Wednesday, December 19, 2012

800 Words: The Golden Age of Non-Fiction - Part 1




In case you didn’t know already, most contemporary American fiction sucks, most contemporary American poetry sucks, most contemporary American genre fiction sucks, most contemporary American theater sucks. Virtually any attempt to keep up with all the developments of modern American writing will result in a battery of colossal disappointment. It’s the nature of the beast that very few writers (or artists, or musicians) are worth the time you put into them to know their work well. And in the world of the internet, there isn’t a person in the world who can keep up with every writer who is championed as the ‘new big thing’ without feeling some level of bitterness at the time wasted.

And if we’re going to be this honest already, let's add that the idea of a novelist, or poet, or playwright, or painter, or composer, being able to capture the essence of the the 21st century world using a 19th century genre is hopeless on its face. What's the point of trying to 'capture the world' in a novel or symphony during an era when TV shows can take the place of novels, movies can take the place of plays, popular music can take the place of both art music and poetry, and music theater can take the place of opera? I know, I’m a pretentious snob who loves to generalize (and I really do, it gives me pleasure), and not only that, but I’m so pretentious that I even give up on the chances of finding modern equivalents to the ivory-and-stone carved gates of the past. But my pretension is in favor of dis-guarding the old in favor of the new, at least if the new is better than the old. So give me at least a few more paragraphs before you dismiss this completely.

The truth is, there are plenty of places in the world where truly great fiction, poetry, plays, art, art music, and opera are being created. But for the most part, it’s not written in America, or certain parts of Western Europe, or any place wealthy enough that overwhelming technology can create new means for creativity. All you have to do is to look at the artistic literature of small nations, of the developing world, or even ‘regional literature’ to see an output that puts the greatness of our time's 'big names' to shame.

The reason for this is deceptively simple. Creative people cannot improve their work unless they are given feedback. Writers have to be read, music has to be listened to, art has to be viewed, and the more feedback the creator gets, the more chance an artist has to improve. Yes, it’s absolutely true that some talented artists will wilt under the pressure of attention (I don’t doubt I’d be one of them, but that’s assuming I’m either talented or an artist…), but there is no true accomplishment if we don’t run the risk of failure.  Artists have to express not only their own feelings, but the feelings of their audience, and if audiences do not recognize themselves in what they see and hear – either positively or negatively, there is barely any reason for the creator to create.

To be sure, there are scores of examples of artists who did great work in something resembling isolation – from Emily Dickinson to Leos Janacek, there are people of genius who can create extraordinary work by exploring the world on no terms but their own. They do so by imagining the public which they lack, and having faith that eventually someone will come along to understand their work in a way which no one yet does. But most artists have neither the gift nor the internal strength for such a struggle, and require the company of others to debate, to spar, to criticize, and to be understood, so that they might be spurred to new ideas,  technical improvement, and a greater will to succeed.

But then there are those artists who try to have it both ways – aka, most of us who try to create something of lasting value. Most artists have neither a reliable public or complete privacy. They belong to a clique which tells them precisely what they want to hear, and spend their creative lives in a sterile environment, protected from the aspirations of an audience with aims more diverse than the narrow crowd to which they cater. It’s perfectly legitimate to like cultural things which cater to a less than universal audience, God knows I have more than a few of those myself; but in such a case, no person should take umbrage if other people decide that such a pursuit is not worth their time, and ultimately destructive to culture if taken too seriously. It’s one thing to appreciate the greatness of various separate ‘scenes’ in the art and music worlds, or to appreciate genre fiction for what it is, it is entirely another to pretend that this stuff is worthy of consumption for everybody just because it caters to the things you particularly like.

Truly great music is classical, popular, improvisational, and dance music all at the same time. Great fiction is simultaneously mystery, realism, conceptual, horror, and romance. The best art satisfies all your urges, both high and low. It’s perfectly legitimate to say that some art within your particular genre of choice may satisfy all those various emotional needs in the universe, but you should never take offense if other people disagree. There is a very high chance that even our children will look at the things we love with baffled incomprehension. In art, as in life, we have to accept that we're wrong most of the time.

Ultimately, what each of us thinks doesn’t matter except to be as yet another voice in the great debate over ‘what doesn’t suck’ that’s existed since at least the Athenian theater. Posterity will decide for us what’s great and what isn’t. In every civilization, there are late comers so saturated with cultural material that they try to claim posterity as a useless concept because everybody can cherry-pick whatever they particularly like. But because everybody can cherry-pick,  there are many people who choose to cherry-pick the most absolutist, authoritarian, fanatical choices on the menu, and because they’re within their niche, they are utterly cut off from more rational voices which tell them that it’s preferable to work for a better world with openness and tolerance.  Posterity still exists, universal standards still exist, aesthetic greatness still exists, even if we deny them all. We on the coasts of the West grow ever more tolerant and unsure of our values, yet the most dogmatic forms of Christianity and Islam thrive everywhere from Middle America to Africa to East Asia. We are not exceptions from history, and eventually the iron will of these holy warriors will conquer us, convert us, or exterminate us, just as their spiritual ancestors did the same to our spiritual ancestors. They will create new standards, far narrower ones than what had existed just a few years previously. Much will be destroyed in the process, and culture will begin anew from right above ground. In a well-maintained society, there will always be universal standards which balance tolerance with rectitude, and this balance is what upholds any culture and prevents collapse. We neglect those universal standards at the gravest imaginable peril.

But purely speaking from the aesthetic part of these universal standards, some books and pieces music are simply better than other books and music in ways that are 99% objective, and even if you find that 1% hole which lets you disagree about what makes those creations great, there are objective facts about great art which you have to argue against. Why is Shakespeare still a great writer, perhaps the greatest? There are a number of reasons, but a few of them would include the fact that the Shakespearean vocabulary included somewhere between 17,000 and 25,000 words at a time when the English vocabulary was extremely limited and varied chaotically from hamlet to hamlet. Whereas today, when the Oxford English Dictionary has over 600,000 entries,  the average modern English vocabulary is generally thought to be somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 and includes many words that are rarely if ever used in conversation. He also coined roughly 1,700 common English words – which ties him with Charles Dickens for second place as the great linguistic inventor in the English language after Chaucer (against whom there are very few other texts, so we can’t know with nearly the same degree of certainty), whom scholars speculate invented 2,000. By comparison, John Milton coined 600, the King James Bible only 40 (I couldn’t find statistics on James Joyce or Lewis Carroll or Tolkein, but I’d imagine the words they invented are far less common in our lexicon, at least not yet.) Shakespeare was the first writer, without exception, to create characters who contradicted themselves in their behavior – thereby creating personages who seem as three-dimensional as us. Polonius is a stupid father to Ophelia, yet a sensible one to Laertes – such an innovation did not happen before Shakespeare. He was also the first to juxtapose these three-dimensional, ‘real’, civilized, and modern characters against forces of the irrational, the superstitious, the barbaric, and the natural. If, as a seemingly intelligent person, you are going to dispute Shakespeare’s greatness, then you must dismiss these facts as either untrue or meaningless – or else your arguments against Shakespeare’s greatness are useless.

And because of this limitedness which I find, there’s a lot of fiction, both highbrow modernist and middle/lowbrow genre fiction, that doesn’t speak to me as many people feel it should. And yet therea are other writers read by very few people I know who completely blow me away. While I have grave doubts about the greatness of novels I’ve tried (and failed miserably) to read by writers as different as Thomas Pynchon and Terry Pratchett and George R. R. Martin and Stephen King and David Foster Wallace, I can’t for a moment doubt the greatness I’ve read in novels I’ve read by Orhan Pamuk, or Amos Oz, or Jose Saramago, or Bohumil Hrabal, or J. M. Coetzee, or V. S. Naipaul, and those are just the great novelists, it doesn’t even begin to speak to the great playwrights or (more importantly) poets working in the obscure corners of the earth. Each of these writers usually write about their obscure country of origin, and nearly as often in an obscure language, and the uniqueness of their material, their alien experience from the demotic beef stew that is modern Western culture, means that the issues of the culture they cover are just small enough to be contained within the experience of a novel, and just large enough to hold our attention firmly.

This sort of writing can certainly be found in America, but it’s to be found in less fashionable writers – writers who don’t try to contain an entire country’s experience within their pages. I don’t think there’s a single book that’s successfully understood the condition of America at large since Invisible Man, at least that I’ve read. But there are plenty of great American writers who’ve cut out their particular swath of the American experience, and even if they don’t contain the entire world within their pages, they cram enough of it to create great books. Perhaps the books are about the neuroses of New York/New Jersey Jews after the manner of Philip Roth, or about the venality of Washington powerbrokers like Gore Vidal, or the mean-spirited strangeness of southern families which you find in Flannery O’Connor, or the tribulations of life in the Great Plains which you find in Willa Cather. Great books are even possible about the failure of old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud intellectuals to come to terms with the full richness of modern experience, Saul Bellow wrote a few of them.

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