I remember the good old days of college. Post-structural, post-modernist post-urinating-in-our-pants ideas floating over from Europe — Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, Habermas, Barthes, etc. — Them guys and their notions of de-constructing our analysis of reality, proclaiming the limits of language excited the bejesus out of us. But after a while I figured out those same titillating thinkers were sort of missing the whole point of art, especially language and literature. Words aren’t limitations. Neither is individual perspective and subjective experience. That’s all there is and has ever been. The idea of art is to labor hard to find ways into the hard-shelled truth of human experience — the Truth — big, capitalized TRUTH — which does indeed exist even though so many pussies over the past several decades have claimed otherwise.
The goal of art, to me, is for artists to pass their insights about human reality into the world as a gift, to be shared, because the basic failing of modern human beings going back to the 19th century is that they don’t understand who they really are. We used religion as a way to get at something for far too long. Since the early part of the last century we’ve used books, TV, and movies to expand our understanding. Sometimes we’re successful. Sometimes we drop the ball and slide into dopyness or mass hysteria. Interestingly, popular music has often been about stretching beyond the truth of myth and logic into the truth of feeling and the feeling of truth. Jazz and rock ‘n’ roll (and all their permutations — from blues, to folk, to punk, to rap, to country, to electronica) have always been about joy, sorrow, anger, and/or lust (among other things).
It used to be, and may still be for some, that Work — i.e., one’s job or profession — is a means to understanding and defining one’s life. Every culture has a way of seeking to reinforce the idea of a calling and professional contributions to society. But the serious arts will always be the most powerful and meaningful way to pass insight about being alive into the world. In this ultra-modern world, where human experience is literally broadcast onto billions of screens and into billions of little speakers everywhere, all at once, in cacophonic non-linear serial connection, artists may be the only ones left who understand that the question is always centered on finding new meaning and creating new truth, ferreting out what is going on under the surface of everyone’s realities.
So much of human experience is just not honestly dealt with in this new world of liquid glass. Part of the fault there is that too many people have figured out you can make a lot of money telling people what they want to hear. This used to be true just on TV, but these days the Internet has become this funky art deco graffiti-festooned set of mini-TVs where all the smart-alecks from school and the wisecracking partiers from college congregate in order to make money presenting cliché ideas, simple bullshit tricks, and googley-eyed wet dreams that pass as meaningful for just enough time to either make someone money or give them an electronic goose in the form of “Likes” and comments. I’m not going to get into how the Internet has also become a jury docket for America’s precious teeming mass of half-knowledgeable followers of each other to judge du jour fuck ups of the week.
The other side of art, then, is to create stunted myth, and to moralize about human experience so that people believe they are something that they are not, all to entice, entrance, and entertain in the hope of “making it” somehow. Hence most genre stories. (Yeah, I’m straying some here, but I really want to get at stories). Hence many best-sellers and even many so-called classics. Hence all the shit of which these days we partake on screens everywhere.
Whenever you are confronted with a novel or short story and it’s clear there is a good guy and a bad guy you’re going to run into morality. Writing that type of thing can be an easy game, as with a murder mystery or police procedural, or maybe it’s a story about a hero facing off against someone trying to ignite the entire sky over America. Maybe it’s close to home — the story of an abused woman and her children trying to escape a vicious, drunken husband and father.
The stories people have been eating up for a while are about victims. Everyone in America likes to think of themselves as a victim. We are so fucking slow-witted and weak. I don’t like the idea of telling stories about people who are victims except, maybe, people who are victims of their own making. I don’t really like stories that deal much with mortality either, unless they’re some sort of magical realism.
There are many great stories, of course, but they usually require stepping beyond people’s initial expectations and needs. It is difficult to get people to pay attention when you do that unless you’re good with language and know how to get across mystery. Everything about life is mysterious as shit but you need to step way outside what’s normal. Going outside of norms means going beyond trust and expectation. But none of us would be here today without great stories. The Bible and Koran are full of great stories. The Constitution of the United States is a great story. Newspapers every day carry great stories (although they also carry a lot more watered down formulaic accounts of great stories).
Great stories are actually a key to rising above being a victim. But what are they? Where are they?
Great stories, to me, are great because they get at the meaning of what is underneath simple conscious experience. In many ways over the years I think of what is actually beneath our essential awareness as the real truth of human experience. Stories that go there don’t do this by being fully explicit or by laying bare what’s really going on. Who can do that? We are so astounding limited in our capacity to understand ourselves. No, great stories use complicated, even twisted metaphor and the labyrinthine “logic” of character development and human 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 and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. These are stories that painted in their time new images of good and evil, death, human potential, and the strange, dark mystery that is life. Those stories, and so many more, are about human beings as idiots and fools, even losers, maybe touching at the animal in characters and the profundity of emotion all people so often hold back. 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 at least since we entered this century. All of which makes me wonder, do people not read serious fiction anymore and complicated stories because they’re lazy, don’t want to give up video time, or because they truly don’t want to confront how fucked up and alienated they feel not just from each other but from the very minds that inhabit their bodies?
I liked Annie Dillard’s novel, The Maytrees, because she got into the thickets and weeds of love for a woman coming to terms with life and what really matters. John Berger’s masterpiece To the Wedding is also similarly monumental in its depiction of people facing off against self-induced obstacles in life:
“Thrushes look as if they’ve just taken a dust bath but they sing like survivors — like a swimmer who swam for it through the water and made it to the safe side of the night and flew into the tree to shake the drops from his back and announce: I’m here.”
I think more literature should be pornographic, though. Pornographic, erotic, sexy, whatever. So much of what goes on underneath our daily awareness is sexual and even perverted. It is essential that real art move us into realms where we can explore the meaning of our deepest desires. Can you imagine what it would be like to read Annie Dillard describing a blow job or a really practiced seven minutes of cunnilingus (from either end of that lusty spectrum)?
James Salter’s work, to my mind, sometimes gets close. The real complexity of life for all of us is to be found in stories about emotion, blood-filled glands, the need for pleasure, hungers, fear of fear, and the utter mess of love (or not having it) and eros.
Scott 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. Oh, and love as well. Nothing needs to be drawn out or overly descriptive. Here’s a quick one from This Side of Paradise:
“They slipped briskly into an intimacy from which they never recovered.”
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, as here from his collection Airships:
“Nobody was around when he pulled up on a stray rope on the wharf and walked erect to the street, where cars were flashing. Day after tomorrow was his seventieth birthday. What a past, he said. I’ve survived. Further, I’m horny and vindictive. Does the fire never stop?”
I don’t like Roth, Updike, or Bellow much. Maybe that’s not exactly true. Better to admit I have a difficult time appreciating them. They rarely seem as interested in truth as they are in showing themselves as intellectuals and demonstrating how great they are as wordsmiths. There is also a feeling I get when I read them that each of them wanted to be a standup comedian — or at least considered funny. God bless those guys, but they aren’t Kurt Vonnegut. Nor are they Buck Henry or Norman Lear.
Roth’s Human Stain is an exception for me. That’s a masterpiece about identity and masculinity. Thank God he got it right at least once.I’ll say it again: race and love and sex shouldn’t be that hard to write about. They are, of course, hard to write well about. However, this sentence says a fair amount regardless:
“You take off your clothes and you’re in bed with somebody, and that is indeed where whatever you’ve concealed, your particularity, whatever it may be, however encrypted, is going to be found out, and that’s what all the shyness is all about and what everybody fears.”
And then there’s Toni Morrison who sometimes breaks through the old codes of civil morality in her novels (though her men are usually so ridiculously evil or dumb occasionally it takes away from her validity as an artist). She glides waves of truth up and over the transom in her stories and she heads into weird dimensions, both linguistic and philosophic, that are hard to follow — though no harder than following Faulkner of whom she is perhaps a kind of doppelgänger.
We should all 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, or George Orwell). Generally, though, morality needs to be full-sided if a story is to work. I don’t want to read an account of some evil assassin like Sirhan Sirhan. I want to read an account of Sirhan and why he did what he did to Bobby Kennedy and maybe a grandchild’s story who knows that the history of the world was defined by Sirhan and there’s nothing he or can do about it now, fifty years later.
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, ignorant, and stupid. Ain’t no morality there at all. Showing mercy for racists is moral. Or torturing them mercilessly…But racism per se is not actually immoral, if you are after the truth of things. So many stories about racism struggle because of that problem. And so many people do as well in real life.
My main concern when I am working on a manuscript 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). Most of us want to fuck people we know, our neighbors, co-workers, and friends’ wives. Not everyone we know. Just those we’re attracted to (here, I could have just said “we think about people we’re attracted to far too much.” But it’s important to be honest. If you could go into their heads, most men would prove they’re shits several times an hour, but we’d possibly also show we’re holy and blessed, most of us, with self-control and good intentions while always understanding what comic book fools we are. And yet, most male writers do a horrendous job depicting what goes on in the male mind. The value of literature has always been that reader’s can be aware of character’s thoughts and motivations. Who knows, maybe we all learn the rudiments of internal dialog by reading stuff when we’re young.
At any rate, I’ve felt for years that contemporary and even pre-contemporary writers have failed to tell stories about real men. Maybe they fail because they think pretending men are a certain way is easier than being honest. The complexity of male emotion can sometimes really louse up storytelling (imagine if Humboldt had actually, truly loved Lolita. Or what if he’d been concerned about her sexual needs as well as his own? The story would have been a bit different if he’d tried to seriously understand her emotional life. It would have also been extremely different if he had considered what he was doing to her.
Everybody is a monster. Every human being harbors rage.
To be sure, many great storytellers present a superman-type hero and then give him a flaw or at least a special insecurity. Look at Conan Doyle’s Sherlock — brilliant but addicted to coke. This true of virtually every mystery/thriller protagonist. It’s part of the formula. The illusion is established. Men are amazingly cool or tough or reserved — whatever. Oh, but they have flaws that make them lovable or at least that stimulate a bit of open emotion for the reader. Versions of these same male caricatures are true in romances too, and certainly, often, it’s true in literary work and mainstream commercial fiction. Instead of depicting the true emotional nature of a character, we get a TV hero of sorts who just happens to have a blemish that may or may not be debilitating.
Shouldn’t readers be confronted with fully rounded main characters where the story and its people are derived from the depths of real life? I had a mom who was mentally ill. I can’t kill animals of any kind, including insects. It took me three decades to figure out I can addict myself to any drug — including fat and salt. I would like to have sex with roughly 15% of the women 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. Just thinking like that is a form of addiction. I have slept with over one hundred women in my life. Three of them never had an orgasm (I blame myself). Nearly half faked their orgasms occasionally (which is not the same thing as “never had”). Maybe it’s just about not giving a character too many flaws.
Whatever, there’s more danger in depicting too many cracks and fault-lines of character. But that means there’s more danger being honest than lying. The reader is forced to think, “Oh, my god, does my husband think like that?” “Does my son?” Or maybe you’re just another guy and you never think like that (or think you don’t). Too much shock to the empathy and sympathy engines in readers can require a lot of work for writers. In the end, there’s also trust in the reader that is pretty extensive. Anti-heroes are never for everyone. Neither, of course, is any real life male except George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Brad Pitt.
I touched on J.D. Salinger above. I want to finish this essay with him as well: Every writer should be shooting for his level of honesty in Catcher in the Rye. Readers should be looking for books that tell stories so fearlessly about being human. Sadly, I’m not sure anyone has done that in a while — writers and readers alike. To get at love and sex in weird and gentle ways here in the pornographic teens requires remarkable, empowering, enlightened, honest penmanship. Imagine what writing fiction and publishing novels and stories will be like once we leave those teens.