Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Truth or Illusion, George? You Decide!

The other day I impulse-bought David Shields's Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, a 205-page book of 618 unattributed quotations in and around the subject of uses of reality (not realism) in fiction. Unattributed in the text, at least; Shields suggests that the reader take a pair of scissors and cut out the appendix listing the sources, which he included due to his publishers' consultation with lawyers. I'm not sure exactly how radical a gesture can be that bows to the advice of lawyers (either don't publish it if you can't do it the way you want to, or include the appendix and keep your mouth shut?), but anyway, I was sure after simply reading the title and the first few sentences of the first quotation that I would read it because it would give me food for thought both in general and specifically with regards to my writing. I've already read a good chunk of the quotations, in no particular order.

If I'm correct about the implicit thesis (which is a lot less interesting and thought-provoking than many of the quotations), Shields thinks that the general populace has lost interest in traditional fiction (what most of us would just call “fiction”), as their interest in reality TV, documentary, and memoir proves, and that this is only right and proper, since traditional fiction is passe, in any case, trailing far behind avant-garde trends in popular music, such as hip-hop sampling, and inherently less interesting than hybrid prose forms such as the lyric essay, which trouble the boundary between fiction and autobiography.

I would respond to these suggestions as follows:

  1. If Shields would like fiction, or creative prose, to get back some of its cultural relevancy by being more avant-garde, he should take into account that unlike hip hop (or for that matter reality TV), avant-garde fiction is not popular. I don't doubt that hip hop is avant-garde and cutting edge in a way few traditional art forms are at the moment, but the kids who have made it popular couldn't care less, and most of the time don't even know, and certainly don't care, that the samples are not original. They care that they can dance to it and that it's part of black urban culture. (The section describing the development of hip-hop and rap from Jamaican DJing practices was especially fascinating to me, although I guess it wouldn't enlighten a serious popular music fan.)

  1. Memoir isn't that popular either. As an intermittent bookstore clerk since the late 1990s, I can tell you that the Biography section has certainly boomed in the past half dozen years or so, and that the boom has happened in memoir. Nevertheless, Fiction is still a far larger section. So, although I don't know the numbers, and don't feel like researching them, it seems safe to say that more people still read fiction than memoir. I also hardly believe that fiction – which has been around, you know, from the beginning of civilization (or earlier if you count oral storytelling) – is on its way out permanently. The memoir fad is just that, a fad, trying to cash in on things that are genuinely popular, like reality TV, and things that are (so the media conglomerates fear) taking people away from books...like blogs. I can believe that the general public will stop reading altogether, or at least that they'll stop reading books, faster than I can believe they'll stop reading fiction. Maybe they'll just read texts, and e-mails, and tweets, and status updates. But they sure won't be reading memoir instead, let alone lyric essays.

  1. Fiction may be permanently on its way out on TV, though, or at least on the major networks. Although they may be on their way out, too, with the internet. Over on cable channels like AMC and Syfy and premium television networks like HBO and Showtime, however, TV fiction is doing better than ever – often more adventurous and better-written, and in some cases, like Mad Men, monstrously popular. The success of Mad Men alone (whatever I think of the show) is enough to prove that general audiences are still fiction hungry.
But are we going through a period where people seem to be reality hungry? Yes; that's why I bought the book. And should fiction, or prose, writers (note: as opposed to publishers) respond to this? Yes, probably; that's also why I bought the book. But are the most creative gestures in prose writing today really to be found in the genre known as “creative non-fiction”? (A broad genre, no doubt, but no broader than “fiction.”) Well, I don't know. There is certainly a lot of creative activity in that area, from the blog-like (and sometimes blog-based) “project” memoirs to the dysfunctional family memoirs to the “life in a Third World country” memoirs to the addiction memoirs to the abuse survivor memoirs to the mental illness survivor memoirs to the religious cult survivor memoirs, and on and on and on, including memoirs of writers who couldn't get published until they wrote a memoir about how they couldn't get published. And I can see why people would want to read these memoirs – particularly people who don't like to read. It's for the same reason an ex-boyfriend of mine said he didn't like to read fiction: why would you want to read about something that never happened? For him, the best thing was to do things; the second-best was to read about people who had done things; to read about things that never happened and people who never existed was a complete waste of time – time that you could spend doing things. Which, I pointed out to him, was the exact opposite perspective of the fiction reader, who believes that nothing could be more valuable than reading imaginative fiction, including, especially, doing things.

There is a lot of voyeurism in the reality TV and memoir trends – especially the addiction and abuse memoirs (although some of the readers may also be recovering addicts or abuse survivors). But I think in general the modern memoir-reader is, like my ex-boyfriend, an intelligent person who happens to have the opposite perspective of the fiction reader. Which, by the way, I think is the far more common perspective – the pragmatic, common sense, yet semi-heroic perspective. People ought to live, not read; and if they have to read, they should read about things that really happened! It makes so much average-person sense, I wonder why memoir-reading is not more common than fiction-reading. The only explanation I can come up with is that among readers, (escapist) fiction is still their poison; but at some point, perhaps prompted by the reality TV trend, and desperate to increase their sales with the advent of the internet, publishers figured out that they could corral in some non-readers by publishing more memoirs with better hooks. And in the meantime, of course, they also reeled in some people who do like to read, and aren't too choosy about whether it's hooky fiction or a hooky memoir.

So no, I can't really believe that there's much creative activity worth paying attention to within the memoir boom, which seems to me largely a creation of publishers rather than writers. At the same time, some of the most interesting prose works I've read in some time certainly blur the line between fiction and non-fiction, notably Sebald and Bolano. Actually, Sebald's Rings of Saturn doesn't blur any lines so far as I'm aware (I've read that parts of Sebald are fictionalized, but I don't know which parts), it just is non-fiction, although for some reason in the Fiction section, I guess because it's considered “literature,” as well as defying other categories that might determine its bookstore placement, such as “autobiography” or “essay.” Proust gets mentioned more than once in Reality Hunger as an example of a so-called novelist who is really writing a kind of creative non-fiction, and at one point he is described as an “essayist” in essence, and I think the same is true of Sebald, although the chapters of Rings of Saturn are not discrete essays. One speaker (in 511) even describes Proust in terms like those I used for Sebald on this blog, stating his admiration for the way Proust's “novel” “could talk about whatever it wanted for as long as it wanted.”

As for Bolano, The Savage Detectives, widely designated a “novel” (a designation that's argued with only as affects the form, not the content, of the book), is a fictionalized memoir written as though it's a documentary in which Bolano constructs a self-portrait and a wider portrait of a literary group and scene and generation to which he belonged by projecting himself, to an astonishing depth, into the people who knew him: friends, lovers, and enemies. Does it make a difference that the book presents itself as fiction even as the reader is aware that it's heavily based on Bolano's life (and the name of his alter ego, “Belano,” gives it away in the text) while A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius presents itself as memoir, albeit heavily fictionalized? Eggers's book was taken pretty seriously in North America, and I had thought it was a novel until I was surprised one day to find it in the Biography section, but are we more inclined to take Bolano's book seriously as a work of literature because he didn't present it as an autobiography? Does it make a difference to how we read them, or how much truth we expect from them, or how much we care how much the truth has been altered and manipulated. Personally, my reaction to The Savage Detectives was the opposite to that of a person in one of Shields's quotations who was exhilarated by Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 because the reader couldn't tell what was or wasn't made up. Although it didn't ruin my enjoyment of the book (it is, as of this writing, my favourite novel, maybe my favourite thing I've ever read), I found myself constantly at a loss about how to read The Savage Detectives, for instance when Bolano describes the break-up of a relationship from his girlfriend's perspective. Was this narcissism? Radical empathy? How would I feel about it if it were real? That it was exploitative, yet breathtaking in its courage? What about if it was made up? (How real? How made up?) Then it would be less exploitative, but also less powerful. And so on and so forth, which for some readers might be exhilarating (for the reader Shields wishes to posit for his ideal form of fiction/non-fiction hybrid, I think), but which for me was... I think the word I'm spending such a lot of time searching for is “maddening.” Though maddening, perhaps, through my own fault rather than Bolano's.

So while I don't think that the only way forward for the serious prose writer is the memoir or the autobiographical essay (although I bow to their struggles for legitimacy and the way some of the best examples may have been sidelined by traditional and marketing categories), I do agree that some of the most interesting prose writers of the past few decades have written things that defy categorization as either “fiction” or “non-fiction,” and that Proust is an excellent point of comparison (and should not, rather, be corralled into the service of traditional fiction or the traditional novel).

Autobiography Portion

Full disclosure: I'm about to reveal to you, my (largely non-existent) readers, the reason I gave up playwriting, although it's one I try to obscure to myself as well as others. It wasn't really because my life was a mess at the time, between my divorce and my mother nearly dying of septic shock due to an ingrown hair on her head. It wasn't really because I was screwed over by the Canadian playwriting system and didn't fight hard enough in response. It was because I didn't think I could possibly be an important playwright because I did not write original work.

My first play, which was published and produced and won awards, was biographical. So was my second play, which was also about a writer couple. Both plays were largely based on biographies, the result of spending my teenage years immersed in literary biographies and daydreaming about becoming and pondering what it meant to be a writer. After the second play, I thought I'd really done the “writing about writers” thing to death, and, in fear of becoming Tom Stoppard, thought I should get down to the real business of being a writer and write something autobiographical. That was my third play, a heavily fictionalized (that phrase again!) play about my family. Much more heavily fictionalized, I should add, than, say, my friend Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman's Governor General's Award-nominated autobiographical play about her mother's death from cancer when she was sixteen, Scratch. I didn't even intend it, exactly, as autobiography; I thought of it as a “metaphorical” autobiography (and was shocked when some people I thought knew me well – not family – took it literally). Unlike Charlotte, however, I had neither the material (at that point – it was still to come) nor the aesthetic distance from it (how the hell she came by the latter as a teenager writer is one of the mysteries of her art) to make a very interesting play. I considered it largely a failure, and that was the point when I gave up on a playwriting career. As far as I was concerned, I was a failure because I could neither draw on my own life nor create characters and stories. (Actually, after that I wrote an adaptation of a Henry James novel, but no one wanted that radical experiment in reproducing James's style, which required figuring out its logic from within – certainly not the theatre company who commissioned it – and in any case I spent years working on it, missing deadline after deadline.)

Freed from attempting a playwriting career, in the years afterwards I wrote portions or drafts of a few more biographical plays, and then, at theatre school, wrote an entirely fictional one-act (well, except that the main character was based on someone's blog), a one-act adaptation of Henry James's most obscure work, a “fictional” play that was a hybrid of two women's lives I'd read about (I hated it), and a farce (I hated it; it's title, though, is interesting in this context: Testing Reality). My favourite things that I did at theatre school were an improvisation-based Found Object piece that I performed with Charlotte (we had no script; I was silent, she improvised babble) and a ten-minute one-woman play that was, again, “metaphorical autobiography,” this time about my state of mind immediately after my marriage broke up.

Plays have always been less held to being fictional than fiction has, but it made no difference to me. I considered the great goal of my writing life, no matter how long it took, to learn either how to create original characters or how to access my own life in my writing, or both. So far I've had a lot better headway with the former than with the latter. I could not, and still cannot, reconcile myself to exploiting my family and friends for my writing (doing so with my third play, however “fictionalized,” traumatized me), even though when someone else does it well – like Charlotte – I not only don't mind it but don't consider it exploitative. Or like another playwright friend of mine, Kelley Jo Burke, who turned her account of the early years of her son's autism, Ducks on the Moon, into a moving one-woman show.

Noting the memoir boom, I've thought many times over the years of writing one. Or two, or three. I even came up with the title of one with the “hook” of being the story about a 16-year-old failed prodigy: Surviving My Talent. Many times, it has occurred to me that I could not only write it much faster than a novel, but that I'd probably have a better chance of publishing it. But I said: no. And why? Because it's just too easy. (Which may not even be true: it may not be easy to write a good memoir. It's not like I've tried it. I'm only reporting my prejudice.)

Am I wrong? Am I just too stubbornly traditionalist? Am I denying myself my true creative calling and warping my genuine creative talent, which may not be for traditional fiction at all, even though I excel at creating characters as long as they're based on real people? I had the same problem with drawing, by the way. I had some talent for that as well, but gave it up when I noticed in my high school art class that I was copying photographs and other drawings while all of the serious, “career” artists in the class were doing their own original creative work. I drew almost nothing throughout my 20s, but then in theatre school I had to participate in a Life Drawing class. I got pretty good at figure drawing from live models, but I was frustrated to discover that I had no ability at all to draw faces from life, even though I could exactly reproduce a face from a photograph. The teacher told me that was because with a photograph, “Someone else has already conceptualized it for you.” And I think there's something to that, something applicable to basing your characters on real people, too (at least in biographical, as opposed to autobiographical, “fiction”).

Scattered Thoughts

A few more thoughts on the subject, based on the notes I've written besides specific quotations in Shields's book:


It's a shame that Shields finds it necessary to make his case for creative non-fiction (or whatever else you want to call it) by giving fiction such a drubbing in many of the quotations he chooses. He quotes people who claim to be bored by plot or bored by characters. Now, the latter is hardly an avant-garde gesture. Beckett got rid of characters back in the 1950s (for theatre, anyway; maybe it's more radical when you're primarily thinking of prose fiction), and when I was an ambitious teenage playwright in the early 1990s feeling oppressed by the endless references to Beckett as the greatest playwright of the 20th century, I thought the most radical thing you could possibly do was to bring characters back. Certainly they were central to my reading experience, whether of plays or of prose fiction. I'm more sympathetic to the (counter-intuitive) idea of being bored by plot, though not for the reason given in this quotation: “I'm bored when it's all written out, when there isn't any shorthand.” I'm bored by plot because I have no attention span for it: I can't follow a linear narrative. For most people, that's the hook, the anchor of a novel. Like a blogger I read who ranted about how bored he was by The Savage Detectives because of its hyper-digressiveness. I like writers like Bolano, James, and Proust, where (in their very different ways) it doesn't make a damn bit of difference if you lose track of what's happening, which you probably will, if anything is happening, and who, instead, are fascinating sentence by sentence. (James has plots, but no one reads James for his plots – you'd go insane – which are soap opera plots in any case. I'm not sure why anyone does read James, a subject I keep promising to take up in this blog. Most academic critics and public intellectuals who do seem to think he's a sensitive, perceptive realist or moralist. I read James because he's mad.)


A conversational dynamic – the desire for contact – is ingrained in the form.” With reference to the essay, but may relate even more closely to a comment I made on this blog about the blogging impulse, prompted by Susan Sontag's distinction between “narcissistic” journal-keeping and “social” or “erotic” public writing. The blog as a more conversational essay; an essay that more strongly presumes a reader (despite one's pragmatic knowledge that there may be none); and that is also more conversational in tone as well as intention.


It is natural to enter into dialogues and disputes with others, because it's natural to enter into disputes with oneself: the mind works by contradiction.” This is the principle of dialogue-writing that I imparted in nearly so many words to the students in the only creative writing course I'll probably ever teach. I also told them that this is why the two-hander (which is what I had them write in the drama section) is the fundamental unit of drama. Think about it: Shakespeare plays have dozens of characters, but in any given scene, it's two people talking. The exceptions are monologues and (boring, non-dramatic) expository scenes. Two people in dialogue (and dispute) is the essence of drama. In fact, however – and this is the secret – it is one mind (the writer's) in dispute with itself, giving two equally valid perspectives. The other secret is that if you've done your job, there is no way to reconcile the perspectives, because you yourself don't know which is “right.” Which also relates to 407, which I also communicated to my students, in less fancy words: “Ambitious work doesn't resolve contradictions in a spurious harmony but instead embodies the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure.”


The speaker gives an account of a book review he wrote in which the “subtext,” which he says is more interesting to him than the (valid) argument, was his rebellion against an intellectual tendency towards moralism that his parents had imparted to him. From the time I entered university, I intermittently wrote English essays that were in fact autobiographical, comforted that my professors would not know this (or if they did, I didn't care); by graduate school I had consciously decided that I wrote my best essays on writers when I fully identified with them and was really describing my own spiritual, artistic, and personal struggles – because, I thought, then I was tapping into something emotionally powerful, giving me the energy and incentive to write something powerful. (I think you could fairly describe some of these essays as being as close to lyrical as academic essays can get.) I was aware that this form of “metaphorical autobiography” might interfere with my truthful interpretation of the writer's work or personality, which was still a goal in the writing. But I finally didn't care, as long as on the one hand I could work out something important to myself and, on the other, write something beautiful and interesting.


Writing enters into us when it gives us information about ourselves we're in need of at the time of reading.” Which explains why, while following a course of reading classics that are either “big masterpieces” I consider required reading or more minor works that interest me for one reason or another or that friends have recommended to me from time to time, at least half the time I'm bored to death by the books. The rest of the time, the right book finds me at the right moment, and then I'm thrilled, enraptured, in the thrall of an identification (a “metaphorical identification,” of course) so profound the book may even influence me to make major life decisions. In some cases, quite possibly destructive ones.


The speaker discusses Lorrie Moore's short story, “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” in which Moore wrote a fictional account of her toddler's struggle with cancer, and in which her alter ego expresses anger at her willingness to use this material and make money off of it. The speaker attributes Moore's anger to “the fundamental truth that a part of living, of breathing, of surviving, is to exploit our human relationships in order to live.” I've already dealt with this a bit in the autobiographical section above, but this also made me think of my reaction to Simon Amstell's BBC sitcom, “Grandma's House.” I find the show's first season very engaging; it was well-written in a way that reminded me of the virtues specific to good theatre rather than good sitcoms (and that for some reason I consider superior even though I love good sitcom writing, whose recent British examples include Peep Show and Black Books). I was, however, ambivalent about Amstell's use of his personal life, much as I was about Bolano's in The Savage Detectives: Amstell, playing himself, has written a rather damning portrait of his family, and in this case I wasn't bothered so much by the question of what he had, and had not, fictionalized, as by what his family's reaction to the show must have been. Perhaps because it raised the question for me: is writing worth not only exposing your family but also potentially sacrificing your relationships with them? (Does it matter how good the writing is? How good is Grandma's House? An above-average sitcom? A solid bit of dramatic writing? If it were a masterpiece, would that make it more justfiable? It's apparent from the show that Amstell certainly thinks, sitcom format or not, that he is engaged in writing, and writing must take account of the truth.) However, I brought this topic up with a friend who also liked the show and she had no problem with it at all, whereas I had assumed it was an essential component of one's experience of such a work. For many people, I suppose the question of whether writing, at least good writing, is worth that, is a simple “Of course”; or perhaps they're less protective of bad families. (To be convinced that your family is “bad” is to take a position of moral superiority over them, which Amstell doesn't shirk in Grandma's House. Nor does Williams over his mother in The Glass Menagerie. I have never been able to assume that position with any confidence, not even in my private moments – not, at any rate, for longer than a single moment. This may be my own failing.)


Amstell has also released a live DVD, Do Nothing, that I'm more comfortable admiring because the primary person he sets about ruthlessly exposing is himself, in wave after wave of self-conscious articulation of humiliating anecdotes that touch on the most private aspects of what we do not for a minute doubt are his unadulterated personal experiences. There are two things going on here: confession, of the truth (all the more truth because it's humiliating), and liveness. It matters that Amstell's not only making this confession, but he's doing it live, in front of a large audience; not as a piece of writing, not even a blog. I recently had a discussion about the concept that theatre theorists call “liveness” with my friend Kelley Jo Burke, mentioned above. She said she was less interested in live theatre per se than in seeing great theatre broadcast live as a film, as we can do (she informed me) in our city at a cinema that has a live hook-up to National Theatre London performances. She would rather see a great actor take on a great role and succeed or fail, even if they were not in each other's presence (as in the concept of liveness), than see mediocre performers in a mediocre play. In 508 the speaker describes seeing an understudy take on the role of Cyrano de Bergerac with twenty-four hours' notice: “This Cyrano's crippled eloquence, the actor's grace, his refusal to wilt, was much more moving to me than anything in the play or any other play.” Here, instead of liveness, Shields is perhaps thinking of realness: but liveness, with or without presence, can bestow this realness that is a more interesting drama than the written one, or a drama in addition to it. After some discussion, Kelley Jo and I agreed that liveness was only interesting when there is danger and risk; but most live theatre is not dangerous or risky but safe and boring. I gave the example of Martin and Lewis sketches, examples of the early, raw days of live television, when anything could happen, a condition that Martin and Lewis took full advantage of. How, even in a high contrast, unrestored video of old TV footage, some of the excitement and chaos of live television could still be faintly perceived, for example in a sketch where Lewis climbs on top of chair piled on chair piled on chair and then Martin leaves him perched there – I hold my breath at the stunt like he could still fall in front of me, now. I could also have given the example of the only performance Charlotte and I gave of our Found Object piece, in which, while spinning her around on a bed on wheels in the tiny space, in a bit of business introduced by the director just before the performance that we'd only practiced once, now informed by the adrenaline of performance, I slipped on a stray bit of broken chalk (our set was unparalleled for its clutter and my performance highly physical), banged my chin on the metal bed frame (without flinching, although I bled for the rest of the performance), and shoved the bed, with Charlotte on it, up against the giant industrial ladder that she had to run up for the next bit. The bed bumped the ladder, which began, just slightly, to rock. I watched it. Charlotte watched it. There was a split second of what felt like ten seconds of silence, during which I thought, “I've killed Charlotte.” And then it stopped rocking, and the show went on – without a missed beat.

Now that was some good theatre.

Jerry Lewis's Reality Hunger

Speaking of truth, realness, and reality hunger – I'll close with the unlikely example of a Jerry Lewis sketch. When I first started watching DVD copies of Martin and Lewis performances on the Colgate Comedy Hour, the sketch in which this occurrence happens was my least favourite, because it had the least “plot.” Usually, a Martin and Lewis sketch has a loose plot or premise that the boys keep busting out of in digressive or frame-breaking fashion. In this one, however, nothing happened except that Lewis, as Martin's valet, roughed up the guests at a dinner party and destroyed the set – to the shrieking, hysterical laughter of the audience. Finally, on my ninth or tenth viewing, once I was more comfortable with Martin and Lewis's humour on the whole and didn't have to cling to traditional markers of good comedy (like “the writing”), I started to experience what the audience was experiencing, and it became one of my favourites. At the end of the sketch, Lewis has unleashed such chaos that he and Martin have lost the wishbone to the turkey, which is the punchline of the sketch. While Martin searches for it, Lewis, not wanting any dead theatre time, breaks character and, characteristically, steps forward to address the camera/audience. He fills us in on what's going on, and adds, when the audience laughs, “This is no joke,” and then says, pointing at his shining face, something like, “You see these drops on my face? This is not water. We're working.”

Lewis was one of the last links in the new TV era to the vaudeville tradition in which entertainment was hard work, and the audience gave the performer at least as much credit for the work he was doing as for the objective value of his jokes, gags, singing and dancing. He understood that his audience had an almost sadistic hunger for reality, for risk and danger and work and sweat, and that this was the real, compelling drama of Martin and Lewis that sparked the audience's hysterical reaction – not the sketches, not “the writing.” He understood, too, that in the new mediated age, audiences needing frame-breaking, fiction-busting assurances that what they were seeing was real. Otherwise why should they care? Our reality hunger now is the same as ever, only we don't want emblems of chaos anymore; our hunger now extends to wanting to see people who are much like us, forced into excruciating trials. Or rather, that was probably the reality TV of yesterday; I haven't kept up, so I don't know what the new Jersey Shore reality TV is like. However, when Simon Amstell does his stand-up, it's a sort of confessional/autobiographical version of old school vaudeville, in which he makes a compact with the audience: I will stand before you, vulnerable, and expose the most private, humiliating moments of my life, and tell you all of the worst things about my character, so that you can get the entertainment value of witnessing the risk I'm putting myself to. (Amstell can be snarky, but there's no sense of a powerful, Sarah Silverman-type obnoxious persona. If Amstell tells you a story about how obnoxious he is, or illustrates it in an anecdote, you can be assured that he's giving you his exact impression of himself, without exaggeration.)

So, let's not abuse fiction. We want fiction, and we also want reality, and these two desires have always co-existed, and if a "reality craze" has taken over for now primarily with reality TV and the internet, the pendulum will surely swing back again. In the meantime, we should certainly allow room for fiction/non-fiction hybrids, and acknowledge that some of the most interesting prose writing and also comedy is addressing our "reality hunger" with artistry, and that, yes, this deserves more attention and credit than the middling 400-page novel by the middling writer (to quote another of Shields's speakers): the Franzen or Chabon hulking dinosaur. I will not acknowledge that the 400-page novel of character and plot is obsolete, however, only that it's currently the preserve of the middling, both the authors who write it and the system that honours it. But, let's not pretend that reality doesn't have certain prejudices working in its favour too. I think I know this, as a former national award-winner for a biographical play; or Charlotte, nominated for Canada's biggest literary award for an autobiographical one. Reality, especially crossed with tragedy. We must be suspicious of this, too, and not write to programme, manifesto or not.

Monday, March 14, 2011

I Can't Get No

I wanted to make a post on recent articles in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books on the effects of the digital era on culture, but I ended up writing thirteen pages, which I may turn into several entries after I edit them. In the meantime, I've wanted to make a post on The Savage Detectives that connects with a digital-era-related comment in another recent NYRB article.

In a review of Keith Richards's Life in the March 10 issue of the New York Review of Books, “High on the Stones,” Dan Chiasson beautifully imagines the genesis of the Rolling Stones as a yearning for a half-imagined blues to which they were denied the kind of easy access that characterizes culture in the internet age:

Anyone reading this review can go to YouTube now and experience Muddy Waters, or Chuck Berry, or Buddy Holly, or the first Stones recordings, or anything else they want to see, instantly: ads for Freshen-up gum from the Eighties; a spot George Plimpton did for Intellivision, an early video game. Anything. I am not making an original point, but it cannot be reiterated enough: the experience of making and taking in culture is now, for the first time in human history, a condition of almost paralyzing overabundance. For millennia it was a condition of scarcity; and all the ways we regard things we want but cannot have, in those faraway days, stood between people and the art or music they needed to have: yearning, craving, imagining the absent object so fully that when the real thing appears in your hands, it almost doesn’t match up. Nobody will ever again experience what Keith Richards and Mick Jagger experienced in Dartford, scrounging for blues records. The Rolling Stones do not happen in any other context: they were a band based on craving, impersonation, tribute: white guys from England who worshiped black blues and later, to a lesser extent, country, reggae, disco, and rap.

Chiasson's logic is lovely, but not very sound: he seems to be confusing access to cultural artifacts with access to contemporary culture. The parallel would be not someone going on YouTube and finding performances by Chuck Berry now, but rather a contemporary young person hearing about an amazing current or recent musical movement and not being able to look up the artists on YouTube, or find their albums online (legally or illegally, as an Mp3 or on Amazon) or at the national mall chain store, or see them on MTV. Obviously, before the Stones – before there was rock and roll – there could be no MTV, and corporate culture, making sure that no one in any city of any size should go without any music with any reputation, took care of the rest; and whatever our hearts still desired in terms of cultural access that we didn't know about, the internet took care of. In my own teenage years in the late 80s and early 90s, you may have had to hear about The Smiths or The Cure or The Pixies from a friend (since you wouldn't hear them on the radio), but once you had, it only took a trip to HMV to find their cassettes and even a VHS collection of their videos. 

I also think Chiasson somewhat underestimates (perhaps for the sake of his point) the mystery that attaches to the cultural artifacts shared by users on YouTube and other places on the internet. A few years ago I developed an interest in the 50s comedy duo Nichols and May after reading a book on comedy of the era. Corporate culture seems to have passed Nichols and May right by, and without the internet I would not have been able to find a copy of one of their albums (only one) or seen footage of a few of their sketches on YouTube. At least, it would have taken a lot of scrounging in second-hand record/CD shops, few of which now exist in my neck of the woods. Live footage would have been permanently unavailable to me. (I say "never" and "permanently," but nothing is permanent in the internet era: I go on Amazon now and find Nichols and May CDs on Mp3 for cheap, as well as links to new CDs from various sellers, which may have or may not have been available the last time I looked, and in any case are too expensive for me. Traditional corporations may not have given these items a re-release, but Amazon is ahead of the game, and, as ever, undercutting the price of traditional retailers.)

YouTube is also great for throwing up things you hadn't even bothered yearning for because you believed you would never see them. One of my earliest such discoveries was footage of Marlene Dietrich's screen test for The Blue Angel, which more than fulfilled any expectations I could have had about it, while at the same time clarifying notions about Dietrich being Sternberg's “creation.” (“You can see what Sternberg saw in her,” I commented to a friend when I sent the clip.) Recently I found some clips (promotional clips of some kind, it seems, like early music videos) of Lotte Lenya performing “Surabaya Johnny” and “Alabama Song,” which were as magical as I could ever have dreamt. Previously I had only ever seen Lenya perform, in a much younger incarnation, in Pabst's film version of The Threepenny Opera. Such clips are precious and tantalizing, suggestive of all we still never got to see and never will; and if time unearths more, most fans will only be disbelieving and grateful. Of course, I refer to the use of YouTube now, to unearth precious cultural artifacts that would never otherwise have seen the light of day (or, if they're culled from official releases, never have had such a wide viewing). Presumably things will be different when future generations no longer know what it is to think that you will never see a legendary artist perform because everything is instantly available and archived in the first place. 

The Savage Detectives is centered around the kind of acute, aching cultural yearning that Chiasson describes, although for an artist of the past, not the present. There is little doubt that Cesarea Tinajaro becomes of such great symbolic importance to “the boys” precisely because she is so little known and so little can be known about her: desire is a function of the impossibility of its fulfillment. Her only published poem is a holy relic that requires a pilgrimage. It can't live up to their expectations, which are far too high, but neither can it disappoint, because they won't let it. They treat it with respect, as a mystery, puzzle, or enigma, like the woman herself. But is she an enigma because almost every trace of her has disappeared or because she has allowed or caused almost every trace of herself to disappear? Bolano is no debunker; it is not his purpose to reveal that Cesarea is, after all, mundane. The little we learn about her leaves no doubt that she is inscrutable, and much more is left mysterious. The grotesque slapstick conclusion to their search is, to be sure, inadequate, but this seems like an aesthetic flaw rather than an aesthetic choice, and I'm not sure how else he could have concluded the quest, since any option would be anticlimactic. But is the sort of cultural pilgrimage that Bolano describes, generated by obscurity, only possible in the pre-internet era? Is it possible that there are any cultural figures who have ever meant anything to anyone that the internet knows nothing about?

After I finished the novel (several weeks ago), I naturally did some searching of my own on the internet. The Wikipedia page on The Savage Detectives includes a chart listing the people on whom the characters were based, without citing the source of the information, and the real-life Cesarea Tinajaro is given as Concha Urquiza. When I searched Urquiza's name, I found only one English-language page, a brief blog entry which gives some tantalizing details about Urquiza's life (she died by drowning at the age of 35, joined the communist party and worked for the publicity department at MGM), misprints her name in the first line as “Chocha” (which the mischievously misprint-obsessed Bolano would probably appreciate), links to a page of her poems in Spanish and quotes a long passage in Spanish about her ideas. Just now (don't know if it wasn't there before or if I missed it) I found a Google Books result, an entry on Urquiza from the Dictionary of Mexican Literature by Eladio Cortes, which fills in more details: after her Marxist period she entered a convent but took no vows; she wrote Biblical and erotic poetry; she wrote poetry that was published when she was twelve; she was a probable suicide; her poems were published posthumously in 1946 as Works, Poems and Prose of Concha Urquiza, edited by Gabriel Mendez Plancarte. 

Next I searched her on Google Images, and found two pictures, or rather two pictures from what appears to be a single photo shoot and a second picture, which, due to the women's dissimilarity and the fact that the text was in Spanish, I at first didn't accept as the same woman. However, another image, of the “two women” on a single board together with photos of a modern woman, presumably the artist who made the bust of Urquiza in the foreground, confirmed that the two women were, in fact, the same. The photos from the same shoot show a pretty, sensual young woman with bobbed hair, lipsticked mouth, and an expression that's both sullen and sultry. The other photo is of a prim woman of mannish appearance with severe upswept hair, glasses, and no makeup. It's like Mary Bailey in Bedford Falls versus Mary Bailey the spinster librarian of Pottersville. The discrepancy is so great as to add to the poet's mystery. What could have changed her so drastically, or did the sensual and puritan selves always co-exist and struggle?

Since I don't know Spanish and have no plans to learn it, I will probably never know, unless a publisher inspired by Bolano's posthumous Anglo success decides to bring out an English edition of Urquiza's poems with a substantial biographical essay, or unless Google gets some way better translating software. But I did enjoy the similarity between the fragments Belano and Lima manage to learn about Tinajero, just enough, and just little enough, to tantalize while leaving her mystery intact, and my own attempts to learn something about the "original" Tinajero. It's a comfort to know that although everything may be on the internet, everything is not in English on the internet.

I think it's fair to say that the goal of human life that we've been striving for from the beginning of the species is the closing of the gap between desire and fulfillment. That gap can be temporal, spatial, or economic. Corporations have worked towards the elimination of the temporal/spatial gap by making more products available to more people in more places, and the technological innovators of the internet have made it possible for individuals all over the world to share information, images, music, and videos with each other. Do we need to "worry" that future generations won't know what it is to know about a musician or a movie (or a writer) primarily by rumour, supplemented by a few scraps? That they won't have to long and yearn and search or know what it is for scarcity to make the artist, to make art, seem all the more precious? Aren't Belano and Lima guilty of scorning the art their culture makes available to them precisely because it's in such abundant, oppressive supply; of indulging in the human tendency to reject the near and romanticize the distant?

That tendency will always be with us, alongside the conflicting impulse towards instantaneous fulfillment of desire. Maybe it will become harder to find things that are unknown not only to corporate culture (or literary culture, where they differ) but also to the savvy multitudes on the internet.We ought to keep in mind that even though together they are responsible for our current cultural overabundance, the "availability" provided by corporations and the internet are very different, even opposed. The internet not only subverts corporations by offering pirated copies of their products for free, but also by filling in the gaps left by corporations by file-sharing items overlooked by the corporate money-making machine because there is not enough demand or enough perceived demand: video or audio that is out of print or that has never been released in currently prevalent formats. There remains a sense, then, in which many of the cultural artifacts one finds on the internet are "unknown"; and a sense in which searching the net is a kind of scrounge and quest, albeit a much faster one for our faster age.