by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
January 8, 2010
THE NEW YEAR'S EVE DATE
KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. -- Recently. as a requirement for a literature symposium. I was forced to read a number of "great" late 19th Century short stories, most of which were far from great, much less enjoyable. In general. they were a formulaic brand of commercial slop that academics consider literature by virtue of the conditions which bred the writing, i.e., a matter of "social commentary."
Of course. social content is a major component of any enduring piece, but if a work is boring, or worse, contrived of commercialistic nuts-and-bolts mechanistic conceits, the social statements lose their poignancy, their "true to life" quality, and any sense of portraiture. By employing the phrase "true to life," I am by no means seeking to pose a call for a return to "realism," or to effect a platform of "neo-realism," but only to advocate the vital necessity for "truth" in writing - a reiteration of the Hemmingway ideal (although I am sure the roots of such inclinations run much deeper).
Now, for a work to reach an enduring stature it needs to be well written, have something of a voice, an individualistic Úlan-vitale, or life force. Without this, the piece cannot stand alone. It becomes bogged down in the failings of prior theory: the aesthetic ideals, Eliot's "tradition," phenomenology, the notions of reader relations - at that point it becomes nothing more than a form of fictitious journalism, an arbitrary story line equipped with an arguably valuable accidental subtext.
While it is a veritable truth that all fiction must concern itself with history - for we are all social creatures - whether it is aligned by means of purposeful manipulation and craftsmanship or through a series of puerile blundering banalities is another matter entirely.
Of course, there is always the possibility that work of the latter category might occasionally stumble upon some sort of "great" social truth. But, then again. an invalid blind man may happen to one day, on a complete whim, bend over in the middle of the dusty street, clutching aimlessly at the dirt with trembling haphazard fingers, and stand back up, to his astonishment, grasping a 10 ct. diamond. Highly unlikely, but it could happen.
If we should deem inferior works as worthy of placement within the literary canon solely because of the social context of their production - that they are an epochal byproduct of a commodified system - then perhaps the entire notion of the constitution of literature should be reworked. Certainly the "Twilight" series could unknowingly teach us much about the social conditions of the early 21st Century. The degradation, vapidity, mass assimilation, and desire for simplistic escapism.
But to place such childish, tabloid trash beside Tolstoy?
Nonetheless, our higher institutions now include "Pop Fiction" courses which teach students all about the fine art of selling out, of poising watered-down slop as a valuable commodity.
After reading Henry James' "The Real Thing," students in my class (18 in all) generally uttered confused, personal, exonerating statements such as: "It was hard... I didn't like it... Took too long to read."
As the professor sought to assuage their querulous discomfort, I became disgusted. I knew, for once experiencing a sense of surety, that they would have loved nothing more than to rattle off a thousand platitudinous theories concerning Edward Cullen's morality. So much for Henry James.
While James' work is in a hovering, circumlocutory style riddled with parentheses and asides and myriad tangents, these are never without purpose - they are calculated, meticulous, precise. I pose the following question: Who, in moments of contemplation, revelation, or exacting colloquy, does not pause, or backtrack and reiterate, or tangentially divulge a supporting argument? Such acts are an inherent component of both conversational and introverted ratiocination.
So why do contemporary readers have such problems with this sort of writer? Sometimes just mentioning Faulkner or Joyce or even Proust becomes something akin to pedantic blasphemy.
Is it that we've gotten used to having our novels served up like journalism? Is it that we live in the post-Jack Kerouac-Hunter Thompson-Tom Wolfe-Norman Mailer age where the term "fast" is a laudable distinction?
I'm fairly sure Hemingway would have detested his prose being described by a word like "fast" - it seems much too close to "easy,"
Easy James was not. Which is a good thing. I would hope no writer would ever desire to be purposefully easy. Leave that to the sitcoms. There's enough idiocy and bad-wringing in 10 minutes of that slop to taint humanity for all eternity.
Have we arrived at a point where without immediate action, explosive altercations and events - if the words fail to accelerate across the page at the pace of a Ferrari - that the writing is dismissed as boorish? I hope not.
Even the fastest of writers knew when to slow it down, and that slowing things down is, at times, integral to, well, integrity.
Hunter Thompson spoke about journalists, and by means of creative extension, we can expand the statement to include the inadvertent modern "commentators" - "[It] is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for f--koffs and misfits - a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo."
I suppose what needs to be said is that it is very hard for those caught within the grinding frenetic wheels of modernity to ever slow down enough to slip into the psychic channels of a man like Henry James, much less to read poetry, or philosophy, or to read at all for that matter.
I conducted a survey (albeit one that was wholly unscientific, but nonetheless does, to some extent, illustrate that point. Throughout a night of bar-hopping, asking random people if they read, what they read. The vast majority replied, "magazines," "training manuals," "romance novels," genre writers like Tom Clancy and Nicholas Sparks, and one answered with the frightening assertion, "Print is dead. Video is the medium of the new age."
It is no great secret that the frenzied tempo of the technology age has created a vast gap between a state of calm and the general condition of the psyche. In his 1948 Pulitzer-winning novel, "The Naked And The Dead," Norman Mailer wrote, "The natural state of the twentieth-century man is anxiety." There is something awfully wrong with those survey answers, something wretched, sad and grossly pathetic. And yet, they are true.
As some have said, when we lose an appreciation for natural rhythms, the slow rise of the sun, for instance, the slow ebb and flow of the seasons, or the cyclic gradations of the moon, a realignment becomes of dire necessity. Perhaps we should read a little more Henry James.