The failings of modern human beings begin by not understanding who they really are. The idea of art is to labor hard to find ways into the truth of human experience — the Truth — TRUTH — and to pass that insight into the world as a gift to be shared specifically because the basic failing of modern human beings is that they don’t understand who they really are. (Note, most writers don’t achieve that goal, but they damn well try to).
So much of human experience is not honestly dealt with. Part of the fault there is that you can make a lot of money telling people what they want to hear (ever watch TV?). So, the other side of art is to create myth and to moralize about human experience so that people believe they are something that they are not. Hence most genre fiction. Hence many best-sellers and even many so-called classics. Hence all the shit you partake of on screens everywhere…for the most part.
Great stories, to me, are great because they get at the truth of what is underneath. They don’t do this by being fully explicit. They use twisted and complicated metaphor and the labyrinthine “logic” of character development and interaction. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground are the kinds of books I’m talking about. So is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. These are stories that paint new images of death and the darkness of life. They are about men as idiots and touch the animal in their characters. They are timeless because as advanced and modern as we may seem here zeroing in on 2020 we have been on the run from the reality of our insanity and stupidity since we entered this century.
I liked Annie Dillard’s novel, The Maytrees, because she got into the thickets and weeds about love and a woman coming to terms with life. John Berger’s masterpiece To the Wedding is also monumental in the same way. I think more literature should be pornographic, though. Pornographic, erotic, sexy, whatever. Can you imagine what it would be like to read Annie Dillard describing a blow job or a really practiced seven minutes of cunnilingus? James Salter’s work, to my mind, gets close. The complexity of life is always to be found in stories about emotion, blood-filled glands, the need for pleasure, and the mess of love.
Fitzgerald at his best, is pretty adept at writing fictions about the meaning of libido and the ego if not the actual libido and ego. And Faulkner? Well, Faulkner. I’ve come to realize he is the master of the confusion that racism and passion make together. So too with Barry Hannah’s best short stories.
I don’t like Roth, Updike, or Bellow much. They rarely seem to be as interested in truth as they are in showing what intellectuals they are and what great wordsmiths they have taught themselves to be. God bless those guys.
Roth’s Human Stain is an exception. That’s a masterpiece about identity and masculinity. Thank God he got it right at least once. Race and love and sex shouldn’t be that hard to write about. They are, however, hard to write well about. Go find the passage in Human Stain that starts, I believe, with “Dance for me…”
Toni Morrison breaks through the old codes of civil morality sometimes in her novels (though her men are usually so ridiculously evil or dumb it takes away from her validity as an artist). She glides waves of truth in her stories and then she heads into weird dimensions that are hard to follow — though no harder than following Faulkner of whom she is a doppelgänger.
I have strong feelings about morality’s place in art. Morality should not drive stories if they are to be a form of art that works. Sometimes writers get away with it (like Morrison, like Orwell). One thing I know to be true is that morality is not about truth. Sometimes morality obscures the truth. You might say that racism is immoral, or that morality dictates that people should not be racist in their judgments of others. The thing is, racism is not about morality at all. It’s about being frightened, ignorant, sloppy, and stupid. Ain’t no morality there at all. Showing mercy for racists is moral. Or torturing them mercilessly…
My main concern when I am working on a project is to get at the meat of male consciousness and male reality. I don’t think men’s minds get properly, adequately, intelligently, or meaningfully depicted in fiction (including their racist behavior and thoughts). Few of us are scared of death which means we’re all heroes. Most of us want to fuck people we know, our neighbors, co-workers, and friends’ wives. We’re shits, but we’re also holy and blessed, most of us, with self-control and understand what comic book fools we are. Most male writers do a horrendous job depicting what goes on in a man’s mind.
There are reasons for this failing. The main ones are that:
1) The complexity of male emotion can really louse up storytelling (imagine if Humboldt had actually loved Lolita like a man is supposed to love a woman, or imagine if he’d been concerned about her sexual needs as well as his own, imagine if he’d tried to actually understand her emotional life and what he was doing to her);
2) Heroes and villains alike might have moral and emotional qualms about their acts and beliefs that quickly stunt storytelling and stymie the reader’s expectations;
3) Men who are real, who have conflicting emotions, do not walk around being honest about their attractions to women and their anger at the world. Do people really want to know the twisted thinking, the pluses and minuses, male consciousness? Men who openly present their rage about how unfair life is on top of their gentle nature quickly force readers to confront reality — and sometimes reader’s don’t want to face reality.
Every man is a monster. Every man harbors rage.
To be sure, many great storytellers present a superman type hero and then give him a flaw. Look at Conan Doyle’s Sherlock — brilliant but addicted to coke. That’s true of virtually every mystery/thriller protagonist. The illusion is established. He’s amazing, but, oh, he has flaws…this is true in romances too, and certainly, often, this is true in literary work and contemporary commercial fiction. Instead of depicting the true emotional nature of a character, we get a super hero of sorts who just happens to have a flaw — usually addiction or some relatable malady like PTSD or a learning issue.
But shouldn’t readers be confronted with a fully rounded main character where the story and the characters are derived from the depths of things in real life? I had a mom who was mentally ill. I can’t kill animals of any kind, including insects. It took me decades to figure out I can addict myself to any drug — including fat and salt. I would like to have sex with roughly 25% of the women roughly my age who I meet. To me, all women are beautiful when you see them naked. I know, too, that I will fall in love with any woman I have sex with. And I know that just thinking like that is a form of addiction.
The closer to real the story gets, then, the more dangerous it becomes to a certain extent. The reader is forced to think, “Oh, my god, does my husband think like that?” “Does my son?”
Or, perhaps, the reader simply realizes this is true and then works hard to reverse the realization. That’s what happens many times, I think, when people say they hate a book or a writer. It’s also what happens when writers are trying to get stories to work and they don’t. I just really wonder what stymied Ralph Ellison. How could you write one of the five greatest novels in 20th century American literature and not be able to come up with at least three or four more?
I forgot to mention J.D. Salinger here. We should all be shooting for his level of honesty in Catcher in the Rye. Not sure anyone has done that in a while. To get at love and sex in weird and gentle ways here in the pornographic teens is scary. Going all the way in with death these days is also a bit hairy. Did I say men aren’t scared of it? I meant real men aren’t. Not their own deaths anyway. I don’t want the people I love to die, though. That doesn’t scare me so much as make me very sad.