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Thursday, October 12, 2006

On seriousness in literature

Again via Elizabeth (whom I hope is feeling better!), a link to a novel by a young Nigerian author. I have not read the book, so the following commentary has absolutely nothing to do with the novel itself, which is described as a searing story of the civil war that followed the secession of the Igbo people from Nigeria to form the short-lived nation of Biafra. This commentary is instead about a brief sentence of review of the book by another author:
"When I think of how many European and American writers rehash the themes of suburban adultery or unhappy childhood, I look with awe and envy at this young woman from Africa who is recording the history of her country. She is fortunate — and we, her readers, are even luckier."

Hmmmm. Now, I have to admit that I understand the ennui that can grip a reader when contemplating the mass of contemporary fiction in English that concerns itself with suburban adultery or unhappy childhoods. They do blend into one another, in their expertly designed jackets on the bookstore shelves, and they have an oddly ennervating effect, at least on this particular potential reader. Why pick one over another? In fact, why pick any of them at all? Why should I possibly care about one more work of fiction about adultery or unhappy childhoods? I might flip idly through one, looking to see if it somehow suffers less from the myopia and political rootlessness that the genre seems to have acquired (there is, after all, no existential reason why a novel on such topics should be unable to express broad, compelling truths); or, failing that, I look to see if it might be unusually entertaining, because who couldn't use a laugh these days? But generally the verdict in both cases is no, and the book goes back on the shelf while I wander aimlessly back to the nonfiction shelves or the children's books.

So. I certainly sympathize with a frustration over the observed lack of gravitas in the themes delivered to us over and over again by the zeitgeist. But to "look with awe and envy at this young woman from Africa who is recording the history of her country," to describe her as "fortunate?" This strikes me as -- to put it bluntly -- inhumane. Should we be envious of a writer who takes as her subject her country's strife? Are war and human suffering something to feel lucky for, because of the contribution it may make to our pursuit of literary art, not to mention our reading entertainment? Would someone describe Elie Wiesel as "fortunate" for having such topics as he does about which to write fiction?

Ever mindful of what Laura described as the magical summons with which Google threatens the unwary blogger, I hasten to add that I am not here to bash the reviewer in particular. A blogger, of all people, must be aware of the ease with which a single statement, tossed off in a quick moment, can be inflated and interpreted to mean things never intended by its speaker. I doubt very much that the reviewer really believes that other people's suffering is more than balanced by the artistic uses to which it may be put, or that someone with access to more suffering than we may find (in our comfortable lives) is to be envied. But I do wonder, sometimes, why there isn't more objection to the ways in which literary authors may sometimes turn to brutal violence as a way of asserting their gravitas. And what really got me wondering about it recently was a review of Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic new book last week in The New York Times. The reviewer, himself a well-respected novelist, writes:
McCarthy has said that death is the major issue in the world and that writers who don’t address it are not serious.
This is, presumably, why it is "serious" to write a book described as "the end of the civilized world, the dying of life on the planet and the spectacle of it all."

Well. Of course it is "serious" to write a book which goes into great depth as to post-apocalyptic cannibalism practices. When your protagonists are trapped in a basement in which people are having their limbs chopped off for consumption, you are certainly in the realm of the "serious," and not, say, a novelization of The Blair Witch Project. I am sure that the scene cited by the reviewer, in which the father cleans the spattered brains of a murdered man out of his young son's hair, is high art indeed. No, I mean it. What do I know? I haven't read it. It probably is. It is high art, and, of course, serious.

This is serious stuff. (I will contemplate and then abandon a long tangent about giving birth and the entrance into life, which of course aren't "serious" because they are, alas, the province of women, whom we all know are not as good at the really serious stuff, like carnage.) It is high, holy art to write about death and destruction and massive suffering and splattered brains, and anyone who has the balls to address such high, holy topics is clearly a serious writer. No, seriously. I am not here to question the sanity or the moral structures of anyone who is willing to spend long years of his life -- a life which, let us not forget, is soon to end in serious, serious death -- in an obsessively detailed contemplation of the destruction of the earth and all the life upon it.

I realize that my objections to such serious literature here are idiosyncratic and unlikely to be shared. It is my own personal foible that I have never been able to understand the purpose of imagining fictional disaster and carnage -- is there not enough real disaster and real carnage in this world, that the creation of imaginary additions to it is about as useful to the human race as the marketing of yet another flavor of cola?

It is, further, my own personal foible (careful, or I might be tempted to bring up that blah blah blah unhappy childhood blah blah blah) that I have been known to faint not only at the sight of blood but at clearly written descriptions of it. It is not just that I stubbornly refuse to be entertained by depictions of violence but also that I am more or less incapable of being entertained by them, unless by "entertained" you mean "blacking out and/or having a panic attack." I am the very model of a Victorian flower, and clearly in no position to appreciate the seriousness of life, let alone literature. It is amazing that I can read at all. In fact, some of my very favorite authors lost me almost for good when they became rather too gleefully serious about the carnage and suffering of life. (I am here thinking of Annie Dillard's The Living, which seemed almost delighted by the various random and gory ways it could kill off its characters -- and yes, I know that was the point, because it was Serious Literature -- and Haruki Murakami, who really could have impressed me with the atrocities of World War II without going into quite so much detail about Mongolian skinning practices. I'm just saying.)

It is, ultimately, my own personal foible that I read fiction for one chief reason, one that virtually defines me as being the very opposite of serious. I read fiction to place myself in the hands of a creator who is more obviously merciful than the one who does (or does not, depending on your beliefs) operate outside the pages of a book. I read fiction to place myself in the hands of a creator who observes her characters with some distant touch of tenderness, who would grieve with them -- not observe them coldly -- as they deal with the major issue in the world, whether that be defined as death, life, or a sad lack of tortilla chips.

It is entirely possible, of course, that Cormac McCarthy does just that, that he is tender with his characters as he marches them across the cannibalistic post-apocalyptic landscape. Alas, I shall never know -- the book review was itself enough to make me hyperventilate. I may read the book by the young Nigerian author, though, someday -- reading it as history made into narrative, to learn something about a part of the world about which I know shockingly little. What about you? (The assumed you, which is quite an assumption. Has anyone bothered to make it this far?) Will you be reading Cormac McCarthy's new book? What do you look for when entrusting your attention -- for whatever brief a time -- to fiction?

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