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Mr. Saunders of Sesame Street

George Saunders, "Lincoln in the Bardo"James Ley’s attitude in his review of George Saunders’ recent novel Lincoln in the Bardo is… well… I’m not quite sure what. Let’s say it’s in the region of prickly/irascible/dyspeptic but without any trace of genuine displeasure or hysteria:

Saunders is a formally adventurous writer; he has his characteristic quirks and obsessions, his own distinctive style. But his work sits quite comfortably within a well-established tradition of postmodern American fiction. In fact, it is hard to think of another contemporary author of comparable renown whose aesthetic is so obviously stitched together from other writers’ old fabric scraps. His fiction is a patchwork of Donald Barthelme’s conceptual whimsy, Thomas Pynchon’s zany cultural satire, and Kurt Vonnegut’s avuncular wisdom, interwoven with an anxious humanism and a demotic turn of phrase that takes a perverse delight in malapropisms, solecisms, absurd jargon and ridiculous brand names — qualities that are more or less direct cops from David Foster Wallace.

And later, building off Zadie Smith’s praise for Saunders as “a  morally passionate, serious writer,” Ley adds:

Maybe I am the only person to detect something a little Gertrudian about this observation, but it sounds to my ears rather like an indirect expression of concern that there is at least a faint possibility that someone, somewhere could mistake Saunders for a morally indifferent, frivolous writer. Would anyone bother pointing out that, say, George Eliot or Franz Kafka or Jenny Erpenbeck are ‘serious’ writers?

The implied anxiety is of interest, I think, not because it suggests that a writer who works primarily in a comic mode cannot also have a serious purpose (a proposition so obviously false that it hardly needs refuting), but because it suggests a buried insecurity about the moral authority of literature itself. The point not only bears upon the reception of Saunders’ work, but the form and content of his moralism. It is not a coincidence that among the most prominent champions of his fiction are a cohort of novelists of a certain vintage — Smith, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Jennifer Egan — all of whom are, in one way or another, haunted by the DFW-shaped hole in contemporary American literature. It has been Saunders, more than any of his peers, who has taken it upon himself to address the issue raised by Wallace in the early 1990s, in the context of a generational debate about the cultural status and purpose of serious literature — namely, whether a work of fiction might yet affirm positive human values in a chronically frivolous cultural environment that equates irony with sophistication and ingenuousness with naivety and simple-mindedness.

I’m tempted to quote further, especially to quote Ley’s judgment on the profundity of Saunders’ “seriousness and moral passion,” but that’d risk ruining the pleasure of his review in its entirety. Ultimately, I guess, it’s a takedown of Saunders, but it’s an exceptionally articulate and insightful takedown that makes ample effort to appreciate the intentions and virtues of Saunders’ work. It’s one of those rare essays that is not only more sophisticated in its own right than the subject under discussion, but that also renders its subject in more sophisticated terms than those in which the subject can render itself. It’s a doozy and it deserves your full attention.

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Starlings

Then, as they came to where the trees ended, and blackbirds, before roosting, began to give the alarm in earnest, some first starlings flew out of the sky. Over against the old man and his granddaughter the vast mansion reflected a vast red; sky above paled while to the left it outshone the house, and more starlings crossed. After which these birds came in hundreds, then suddenly by legion, black and blunt against faint rose. They swarmed above the lonely elm, they circled a hundred feet above, until the leader, followed by ever greater numbers, in one broad spiral led the way down and so, as they descended through falling dusk in a soft roar, they made, as they had at dawn, a huge sea shell that stood proud to a moon which, flat sovereign red gold, was already poised full faced to a dying world.

Once the starlings had settled in that tree they one and all burst out singing.

Then there were more, even higher, dots against paler pink, and these, in their turn, began to circle up above, scything the air, and to swoop down through a thickening curve, in the enormous echo of blood, or of the sea, until all was black about that black elm, as the first mass of starlings left while these others settled, and there was a huge volume of singing.

Then a third concourse came out of the west, and, as the first birds swarmed upon the nearest beech, these late comers stooped out of dusk in a crash of air to take that elm, to send the last arrivals out, which trebled the singing.

The old man wondered, as often before, if this were not the greatest sound on earth. Elizabeth stood quiet. The starlings flew around a little and then, as sky faded fast, the moon paled to brilliance, and this moment was over, that singing drooped, then finished, as every bird was home.

Henry Green
Concluding

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A Rarity

Jon McGregor, "Reservoir 13"You’ve gotta call it when you see it, so here it is: Tessa Hadley’s review of Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 is a model of what broadsheet criticism can accomplish. In only 1,300 words we’re treated to a thoughtful consideration of the narrative setup, the invocation of genre tropes and the expectations associated with them, the imagery, the prose style, the affect it generates, the tone of the whole when you apply that affect to the narrative action, and much more besides. Here’s a sample:

[E]verything [in Reservoir 13] is charged by our expectation as readers: everything ordinary has its undertow of significance. … And then as our expectations are strained to the limit, we begin to realise that the writer is deflecting them into something else, taking us into another kind of novel altogether. What actually fills up the pages, fills up narrative time while we wait to find the girl, is an omniscient narration moving easily around and inside a whole collective of protagonists in the village and following them through their daily lives, none of them dominating the story space. … The characters we watch are all warm enough, sentient human beings, prone to needing and wanting and mostly failing one another. But the eye of the story keeps its remote omniscient distance; it’s a cold camera-eye, or the eye of a hawk circling above the village, assembling everything impartially, not taking sides.

Read the rest and savour it. This quality of criticism is far too rare in the broadsheet press these days.

On Ethical Immediacy

I confess I was nervous, even pre-emptively embarrassed, when I wrote in January about what I call the murmur and how it stands as the source of the imperative to write. It seemed too abstract, too wishy-washy, too plainly preposterous to be taken seriously, and all the more so when I came around to using the loaded language of morality and ethical immediacy to describe my response to the imperative to write. Then, via @Twitchelmore, there came to my attention a video of a captivating conversation between Gabriel Josipovici and Lars Iyer, and an early exchange particularly piqued my interest:

Iyer: You’ve said that writing begins with a kind of prompt. I’m quoting you here: “One tries to catch an elusive something that will not let one rest until one has had a stab at turning it into a narrative of sorts. That something can be a rhythm, a character, an incident, or a combination of all these. One’s responsibility is to the elusive thing, and to that alone.” I was very interested in this word “responsibility.” I wanted to ask you, what does it mean to face up to this responsibility honestly?

Josipovici: Well, for me there isn’t an alternative. I mean, it has to be honest because this is your life. You’re not fooling anyone except yourself. But I suppose what it means is you’ve got to go on until you find the form that will be adequate to it, or at least until you have gone as far as you can. … I mean, responsibility? Well, maybe that’s a wrong sort of term. It sort of won’t let you alone, won’t let me alone, until I have found a shape for it, found a way in which something which is… I think… It has to start by being wordless. … I think there has to be this sense of the terrible need to find words, a shape, for something, a feeling, whatever, and words or things aren’t there. So what you’ve got to do is find a form that will allow the words at least to hint at it, or to move towards it.

Iyer: But it’s very interesting, this idea of responsibility. You express reservations about this word, but the reason I like it is because of this ethical register. The idea that you owe something to something or other. So you owe something to this prompt, to this inspiration, to this wordlessness… [and yet] there’s a tension between being able to write, and then, when you’re called or summoned and you respond in this ethically responsible way to what you’re called or summoned by, you feel, at that moment, unable to write.

Experience, not intellect, tells me that’s exactly how it is.

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Dissatisfaction is the Source

Julienne van Loon, writing in the Sydney Review of Books, wonders, as I’ve been wondering, where writing comes from:

Fiction is concerned with itchiness. Or, to put it differently, storytelling is concerned with some kind of friction. But let’s extend it further: I would argue that the urge to write something substantial at all, in a way that requires imaginative effort, to shift ideas from fleeting feelings or impressions towards more fully realised and substantial creative works, requires a certain dis-ease, often a rather deep-seated sense of dissatisfaction: anger, confusion, disbelief, disapproval, or just an inkling, a subtle desire, for things to be, in whatever way, other than this.

Which isn’t too far removed from the way I tried to word it.

Rigorous and Iterative

Last weekend’s Guardian Review featured a long essay by George Saunders on the process of writing a novel. What Saunders wants to offer, as he announces at the beginning, is a description of “the actual process” of writing a novel and a refutation of the way the process exists in the cultural imagination. A work of art, Saunders complains, is “often discuss[ed]” as the product of an artist who “had something he ‘wanted to express,’ and then he just, you know… expressed it,” as if “art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.” In fact, Saunders confesses upon the publication of his début novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, he feels as lost at sea as Marilynne Robinson when he attempts “to talk about [my] process as if I were in control of it.”

I read the first two sections of Saunders’ essay with a chime of recognition ringing through my thoughts. As with most of Saunders’ work from the last decade or so, the essay quickly swerves into the maudlin territory of “the empathetic function in fiction” and the writer’s duty to set about “generously imagining” his or her readers. Before that point, though, it could equally stand as a description of my own process, even though the process itself is too intuitive and impressionistic to be worthy of that name:

My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.

“The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist,” Saunders says, taking part in a “rigorous, iterative engagement in a thought system” and “always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?” That’s true in my experience as well, although I’d be careful to specify that “those thousands of incremental adjustments” don’t necessarily alter the course of “the story” so much as the course of the work. For me, in fact, even though incremental adjustments have already devoured the lion’s share of the time I’ve spent writing Winter Fugue, and even though I know that they will continue to do so as I revise the novel, the story is by far the least of what will be changed in the process.

I wrote the first draft of Winter Fugue over the course of maybe two weeks, producing something between 5,000 and 10,000 words per day. Those words were all extremely rough, hastily chosen, and nowhere near fit for purpose. What exactly would be their purpose? At a rudimentary level, the purpose of the words in a novel is to capture and hold a reader’s attention by conveying a series of narrative events. Often, however, those events can be conveyed with equal effectiveness through any number of different words. Finding the right words for a novel, and putting them in the right order, has less to do with selecting them for their effectiveness in ordering the events of a narrative and more to do with their own intrinsic aesthetic properties: their capacities for evocation and connotation, and especially the acoustic resonances of their prosody and tone.

I wouldn’t deny that words enable readers to envision the action of a narrative, but I’d say that to use them primarily for that purpose is to treat them as instrumental things in the utilitarian sense of the term. This is how I treat them when writing my first few drafts, before I switch on what Saunders calls the “forehead needle.” Once that needle starts flicking from side to side, once I set out on the “rigorous, iterative engagement with a thought system,” the narrative already has its shape and the needle registers only the relative merits of what words can do to a reader beyond conveying narrative events. My needle treats my words as instrumental in a musical sense, measuring their distance from or proximity to the sound, the susurration, I can still hear in my head.

The Heft of a Novel

Marilynne Robinson, "The Givenness of Things"So, yes, Winter Fugue is underway. How has it taken its first few steps into being? I don’t mean “being” as a concept; I mean “being” as a synonym for pixels and ink. Beyond the emergence of the work of fiction as a flickering response to the raw and burning imperative to write, how does it — how has it — come to assume a definite form on the page?

For me, the first words of a fiction never issue from an idea or an image, or a narrative dilemma, but always — strange to say — from a feeling in the body, a mood that circulates through blood and breath, an incarnate sensation in no way tethered to events in the outside world. They come on top of the murmur that drives the act of writing and they take shape in response to, or in mimicry of, an inner disturbance that feels physically like the growth of some alien thing, some subcutaneous burr, lodged in the fibres of muscle and flesh. Marilynne Robinson gives voice to an experience of much the same sensation in her most recent collection of essays, The Givenness of Things:

In writing I have often felt as though I am my mind’s amanuensis, in reading its researcher, in repose its slightly dull companion. I feel a novel begin to cohere in my mind before I know much more about it than that it has the heft of a long narrative. This heft is a physical sensation. A forming novel is a dense atmosphere more than it is a concept or an idea. I find my way into it by finding a voice that can tell it, and then it unfolds within the constraints of its own nature, which seem arbitrary to me but inviolable by me. When I lose the sense of them everything goes wrong. I suppose it is inevitable that I should think of a fiction as a small model of the simulacrum of reality that is given to us by sense and perception, and as a way to probe anomalies that emerge in the assumed world when it is under scrutiny. But this is only a hypothesis, an attempt to account for a phenomenon I cannot will and, in an important degree, do not control.

Because this sensation is physical, it has, for me, a shape that can be felt out. By this I mean that it has, or at least suggests, a palpable form, a form that possesses contours and branches which conjoin in various places and in various proportions to one another. This form is the closest thing to a story that I ever really feel. Its contours are the events of a narrative, and its branches are the scenes in which the narrative might be rendered. Where those branches conjoin are the places where events connect, sometimes causally, sometimes tacitly, and the branches grow out into different proportions depending on the duration of various scenes and their relative significance. But the events themselves always arrive at a later stage, piecemeal. The shape of the whole comes first, making itself known by its heft in my body, and there it opens up a complex of interlocking spaces that events trickle into over time.