Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Doubt Trilogy, Episode One: What good is an artsy story?

Self-doubt so deep, it's going to need some sequels...

I read a really great short story a couple of weeks ago, so of course I've kind of been feeling like shit since then. The story was "The Devil's Triangle" by Emma Duffy-Comparone. Karen Carlson, who just keeps doing her thing at A Just Recompense, was nice enough to point at that Duffy-Comparone is also the writer of "The Zen Thing," which, like "Triangle," won a Pushcart Prize. I thought both were great stories.

I don't feel shitty because she's far more successful than me. That's true of zillions of writers. It's complicated. I'll try to unpack it. I tried to get all the overlapping zones of uneasiness I'm feeling into one post, but it was impossible. Let's start with one more or less consistent thought.

It's good in a way I can't be good...

She has a knack for punchy and imaginative metaphorical language. I can go to almost any page to find an example:

"Claire's guinea pig, Pam, sat on chicken wire, breathing rapidly. Mika had taken her when she moved out of the apartment. Now the animal was barely recognizable, polka-dotted with scarlet sores like sucked cough drops, her nails brown and corkscrewing into her feet, her left eye oozed shut, the right cloudy as if rinsed with half-and-half."

...but that's not the problem

I just don't write like that. Which is fine, everyone writes to their strengths. A lot of writers I admire don't write like that. But I guess I've lately felt shamed into thinking I should want to write like that. A friend recently sent me this interview by David Vann, in which Vann praised "the quiet and beautiful books, Latinate in style, not violent, slow-paced..." The literary equivalent of Manchester by the Sea, let's say. Sometimes, I feel like that kind of writing is the only "serious" writing. Or at least the only writing that is taken seriously.

but what's the point of that kind of narrative?

I liked Manchester by the Sea. I really did. Okay, not for like the first hour. But eventually, I liked it. It was "quiet and beautiful," to use Vann's phrase. It was also very "slow-paced." The subdued tones, the attention to small things, made the few outbreaks of raw emotion far more poignant when they broke out. I'll admit, I found that scene, when Lee and Randi finally try to talk about the loss of their children, extremely moving. There were two characters I found very believable for the way they tried with so much earnestness to say the unspeakable to one another, and it's hurting them that they can't find the words, so they strain harder to get the words out, but they just can't.

Duffy-Comparone's story had a similar emotional approach and outcome. It is the story of triplets, but one is gone and, by now, beyond just "presumed" dead. The other two, who are now just "twins," are trying, each in their own failed ways, to move on. After pages and pages of slowness, of cloudy-brained wandering through a landscape of sharp details, we get an explosion in the last few pages. The ending, when they both seem to have hit their rock bottom and appear ready to maybe eventually take some baby steps toward moving on, is probably close to how the actual getting over something like that would be. So maybe the reader has experienced vicarious loss and redemption on a microcosmic scale by reading it.

But what has all this emotion accomplished? St. Augustine mistrusted poetry for causing these very same kinds of vicarious emotions:"forgetting my own wanderings, and to weep for the death of Dido, who slew herself for love, while I looked with dry eyes on my own most unhappy death, wandering far from Thee, O God, my life. For what is so pitiful as an unhappy wretch who pities not himself, who has tears for the death of Dido, because she loved Aeneas, but none of his own death, because he loves not Thee?" 

To put it in a more secular way, what good does it do for me to feel emotion over a story if it doesn't result in a change in my way of living in the world? Or, barring that, at least a significant change in my thinking? Proponents of literature like to say that literature (and stories in any form) make us see life more sympathetically by living it through the perspective of another. Fine, I suppose Manchester and "The Devil's Triangle" did that. Moreover, maybe by experiencing the pain of another person whose life we can view with a blend of both emotion and objectivity, we can learn to better process our own pain. 

Those seem like nice things, but they can't be enough to give literature the honored place in world culture it has had for thousands of years. 

An example I can actually think of where fiction might have made me a better person

Here's an example of a story that changed my life: I was about to leave Chicago to come to Maryland and start my job after graduate school. I saw Monster, which is based on a true story, but parts of it were obviously imagined. Aileen Wuornos just has bad damn luck. Most of the world shits on her. A few people are kind to her, but their kindness is not enough or not timely enough to make a difference. The movie doesn't really excuse Wuornos for becoming a serial killer, but it does make one wonder how things would have turned out for her if she had received a little more kindness when it might have still done some good. The last murder she commits is of a man who picks her up and, when she offers to have sex with him, says he'd rather offer her a meal and a place to stay. He and his wife have a room, he says. But it's too late for her. 

I left that movie wondering what difference it would have made if he'd been there ten years earlier. So I decided I would try to make enough money that I would have a spare room in my house to give to someone who needed it. 

I don't think that's the point of most current fiction

That's a pragmatic outcome of fiction. But I don't think that's the outcome most contemporary fiction is going for. A story is considered successful if it merely creates a simulacra of real emotion in the reader/viewer. It is, to use the phrase from Anis Shivani I've already quoted a few times, "cheap counseling for a bereaved bourgeoisie." 

Contemporary fiction often seems not to be offering anything to say about the nature of suffering its characters go through. It's trying to be, itself, a way to experience and overcome suffering. It's not a means to express something, it's the ends. The words and images and internal emotional logic of the fiction are a world unto themselves. The idea isn't to say something true about the world, to hold up a mirror to society. It's to become its own world. A story has succeeded when it becomes itself.

 Meanwhile, in the real world...

 One of my first workshop heretic moments came in 2003, when I openly wondered in class about what the point of writing the kind of poems and stories we were trying to write was. One poet got very angry with me. How could I say there was no point to writing poetry? A woman in Nigeria had just been acquitted of stoning to death for adultery because people wrote about it! I wanted to ask her how many poems she thought the judges had read. More than likely, they read about one document: an order from a government official to let her off. And that official had probably read a threat from a Western ambassador or two. No poems, I'm going to guess.

 I posted a few weeks back about the struggles of a woman I know to get medical care for her daughter, who has a severe medical condition. That post was partly the result of buzzed blogging, but it was also a result of listening to Chris Hayes' interview about his book A Colony in a Nation. He took time to talk about how the proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act would especially hurt mentally ill people. It was non-fiction, and I found it far more moving than any story I can remember reading lately. 

What story could I write that could be as necessary as Bandi's The Accusation, which is fiction but of a pointed political nature, a cry for a people and a finger wagging directly at a dictator?

But this book's coming out...

I have so much more work to do now that I have a book coming out. I have editing. I have decisions to make about the cover, the credits. I'm supposed to do readings and promote myself and send my book to be reviewed and get people to write blurbs for the back of the book and generally become my own literary pimp. Then, I need to write more so I can follow this up and keep marketing myself.

A friend of mine was once a chess player with a very strong rating. I'm jealous of that, because I like chess and wish I were as good as him. I'm always surprised he stopped playing. I recently asked him why, and he said, "I got to be better than 99% of players with X level of effort. But it would take X^2 level of effort to become better than 99.1% of players. I thought my time would be better spent getting good at something else."

As I think about jumping into the deep end of writing and whether it is a humanly enriching enough activity to justify a much deeper time and energy commitment than I have so far given it. How, for example, will writing allow me to keep that room in my house for someone to use? If writing can't provide something better for the world than that, what I am doing spending my time doing it?       


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