News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Novelists As Blanks

In between eating a tasty greasy dinner at a smoky greasy stall, waving off waves of mosquitoes, trying not to reciprocate the gaze of locals infatuated by my crude gesture of drinking beer directly from the bottle, and always trying, however faintly, to keep my girlfriend amused, I also managed to squeeze in three pages of the afterword to A Garden of Earthly Delights (by Joyce Carol Oates). An old pugnacious wondering began a-rumbling between my ears and in the end I concluded the obvious: that successful novelists, as a species, are unthinking and unreflective, and that there is a direct relationship between author superficiality and the fidelity to life of their works.

Ms. Oates writes the following: "to experience the white heat is not at all the same as comprehending it, still less controlling it. One is "inspired" -- but what does that mean, exactly? One is empowered, thrilled, fascinated, exhilarated and, in time, exhausted; yet one can't be at all certain of the value of what has been created for others or even for oneself. Especially, a writer's early white heat driven works come to seem to the writer, over the passage of years, mysterious in their origins, brimming with the energy of a youth not yet discouraged or daunted or even much aware of how any ambitious work of art might be received by others. All writers look back upon the early creations with envy, if not always unalloyed admiration: how much strength infused us then, for our having lived so briefly!"

A great mass of pretty words heaved onto the page; but after sweating to remove the shell of poetry I found but a blank where I had hoped to find logic and sense. Ms. Oates refers to white heat, but never gives any sort of definition for it. No explanation is attempted. It apparently never crossed her mind.

But is it yet another accident of fate that a fiction author dodges the illumination that would come from a clinical approach in favor of the aesthetic pleasure of spewing out a mulch of verbs, adjectives, and stream of consciousness? This preference for description not explanation, consistent throughout the novelist's profession, is the action of persons neither reflective nor thinking, but instead of persons with a talent for ably parroting whatever flashes before their eyes or across their mind. It would seem that a fictioneer is to a non-fiction author, as an actor is to a playwrite.

But, the excuse runs, we have an artist at work; not a philistine engineer. And artists are notorious for refusing standards; allegedly because standards are an infringement upon artistic freedom, though rather more likely because standards are an infringement upon irresponsibility.

Either way, the temptation of the reflective and intellectually curious person is always to seize upon a point of interest and work it for its significance and impact upon its environment. And on the basis of this, further explore their realm and generate ever more ideas. With Ms. Oates, there is none of this. None at all.

Another example: "... as if I had poured gasoline on my surroundings and lit a match to them and the flames that lept up madly were somehow both the fuel of the novel and the novel itself. These "white heat" experiences like waking dreams, consuming one's imagination, utterly fascinating, exhausting. The novel-to-be springs into a visionary sort of life like something glimpsed: an immense mosaic, film moving at a swift pace. You "see" -- but you can't keep up with that pace. The novel opens up for you like a dream, drawing you into it, yet it's a dream in which you are somehow participating and not merely a passive observer. So swift and obsessive was the original composition of the Garden of Earthly Delights for the young writer in her mid-twenties that it didn't dawn upon me, preposterous as it must sound, that Carleton Walpole might have been partially modeled on my paternal grandfather, Carleton Oates... like the similarity between "Clara" and "Carolina" (my mother's name). How opaque we are to ourselves sometimes, while transparent as crystal to another!"

Again, a welter of poetic verbiage portraying ably how she feels: which is remarkably passive in the midst of the storm. Despite her claim to the contrary, I suspect that she's hardly a participant at all in her own creation. Her muse, i.e. her subconscious, does the creative stuff, with her conscious mind a sort of bystander with a pen and clipboard. Because of the abyss between her creative side and her conscious decision-making side, she exerts only a secondary control over her creative faculties. She is, in effect, powerless as an intellectual force because she is virtually powerless over her intellect except as a scribe religiously recording events. Thus there is no ability to reflect, no temptation to engage in analysis, no access to an understanding of key events, and thus there is none of the critical wonder and the proactive involvement that might lead others to perform a forensic autopsy of their creative processes.

When this is the state of affairs, when superficiality is the only fare on the menu, it's little wonder novels are so difficult to read in our day and age; their superficiality is far outdone, in a positive sense, by television and cinema, both of which present the same sort of stories and images but directly, pure, unfiltered, and, relatively speaking, without artificial ingredients or clumsy editing or the shot out of focus. In a go-getter utilitarian age, books that don't educate the reader ain't useful and fail to catch. And novels in the overwhelming majority are, and have always been, written by folk who don't understand the significance of what they're on about. In other words: they don't know what they're talking about. The media has already taken over the market for entertainment without meaning or significance. Novels just can't compete with that sort of high-powered banality.

And yet, to give them their dibs, in their inability to reflect and connect the dots, novelists may yet have a congenital gift for their trade. Enjoying the benefits of a still mind, a perpetually blank slate as it were, one which is uninterrupted by the desire to understand and comprehend, novelists are perhaps best suited by nature and evolution for the menial chore of jotting down the noise in the system that constitutes their bread and butter. It is this uninterrupted mental blankness that perhaps constitutes God's best instrument for recording the phraseology and attitudes of fellow blanks, and for capturing the outermost, most obvious and thus least interesting layer of social movements that constitutes so much of the fodder that confounds and crazes the chattering classes each season. The reflective person with a mind ever voracious, ever scarfing and digesting data and churning out ideas, operates at a distinct disadvantage. Ergo the bad novels of George Orwell and the deservedly never-collected short stories of H.L. Mencken. Ergo the brilliance of Jack London the short story writer and novelist, his mediocrity as an autobiographer and apostle for the rights of the downtrodden, and singular failure as a sociological thinker .

Just as your's truly wasn't dull and obsequious enough for grad school, perhaps he has too much the frenzied inner mental life to be a successful novelist. Really? Then how does one explain Mark Twain and, to up the ante, how does one account for Oscar Wilde, who succeeded in all literary forms?

Damn!

Just another ill-natured ill-considered thought deservedly exploded at the tail end of a frustrating day of foolish worrying and dillydallying. The solution to my ills is clear: get to work and do so in an organized fashion.

Biff Cappuccino

3 comments:

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    ReplyDelete
  3. Well, is there something a little weird going on here? I don't know about you biff, but my blog gets pretty cluttered with spammy comments from people. My advice to you as one blog owner to another, is to be patient and focus on the great things about having a blog, instead of all the junk that goes on. You do have a quality blog and appears that you enjoy it. My favorite web project so far is a kissing tips site, because I have total control and it makes me a couple dollars here and there. It's pretty hard to find new information on kissing tips stuff though. Hey, keep up your excellent job biff, and good luck with your projects..

    See ya ~

    ReplyDelete