Posts Tagged ‘Essay’

Reality Hunger


An excerpt from Reality Hunger, which will be published by Knopf on February 23, 2010.


Y. MANIFESTO

588

It’s a commonplace that every book needs to find its own form, but how many do?

589

If you want to write serious books, you must be ready to break the forms.

590

All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one. Let Us All Now Praise Famous Men. Nadja. Cane. Oh, What A Blow That Phantom Gave Me! “The Moon in Its Flight.” Wisconsin Death Trip. Letters to Wendy’s.

591

We evaluate artists by how much they are able to rid themselves of convention.

592

Jazz as jazz—jazzy jazz—is pretty well finished. The interesting stuff is all happening on the fringes of the form where there are elements of jazz and elements of all sorts of other things as well. Jazz is a trace, but it’s not a defining trace. Something similar is happening in prose. Although great novels—novelly novels—are still being written, a lot of the most interesting things are happening on the fringes of several forms.

593

Still (very still), at the heart of “literary culture” is the big, blockbuster novel by middle-of-the-road writers, the run-of-the-mill four hundred-page page-turner. Amazingly, people continue to want to read that.

594

The Corrections, say: I couldn’t read that book if my life depended on it. It might be a “good” novel or it might be a “bad” novel, but something has happened to my imagination, which can no longer yield to the earnest embrace of novelistic form.

595

Is it possible that contemporary literary prizes are a bit like the federal bailout package, subsidizing work that is no longer remotely describing reality?

596

If literary terms were about artistic merit and not the rules of convenience, about achievement and not safety, the term “realism” would be an honorary one, conferred only on work that actually builds unsentimental reality on the page, that matches the complexity of life with an equally rich arrangement in language. It would be assigned no matter the stylistic or linguistic method, no matter the form. This, alas, would exclude many writers who believe themselves to be realistic, most notably those who seem to equate writing with operating a massive karaoke machine.

597

A novel, for most readers—and critics—is primarily a “story.” A true novelist is one who knows how to “tell a story.” To “tell a story well” is to make what one writes

resemble the schemes people are used to—in other words, their ready-made idea of reality. But a work of art, like the world, is a living form. It’s in its form that its reality resides.

598

Urgency attaches itself now more to the tale taken directly from life than one fashioned by the imagination out of life.

599

I want the veil of “let’s pretend” out. I don’t like to be carried into purely fanciful circumstances. The never-never lands of the imagination don’t interest me that much. Beckett decided that everything was false to him, almost, in art, with its designs and formulae. He wanted art, but he wanted it right from life. He didn’t like, finally, that Joycean voice that was too abundant, too Irish, endlessly lyrical, endlessly allusive. He went into French to cut down. He wanted to directly address desperate individual existence, which bores many readers. I find him a joyous writer, though; his work reads like prayer. You don’t have to think about literary allusions, but experience itself. That’s what I want from the voice. I want it to transcend artifice.

600

This is life lived on high alert.

601

Nearly all writing, up to the present, has been a search for the “beautiful illusion.”

602

Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me the mark of great writing.

603

Very well. I am not in search of the “beautiful illusion.”

604

Critics can’t believe that the power to make us feel our one and only life, as very few novelists actually do these days, has come from a memoirist, a nonfiction truth-speaker who has entered our common situation and is telling the story we now want told. But it has.

605

There’s inevitably something terribly contrived about the standard novel; you can always feel the wheels grinding and going on.

606

If you write a novel, you sit and weave a little narrative. If you’re a romantic writer, you write novels about men and women falling in love, give a little narrative here and there, etc. And it’s okay, but it’s of no account. Novel qua novel is a form of nostalgia.

607

There is more to be pondered in the grain and texture of life than traditional fiction allows. The work of essayists is vital precisely because it permits and encourages self-knowledge in a way that is less indirect than fiction, more open and speculative.

608

One would like to think that the personal essay represents basic research on the self, in ways that are allied with science and philosophy.

609

The poem and the essay are more intimately related than any two genres, because they’re both ways of pursuing problems, or maybe trying to solve problems—The Dream Songs, the long prologue to Slaughterhouse-Five, pretty much all of Philip Larkin and Anne Carson, Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being. Maybe these works succeed, maybe they fail, but at least what they all attempt to do is clarify the problem at hand. They’re journeys, pursuits of knowledge. One could say that fiction, metaphorically, is a pursuit of knowledge, but ultimately it’s a form of entertainment. I think that, at the very least, essays and poems more directly and more urgently attempt to figure something out about the world. Which is why I can’t read novels anymore, with very few exceptions, the exceptions being those novels so meditative they’re barely disguised essays. David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel, Reader’s Block, Vanishing Point, The Last Novel. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. Kundera’s Immortality. Most of Houellebecq. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel. Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe. Lydia Davis, everything.

610

The kinds of novels I like are ones which bear no trace of being novels.

611

Only the suspect artist starts from art; the true artist draws his material elsewhere: from himself. There’s only one thing worse than boredom—the fear of boredom—and it’s this fear I experience every time I open a novel. I have no use for the hero’s life, don’t attend to it, don’t even believe in it. The genre, having squandered its substance, no longer has an object. The character is dying out; the plot, too. It’s no accident that the only novels deserving of interest today are those in which, once the universe is disbanded, nothing happens—e.g., Tristram Shandy, Notes from Underground, Camus’s The Fall, Thomas Bernhard’s Correction, Duras’s The Lover, Barry Hannah’s Boomerang.

612

What the lyric essay inherits from the public essay is a fact-hungry pursuit of solutions to problems, while from the personal essay it takes a wide-eyed dallying in the heat of predicaments. Lyric essays seek answers yet seldom seem to find them. They may arise out of a public essay that never manages to prove its case, may emerge from the stalk of a personal essay to sprout out and meet “the other,” may start out as travelogues that forget where they are or begin as prose poems that refuse quick conclusions, may originate as lines that resist being broken or full-bodied paragraphs that start slimming down. They’re hybrids that perch on the fence between the willed and the felt. A lyric essay is an oxymoron: an essay that’s also a lyric, a kind of logic that wants to sing, an argument that has no chance of proving out.

613

An essay that becomes a lyric is an essay that has killed itself.

614

There are no facts, only art.

615

What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters.

616

Once upon a time there will be readers who won’t care what imaginative writing is called and will read it for its passion, its force of intellect, and for its formal originality.

617

Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.

The Sentence is a Lonely Place

This talk was delivered in the Creative Writing Lecture Series at Columbia University on September 25, 2008. Published in The Believer in January 2009.

I came to language only late and only peculiarly. (more…)

Thomas Bernhard

First published in Harper’s, November 2006.

Thomas Bernhard, the ranting, death-obsessed Austrian novelist and playwright who died in 1989, was the ultimate Nestbeschmutzer, soiling his country with screeds against the landscape, the people, and their history. (more…)

On the Lyric Essay

First published in The Believer, July, 2003.

The Genre Artist

If a story takes place, as we are told stories do, then who or what does it take that place from, and why is an acquisition verb—take—necessary to describe the activity of stories? (more…)

Chemical Seuss

First published in Conjunctions: 29, 1997.

THE HARMING OF MEANING

I mean to discuss certain reveries of reading that occurred during the interment of childhood I served in my parents’ home, reveries often centering around Seuss and his extreme attack on sense. (more…)

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