“There is something reassuring and even restorative about a voice that is not too encroached upon by the intricacies of the world, anxieties of psychoanalysis, or the implications of a mechanized disenchanted planet. That is to say, the sculpting of the prose itself is not deranged by the catastrophes that surround us, though the catastrophes may or may not be present in the representation of the world. There is stoicism in this model of storytelling. Affability too. Faith in creation. Lack of faith all too often produces an ironizing narration, a distancing of the author from his tools and spawn. Sheepish authorial embarrassment, pointing giddily at the fictitiousness of fictions. Is that a remnant of capitalist, bourgeois prejudice against mere made up stuff stinking of idleness?” — Elvis Bego, “Dr. Aira: In Defense of Short Books”
Category: Elvis Bego
“Having spent some time lately reading American journals, I would say that much of the writing is of a high caliber, there is plenty of fantastic thinking in fiction out there, but one also notices in too many places something like a common house style. A style learned, pruned from the lectern. Too many writers keep building a clearly programmatic, indoctrinated structure, peopled with programmatic, indoctrinated gestures toward the heart. The prevalence of rhetorical pathos through fiction, a cornucopia of sincerity. Sincerity is prolix. And once that first novel is contemplated, the forests rustle in terror. Here’s another ‘sweating, free-dreaming maniac with another thousand-pager,’ as [Martin] Amis put it.
“Sincerity is inelegant, it doesn’t know condensed articulation. It always ranges exclusively horizontally and settles flat around its subject. It does not and cannot penetrate, though it may try. It may be adequate, polished, but one is tempted to ask: is it necessary? Is it urgent?
“Authentic fiction is not sincere; it transmogrifies fantasy into truth. But truth and sincerity are not synonyms. Fiction wants to leap into the space of meaning and self, even when the setting is panoramic, horizontal. W.G. Sebald, whose books really mostly consist of short prose fictions, is always relentlessly arcing inward this way, and a page of, say, The Emigrants yields more in the way of cerebral stimulation (the heart too is pinched, but not cheaply, not feebly) than a thousand of those other, earnest, sincere ones. The sincere artist itemizes easy facts and turns them into easy truths. Or rather, does not turn them into anything: they stand there naked, never having been dressed.
“And all these educated writers: there is something vulgar about all that competence. Although I’m not sure authentic writing can be taught, it is certainly possible to teach all the right-sounding, writerly, artisanal gestures. Curiously, the preoccupation with Voice produces an amazing amount of very similar narrative voices: all those cute first-person narrators.” — Elvis Bego, “Dr. Aira: In Defense of Short Books”
“Big books, big Novels, as Martin Amis diagnosed long ago, seem inherently an American addiction. America, vast in space and in ambition, seems to goad its writers to impose a brazen intentionality onto the marketplace. The American writer’s appetite must be omnivorous, his palette the trunk of a sequoia, his cast not smaller than a minor duchy, a perversion of Dostoevsky. And yet how often you read one of those baggy monsters and there’s nothing there but explosions of trivial pleonasm. The imagination slumbers, the talent something that happened to other people. That’s one tendency. On the other hand you have those endless, sentimental, middleclass novels of domestic interaction, a perversion of Chekhov. Whether it is the vastness of the country or its multifariousness, each year brings a thousand thousand-page bricks, each usually a tomb for dead language, and a desiccated, catastrophically pious imagination. For each DeLillo, a thousand of these others, for each McCarthy another thousand tumble forth in unison.
“Byron used to say that he never saw a doctor without thinking, Here’s a man who missed his vocation. For me, a trip to the bookstore does the same, once I’ve read a page or two of almost any of the fat new books huddling on the shelves. So much misplaced ambition. So much banality. Often you see material perhaps sufficient for a five-page story stretched to six hundred of the soporific best.
“Who writes these things?
“Often, it seems, it’s some person burnt out in the workplace, hoping for an easy career change. Imagine, I can sit at home, and get paid to make shit up! And the air thins along with the crowns of trees.
“I also think about all those MFA programs in, gasp, Creative Writing. (Are there other kinds of writing? Even The Da Vinci Code is some sort of creative writing, so why the modifier?) Are they improving or simply flooding the bookstores? Are they too narrow in their catechism? Do we have too many writers?
“I am reminded of that story by Will Self, ‘The Quantity Theory of Insanity,’ and the idea of a finite amount of mental equilibrium. Does talent not figure in the same way? There are only so many good and great writers at any time.
“Let us assume that a thousand new-minted writers exit the universities with their writing diplomas each year. Of these, reasonably, only a fraction can be good, good meaning necessary, the rest adequate. Don’t get me wrong, I think a genuinely gifted writer could use a few years intensely scrutinizing his work with other gifted, literate people. Above all, with other gifted readers. But how many are those? And the art (not the habit) of reading is as endangered in academia as out of it.
“Now, many of the best and most prestigious literary journals are run by MFA programs, edited by MFA writers, filled by MFA writing. Notice the circularity, like in a consummated nightmare.” — Elvis Bego, “Dr. Aira: In Defense of Short Books”
“Literature, for everything else that it is, is also in the business of pleasure.” — Elvis Bego, “Dr. Aira: In Defense of Short Books”