Saturday, June 19, 2010


There are a zillion blogs and articles out there about how to be a writer. I probably spend too much time reading them. At first it was roughly two-sided: one side about how to market, find the handholds to be known and so on, versus how to actually write something worth anyone buying. Then the tech bomb of electron print smashed into the scene and sent fragments flying in all directions.

This has been so dramatic and so mind-bending that it has drowned out a just-previous shift from actually finding, editing, and putting into print worthy books to simply “packaging” exploitable material like confrontation politics and celebrity notoriety. Partly globalizing and partly the consequence of a previous technology -- television -- and partly the decline in the quality of public schools and the splintering of demographics by immigration, this big earthquake went pretty much unnoticed by a lot of people.

Among those who concentrate on writing as sentence-by-sentence careful thought and enduring story, something similar happened in the form of post-modern theory. The transgressive or revolutionary calls of the Sixties consciousness were knocked into the ditch like shamans by a kind of sneering despair that anything really meant anything anyway. Again the schools took a hit when every kind of instruction was defined as self-serving oppression and passive defiance was the mode of life.

But the children of that wave could see that someone had to pay the bills, so they’ve been concentrating on skills that would get them jobs. They live quietly and are not pleased when their parent generation shows up to interrupt their daily drill and try to climb into their cocoons with them. It’s not that they get divorced -- it’s that they don’t bother to marry. But they take pretty good care of their own kids: each has his or her own computer. Gotta do something about that junk food.

The trouble is that outside the small worlds of “gettin’ ‘er done,” the planet is shifting as it always has. We knew the shortage of oil would eventually hit, but the limits of water are here and translate into food shortage. We did not anticipate the woes of the flesh that come from environmental contamination or that we would hit the limits of antibiotics or that even the limits of DNA research. No one had heard of any retroviruses and there was no consciousness that any affliction mutating in the jungles of Africa was only a plane ride away from our Best and Brightest. We were busy watching outer space when maybe we ought to have been watching our inner space more carefully.

So dystopias have been “in.” Despair is “in.” But that tends to be in the music and movies. The people who are still buying books, we’re told, are young literate women -- the same demographic now out of work because they were agents and editors in the big publishing houses that don’t need them anymore because they’re “doing deals” instead of reading through slush piles and correcting grammar. Knowing they could easily write a good book every six months if they had enough income to keep eating, the women still reflexively interface with the Big Money by running workshops and magazines about how to become a writer.

I remember attending an early version of one of these. The speaker told us NEVER to put our photo on the dust jacket because no one CARES what you look like: the writing is what counts. Yesterday I read in an advice blog that you MUST put an interesting (trick) photo of yourself even in your query to a publisher, because that’s what they will judge by. Got that? Your face, not your writing.

The reader reviews on all these “social websites” that invite recommendations are scarily similar: “I was swept up, I forgot where I was, I couldn’t sleep until I finished, I couldn’t put it down, I was transported to another world.” One hopes their batteries didn’t run out. But they seem still to be reading paper books. They like writers who produce a steady stream of similar tales, predictable but with twists they can’t see coming. Writers they can identify with and discuss on websites or even directly twitter.

When my mother was dying ten years ago, she had a blood cancer that made her weak but not mentally dull. She asked me and the local librarians to find her books that would sweep her up and make her forget she was dying. She was too smart for the usual sweet tales, too cynical for the smart women’s histories (“I lived it -- why would I want to read about it?”), and anxious to read things that would show she was respectable but “with it.” So she read Al Gore. Maybe she was secretly comforted to think that if she were dying, well, so was the world. But she liked the “chin up” stance and when we got right down to the last hours, she said, “I hope the next world will be as much fun as this one has been!” She wouldn’t allow the minister to come because she didn’t want him to see her down flat in bed in an old nightgown. She had stopped buying new ones because what would be the use with so little time left?

She read what I wrote but never saw anything of mine published. So far the things that have been published are praised by those who read them. The missing link is promotion, but there’s no profit in promoting them and I’d rather write than promote.

Anyway, writing is no longer a matter of books except as a section of the stream of print that plunges through the world in a steady torrent as we all call across the new wilderness to each other, speaking to people we would never meet in real life. That’s writing to me, conflated with reading, mixed in with video and sound. Glimpses of gazes focused on worlds I’ll never visit. Funny stories coming up under the glass like those old black fortune telling balls we used to ask questions when we had slumber parties: will I fall in love? The answer comes swimming up through the ink: “maybe.” Will I become famous? “Practice, practice, practice!” And then someone grabs the ball out of your hands. “Let me look! Let me ask!”


Art Durkee said...

"Sneering despair." That is such a great phrase! And it really nails it.

My editor/writer friend Frank Wilson (retired books editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer), in reviewing Cormac MacCarthy's novel "The Road," coined the phrase "the pornography of despair." That phrase has really stuck with me. Now you've added "sneering" to it, which well captures the attitude of many postmodern theorists, academic or otherwise.

I feel like it's an uphill battle fighting against this generally negative attitude. I'm working on a series of essays about the re-enchantment of art, and finding more sources than I expected. But most of them have of course been sneered at, or ignored or dismissed, by the despairing theorists. My rebellion towards something more positive has gotten me ostracized, evicted, and mocked. Which doesn't bother me, because I'd do it anyway. One can only dwell in the dark, staring in the broken mirror, for so long.

It's the old truth that what you put all your energy into is what you get back.

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