Sunday, December 19, 2004

Postcard from the Dead Novel Office

The impulse to play elder in the last post was prompted by a number of things, but this is one of them: some comments by Paul Theroux in a review of a biography of Graham Greene in the New York Times Book Review from October, which emerged from the pile in recent weeks.

"It is impossible now for any American under the age of 60 or so to comprehend the literary world that existed in the two decades after World War II, and especially the magic that fiction writers exerted upon the public."

It was the first time that the phrase "60 or so" seemed to apply. The "two decades" would mean until 1966, say. At age 20, I'd had maybe five years of absorbing that magic, which included novelists from earlier in the century (Joyce, Sinclair Lewis, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Kafka), plus more recent novelists (Mailer, Bellow, Styron, Roth, Updike, Flannery O'Connor) as well as giants of the 19th and 18th centuries. That after several years of falling regularly under the spell of novels, good and not so good, starting with the likes of Joe Archibald and John R. Tunis (boys sports), "Franklin W. Dixon" (Hardy Boys mysteries) and science fiction by Milton Lesser, Richard Marsten and Robert Heinlein (one of Heinlein's---Have Space Suit---Will Travel, I reread recently with great pleasure.)

The magic continued for my generation later in the 1960s, well into the age of movies and television, with Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, Ralph Ellison,Walker Percy, Malamud, John Barth, etc. as well as Kerouac, Henry Miller and William Burroughs, the underground of the 50s. Then Gabriel Garcia Marquez opened a new window of magic and mystique.

Novelists were important at least to me for most of my life. Theroux suggests that their mystique was at least partly due to their relative invisibility. Even into the 1960s, except for jacket photos, the occasional photos in magazines and very occasional television interviews, they were the distant magicians behind the words.

Some of these writers "who enjoyed that sort of fame as conspicuous absentees...have lived on into this age of intrusion," he writes, "where publishers conspire with bookstores to bully writers into the open and make them part of the selling mechanism."

"Invisible, they were the more powerful for seeming forever everywhere. These writers bewitched the imaginations of those of us who grew up in that period of glamour and solitude, and who wished to be writers ourselves."

That sounds familiar. My imagination was bewitched, and I wished to be a novelist. The mystique was part of it; the mystique of James Joyce, for example, was very strong, and Richard Ellman's biography of him traveled with me in the 60s, as near and dear as a bedside Bible.

I guess I am surprised to read how antique this apparently is. I know that the age of reading and writing is supposedly over, due to new media. But my dreams of writing novels coexisted with dreams of writing songs and plays and screenplays. I identified with Fitzgerald, but also with the Beatles and Dylan, and then Truffaut and Godard and Richard Lester . In fact my great dream as I left college was to produce a novel-in-a-box: a real print novel, accompanied by related recorded music and visuals, perhaps even a little movie, described in the novel. The kind of thing that these days is quite possible. (The closest I actually came was as co-editor of my college literary magazine. Our final issue in 1968 was a magazine-in-an-envelope: a print magazine of fiction and poems, two vinyl records, and 8x11 photographs and reproductions of student artworks.)

The novel remained vital in my life for many years, as I added heroes like Pynchon, DeLillo, Calvino, Kundera... In the 1990s I discovered Native American fiction, and so added Leslie Marmon Silko, Linda Hogan, Louise Erdrich, Thomas King and others. Though I read other contemporary novelists of various nationalities, the American Jim Harrison was the one that stuck.

And there are many more novelists I admire for what they say about literature and what they've done to keep literature vital, even if I am not particularly absorbed by their novels. (I might even like their short fiction better.) There are also many new novelists I've read with pleasure and admiration, but they don't mean the same thing to me, perhaps because they are younger.

I believed in the novel as the quintessential literary form, so full of potential that nearly every culture on earth has produced at least one great novel and great novelist. I used to quote with relish the statement of Marquez I found in an interview: "Some say the novel is dead. But it is not the novel. It is they who are dead."

Now the literary novel does seem tangential. It seems the greater energy and moment is going into genre fiction, such as detective novels and science fiction. It's not that the writing has declined so much in quality, but perhaps in scope. I don't know really. But I don't think it is entirely to be blamed on other media.

The lack of time to read, perhaps, though reading is still important to some people. I remember listening to a woman in an adult education class whose home life was so noisy and frenzied that she had to go outside and read in her car. But she did.

There is perhaps more to Theroux's point than a comment on mystique, which he suggests declines with exposure. The real mystique of the novelist is in creating the magic in the novel that we as readers recognize, because we were spellbound.

But something has undoubtedly happened at just about the time that novelists (along with other writers) felt they had to be part of the promotional machinery. The way books are sold has damaged the novel somehow, perhaps by placing it in the same category as promoting movies and TV shows, as well as soap and prescription drugs. Movies require huge promotion because they must make great amounts of money, because they cost great amounts of money. Novels don't cost very much really. Just a decent and somewhat secure life for the novelist, which wouldn't pay for the special effects in a cheap horror movie. Maybe not even the catering.
Novels still supply movies and television with stories, and even when they do, the novels can themselves be unlike the movie, or any movie. Novels can still be novels. They can still bring the multidimensional news.

But even though novelists must do the bookstore signings and the morning radio shows, they don't have all that much celebrity (except perhaps in the bookish cities like New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland.) Perhaps they are sinking back into the obscurity that nurtures mystique. And maybe you won't have to be pushing 60 to want to be a novelist like them.

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