Roger Ebert responded recently to an article by Cynthia Ozick written in the New Republic. So goes my reading. I get my Ozick from Ebert, but that’s ’cause I’m reading where Ebert is writing. I don’t have a subscription to the New Republic (but, alas, I should). Anyway, he quotes from her a lengthy passage about writers no one reads anymore.
Death disports with writers more cruelly than with the rest of humankind,” Cynthia Ozick wrote in a recent issue of The New Republic.
“The grave can hardly make more mute those who were voiceless when alive–dust to dust, muteness to muteness. But the silence that dogs the established writer’s noisy obituary, with its boisterous shock and busy regret, is more profound than any other.
“Oblivion comes more cuttingly to the writer whose presence has been felt, argued over, championed, disparaged–the writer who is seen to be what Lionel Trilling calls a Figure. Lionel Trilling?
“Consider: who at this hour (apart from some professorial specialist currying his “field”) is reading Mary McCarthy, James T. Farrell, John Berryman, Allan Bloom, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Edmund Wilson, Anne Sexton, Alice Adams, Robert Lowell, Grace Paley, Owen Barfield, Stanley Elkin, Robert Penn Warren, Norman Mailer, Leslie Fiedler, R.P. Blackmur, Paul Goodman, Susan Sontag, Lillian Hellman, John Crowe Ransom, Stephen Spender, Daniel Fuchs, Hugh Kenner, Seymour Krim, J.F. Powers, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Rahv, Jack Richardson, John Auerbach, Harvey Swados–or Trilling himself?”
Ebert goes on to talk about whether he’s read these authors, and he’s read all but two. Ozick goes on to ask the question of whose writing will endure? I’m not sure that’s the question to ask. After the Library of Alexandria debacle, who can say anything will endure? But can we say that we affected the minds of those who lived? Yes.
Ozick determines that Saul Bellow will endure, most because of the Adventures of Augie March, a book I know few of my friends will have read. I haven’t read it, and I should. But it did affect a whole generation. Ebert makes a comment about Hemingway, that we will know him for The Sun Also Rises and his stories, but little else (he’s quoting and agreeing with another friend). And true, Old Man and the Sea, though the Pulitzer winner, isn’t the book that endures. It’s his first book of stories, I think, and The Sun Also Rises that continue to be read.
The Fan Base
I will say that in Science Fiction and Fantasy they have developed the concept of the FAN BASE. And this actually keeps writing, and writers, alive. JRR Tolkien will endure for a very long time. So will Stephen R. Donaldson, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, etc. The classics of Science Fiction are still being read by the fan base, by those who love science fiction and fantasy. They are suggesting them to their friends. They are voracious readers and they claim, quite knowledgeably, that you can’t know science fiction and fantasy without reading this set of writers, or that book, and at the conventions these writers are celebrated. Even ComicCon has such a large science fiction and fantasy base that these 30,000 people will all know a large set of names, not just the celebrities of the moment, but the masters and grandmasters of the genre.
It could be that you might dismiss the FAN BASE as those who feed on pulp, but I would argue that they know what they like, and they are assisting in the endurance of writers and writing and that cultivating a fan base is not a bad idea. Further, these “genre writers” are introducing them to many of the great works of literature, by quoting from, giving allusions to, works by other authors. Many of our first introductions to literature–Shakespeare even–was in a comic book, or in a science fiction novel. I’m not going to give too much more a spirited defense to the importance of Fantastic Literature, or say too much longer that, before Hemingway, authors had their science fiction novels and their literary novels and no one thought of the books differently: London, James, Twain, Poe, Hawthorne, all had a novel where time travel or science fiction played a large role. Anyway, I have a larger point to make. Still, hold onto the idea that developing a fan base is important–because a fan base has been enthused by your writing, has been affected by your writing, and seeks to market you to their friends.
The Nudge vs. The Monument
It would be nice to endure longer than your own generation. For your work to outlast you. For you to speak to multiple generations, for your voice to go on long after you are dead. This would all be very nice. To be The Monument that I think Ozick seeks in her search for who will endure, her celebration of Saul Bellow. But just like the pictures of your ancestors get stuffed into envelopes or in albums or on the wall less and less, making room for the photos of babies, and young children vibrant and full of life; just like your schedule books are more filled with new meetings, after hour drinks, dinners and parties of the people you know in the city you are living in, rather than in the city you moved from; so it is with books and authors. We will read the people who are talking to us right now, who are a part of our culture right now. They will influence us. They will have the chance to speak and change our minds.
And this is not a bad, or insignificant thing. During our lives, things nudge us. They correct our paths, they push us one direction or another, they influence the way we treat another person; they build our character. They may be tiny things. For example, the character Nightcrawler in the X-Men made me want to study German. I studied German; I was friendly with a lot of German families when I was in Germany, and my loose, but growing strong, grasp of the German language made them laugh. The language helped me translate fairy tales for my Honors thesis. It still intrigues me as a language. All because a blue, furry, demon-looking superhero spoke German in a comic book. Star Trek has made me a better man. I learned a lot from what I saw there growing up. I loved Madeleine L’Engle–her Wrinkle in Time series affected me as a person, guided me in the way I saw myself; Ray Bradbury influenced my writing; Lloyd Alexander, Lois Duncan, Arthur C. Clarke, Edward Eager, Sid and Marty Kroft, Remington Steele…. these ephemeral tv-shows, some of which have been obliterated from culture, others which endure, influenced their own time periods.
Nudging involves being present when someone is on a particular path, and making them think so that they change direction, even slightly. We are the voices in THIS generation first—say something that needs to be said NOW. What is it that needs to be said—that you can influence in this generation. You will affect who they are as people, and they will affect others. They will raise their children with something you nudged them with in your books, perhaps. No one else may remember you, but the few you nudged will nudge others.
I would rather be a great nudger than a grand monument. Let my influence be kept in the behavior and way of thinking of generations, rather than on the shelves. There could always be another Alexandria fire; there might someday be an internet shock that wipes it clean. This blog post will not endure. If endurance is not assured for anyone, then why not seek a more lasting influence?
Think of writing books, then, more like a Theatre performance. Theatre is more ephemeral—here for a moment and then gone—but who can deny the powerful effects of theatre? It does make us think, brings about emotion, it could turn us around–and that’s not a bad thing. And then the sets are dismantled and it’s not even a line in a database somewhere. We would love Books to endure; but in the end, why not try to affect THIS generation now, rather than looking for our place in the literary canon. All those author Ozick listed influenced Ebert and I like Ebert a lot. Ebert is influencing others. Who’s to say that energy did not come from Lillian Hellman, Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer? Even if they are not alive in their literary form, perhaps they have transmuted into their more influential form.
“Strike me down and I will become more powerful than you can ever imagine” Obi Wan Kenobi to Darth Vader. Who says the physical manifestation is everything? Perhaps the wisdom and the spirit endures diffused among the people who read them and were influenced by them. This doesn’t mean not to write the BEST that you can, the most provocative or challenging or comforting things you can imagine, but to aim for today for tomorrow is never ours.
Write what you think needs to be said, not what you think will be important in a hundred years. Your readers are alive today. Nudge them.
It’s an interesting dilemma and trying to stay humble is worth doing, but you also have to be ambitious enough to think you’re worth listening to.
I hope my books (two NF so far) will become a sentence in the larger cultural conversation; the first is about American women and the effects of guns and violence in their lives and the second, out this week, discusses low-wage labor, specifically retail work — which employs 15 m Americans.
I really like the last line of your post!
I think that in one practical sense, the rise of POD, ebooks and yes, youtube and other forms of internet based media help keep writers alive for the simple reason that it’s far easier to find them than it was in the past– a pulp writer, before Gutenberg or the ability to engage in short run reprints, was often lost, his books ever fewer and harder to find. Now of course, even if you ignore the ah, unofficial torrent market, it’s far easier to keep material available for those who are interested in it.
This isn’t just impacting writers– there is far more in the way of older music and movies around now than their was when I was in high school, because it’s so easy to get, in comparison.