smacked me and McPhee, too. I'm not at all touched by William Least Heat Moon. When these guys venture into Indian Territory they often leave me behind. I don't know Lyall Watson -- will look for him. Jim Harrison is interesting but doesn't really touch me. It was a faulty list altogether but would be interesting to reform in the right company. By it's very nature, it's idiosyncratic, not numbers-based like best-sellers.

Prairie Mary

Art Durkee said...

Fair enough. Like I said, when I have more time I want to that source as well.

Harrison partly speaks to me because of the Michigan connection we share. His voice just works for me.

I can see what you say about Moon. I like him best for his nomadics, like Chatwin.

prairie mary said...

What "Hit Lit" was about was a commercially based canon, for which qualification was based on numbers sold. What Lopez is talking about is the personal and emotional impact of writing. I think it is impossible to stipulate "groups" or a canon, but only to note the particular qualifications.

But the relationship between individuals and their cherished books is always pretty interesting, at least to me, so thanks, Art!

Prairie Mary