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The deracination of literature We have fallen out of love with good writing

What would Nabokov say? (Seven Arts)

What would Nabokov say? (Seven Arts)


June 17, 2022   11 mins

As a fiction writer who teaches, I often speak about what I love in fiction, what to me makes it powerful and engaging. This is a version of a talk I have been giving for years to students and other interested parties; it is a talk I’ve become — what is the right word? — uncertain about in the last five years, not because I don’t believe what I’m saying or that I care about it less but because I’m not sure that people can find it meaningful anymore.

There are a number of reasons I feel this, most of which have to do with how we take in knowledge and information and how that has changed the nature of perception. I’m not saying anything new here: think iPhones and the constant staring there at, a skull-fracturing change which plainly has consequences beyond how people understand the reading and writing of fiction.

Which by itself — the reading and writing of fiction — is a very hard thing to talk about without falling all over yourself. First because opinions about it are highly subjective; one person will think a book is great, another person finds it boring, another will find it meaningless — these “findings” are socio-political to some extent, but they are also so personal they are almost impossible to parse. On top of that, good writing is contextual; a phrase or even an entire paragraph that is actually awful in one context may be fantastic in another. When you read a book review on Goodreads or the New York Times, what you’re usually reading is a description of the plot, what the characters are like, and what the (sometimes highly imaginative) reviewer thinks the writer is saying. This is because those elements are important, plus they are easy and fun to talk about.

But there is something even more important that almost never gets talked about, because it’s almost impossible to talk about, and that is what I think of as the inner weave, the subtle life inside the apparent story. Here, the plot or the theme functions almost like a conduit; an ineffable content which can be compared to a person’s unconscious or the guts of the body; you don’t see the unconscious but you feel it, you may misunderstand it but you feel it. We all have had the experience of speaking with someone who seems friendly, who is smiling at you and yet who is making you very uncomfortable — or the reverse: we’ve all known people who act like aggressive jerks, yet for some reason we feel warmly towards them; we are responding sympathetically to something that is happening under the social signalling and is even at odds with that signalling.

Unless you are a surgeon or are the witness to a horrible accident, you aren’t going to see the guts of the body, but if you touch the person you will feel them beating under your hand — on a hot day you might even smell them. But smell them and feel them or not, they are what is holding the body up. The unconscious and the viscera; each is a fundamental force behind the person you look at. Something comparable to that fundamental inner quality or qualities are what make a piece of writing alive or not. These inner qualities determine what the work is about as much as the plot or the theme or even the characters. Strangely, writers themselves sometimes don’t know what this inner force is in their own work because it is so entwined with our own way of seeing, we barely notice it, any more than we notice our own breath.

The paradox of this mystic inner quality is that its depth gets expressed by what we think of as a superficial quality: style. The best definition of style I know of was given to me by an eccentric older man who ran a second-handbook store where I went to school in Michigan. When I say “older” I mean that I was 22 and he was in his 40s but was so strange-looking he appeared older or really ageless; he had a shapeless body and he wore heavy coke-bottle glasses literally strapped to his bald egg-shaped head. He shared store space with a guy who sold plants and could be seen everyday perched on a stool amid a forest of fronds, reading intently.

I found him fascinating and took more from his store of knowledge — I believe he had read everything — than any of my professors. He considered style to be the “inevitable by-product” of the writer feeling their way through the shape of their creation, through word choices and small decisions as well as big ones. I didn’t like the term “by-product” because it didn’t sound central enough — style mattered to me even then — and he said that he meant it in the way the appearance of a plant or flower is the by-product of its most essential inner workings, that there is simply no other way for the flower or plant to look according to its genetic structure.

It is a definition I have never forgotten. It is a very exacting metaphor, and perhaps overly fanciful; I don’t know how often style and substance can be that closely connected. But it’s an inspiring way to look at how style, when arrived at through rigorous, sincere work, emerges from the inmost workings of a person; an extremely intimate consciousness.

An element of style that I especially care about is description of the world that the writer creates on the page. This currently undervalued technique can perform practical and useful functions, such as indirectly conveying a character’s emotions and locating the reader in a character’s world — where are they from, how much money do they have, what is their neighbourhood like? However, it can do more: it can give words to what is wordless and form to what is formless through creating pictures and images that irrationally make a connection to the deeper body of the story — the viscera or unconscious.

What do I mean by that? Fiction, even when it’s fantasy or sci-fi, is about life and life is not mostly about words. Consider how many things you’ve thought or seen that are impossible for you to say in words, even something simple, like someone’s facial expression. Life, even on a quiet day, happens so densely and quickly around us and most of it is about seeing, feeling and thinking in a not-strictly verbal way. Writing translates all of this into words but paradoxically the most powerful writing uses words in a way that transcends language to become more true to life; it mimics how we live in a world that is constantly changing and moving before our eyes.

Writing is a rational process of connected thoughts and ideas, but great writing comes from a stranger place; an interface between the intensely intimate perception of an individual and the social and natural worlds. It is related to the rational mind but in a way that dreams are related to thought —poetically and irrationally. It is through poetic and irrational means that the unseen world of your story gets radically illuminated, like a burst of music can illuminate a scene in a movie or TV show.

To give you an example of what I mean, I’m going to read an excerpt from a novel by Vladimir Nabokov called Pale Fire which, while not as widely loved as Lolita, is as beautiful in its own demented way. It is narrated by someone who may be actually demented, a queer literature professor at a college in New England and who, according to him, is a king in exile. His name is Charles Kinbote and a lot of his narration concerns his unrequited feelings for his neighbour, the poet John Shade; that story is intercut with memories of his kingdom in fabulous Zembla where he can have any man or boy he wants. But even in Zembla, convention dictated that he had to be married so marry he did, choosing a very beautiful young wife. Because she’s so young she doesn’t understand why he won’t have sex with her and she’s miserable. She’s not in any way a major character; she gets only a handful of the book’s 315 pages. I’m going to read two of those.

First notice the tone of the sentences, almost apart from their meaning: they are subsiding, soft, undulant, attenuated in shape, and that tone is amplified by the meaning of the words: “the listless grace of ineffable grief”. “a blundering of the soul”, the rippling water, the subsiding feeling that gets less and less, then returns in a great rush. The language is infused with longing for an ungraspable ideal which bleeds up through mundane reality: “the shallow diaphanous filth” versus the fantastic colours, the blurring and blending of the real and the unreal, the dream which might be delusional or might actually be more real than the character’s acted-out life, the “sunken treasure” solidly sitting under the scummy surface.

This imagery (which is emotionally deeper than perhaps anything else in the novel) is in effect a bridge between an imaginary world and the world that exists and the tension between the two; what’s hidden is most real and we may never truly see it. This is to me the emotional core of the book, hidden like the treasure, in an intense description about a secondary character, a description which is completely unnecessary to “move the plot forward”.

The next example is very different; it’s the first paragraph of a story by Flannery O’Connor titled Good Country People. It also spends a lot of words, proportionally, on a secondary character.

This is a great example of the utilitarian function of description: we meet a local personality, we hear how people speak to each other and get a glimpse of how they live and what they eat. We are also introduced to a theme of great stubbornness, a state of being in which only two directions are possible, where questioning is met with blankness. The voice is arch and a little comical but what it describes is heavy, corporeal, a limited world of grain sacks and heavy trucks, a place of no nuance or subtlety — a miserable place for a complex mind. And, at the end of the story a stubborn person with a complex mind is going to find herself literally in such a place, trapped by her own limited corporeality, in an extreme version of the state foreshadowed by the first paragraph. Which you don’t remember by the end of the story and don’t need to. Because you’ve felt it and will subliminally recognise the refrain at the end, particularly when Mrs Freeman appears to underscore it simply by being there.

It’s true that very few people can write this way; very few people even try, in part because this caring attention to such detailed descriptions of the physical world or imagery based on that world has for a long time been undervalued or not valued at all. Back in 2000 I did a college talk with George Saunders, who I consider a collegial friend. We were “in conversation” and I was saying something like what I just said, but with more focus on the practical uses of the technique, for example: to locate yourself in a character’s body, have the character look out the window. The entire world is out the window, what does it look like to the character, the sky, the trees, the buildings — and George passionately burst out “Like anybody does that? Who looks out the window and thinks about trees?  Only people in books do that.” Or something, I’m paraphrasing.

It made me realise I might sound either absurdly arty or just really old-school but — I think people still do look out the window. They might not think about trees, or beat-up buildings or cars or people or whatever else is out there — but they experience them. Or at least they used to. The year 2000 was before everybody had a phone and earbuds. That’s changed things. We are now much less likely to experience trees because
 we may not see them even if we do look out the window.

More recently, in 2019, Joyce Carol Oates came to Claremont McKenna where I was teaching and did an intimate Q&A. I brought up the writer John Updike; I was teaching a novel by him which was hard for students to read partly because he was sexist and backward in his racial attitudes, but even more because he described his worlds very, very densely. He would spend pages describing what a character sees driving down a country road at night. Students had a hard time even tracking it — they could, but they had to try. (Note: at least one of them, once he got the hang of it, loved it, which was great.)

I wanted to hear what Oates had to say about it because she’s of an older generation; she and Updike were peers. What she said was (paraphrasing again): yes, John could describe anything and everything but no one wants to read that any more, because (directly quoting) “people have moved on”/  I was really surprised by this. “Moved on”? We’ve moved on from the world we live in? How is that possible?

I want to make clear that I absolutely don’t mean any disrespect to Saunders or Oates, both of whom I admire. They were, after all, just talking off the top of their heads in a moment. (It’s possible that George in particular thought I sounded pretentious — and, actually, I can see how my words could sound that way. But these things are very real to me and deserve big earnest words, monster, gesticulating words.) In any case, their comments really stayed in my mind. Both writers are serious and brilliant people with sensibilities very different from mine and
 they may be right. Perhaps — let’s face it, probably — literature has moved on. We don’t look at the physical world as we once did, and so we don’t write about it as we once did. And that is just one way it is being taken for granted and abused to the point of destruction.

That may sound rhetorical, but it isn’t. It is remarkable to me, based on the sample of humans that I’ve had in writing classes, both “kids” and adults, how many people: 1) express great concern about climate change and its effects on the planet, 2) are completely uninterested in other humans’ visions of what the planet they want to save looks, feels and sounds like, and 3) are even less interested in writing or just noticing what it looks like to them. Even as a writing exercise it’s hard for them to say, for example, what someone’s face looks like in a fundamental way. Which is not to say that they can’t do it. Some of them do it very well once they try. But it doesn’t occur to them in the way I think it naturally occurred to people of my generation.

Fascinatingly, one student told me that he didn’t like to describe what people look like because he thought it was like staring at someone which was rude. Another remarked in a similar spirit that in describing people you have to assign value to their appearance in terms of conventional beauty standards. This second statement is completely untrue; conventional beauty standards can be made irrelevant when describing a face if you want to focus on how the person’s nature animates that face.

The first concern, about rudeness, makes more sense to me. But it confuses social looking with artistic looking. Artistic looking is about care and respect. It is like saying: I see this human in my mind’s eye and this particular human is worth the most precise attention I can give them. Because they won’t be here forever and they are as amazing as any animal you might see in a documentary devoted to the heart-breaking beauty of endangered animals. That is not just respect, that is reverence. It is a more intense, focused version of reverence that normal, non-writers can experience or at least used to potentially experience all the time.

I am thinking of something I saw on the subway in the early Eighties, perhaps 1982. I was sitting at the end of the last car on an express train and saw three or four boys — in my memory they are 11-13 years old, maybe younger — grouped around the back window, staring out of it with pure absorption. Curious, I stood to look over their shoulders and saw what they were so raptly taking in: the piercing combination of speed and density as the train gathered momentum and hammered through the massive concrete and metal tunnels, our view herking and jerking with the cars, snatching bits of burning light in metal casement, underground signage, the track flashing and going dark as we clangored through stations, past dozens of waiting humans, personalities firing off bodily messages that our eyes saw before our minds could read them. It was beautiful and the boys were radiant with it, this wordless amazement of things.

I think I remember this so vividly so many years later because even though it wasn’t “nature” the boys were looking at, the way they were looking showed natural reverence, something no one had to instruct them about. (Probably I also remember because I was young too, in my 20s, and was unconsciously forming what mattered to me, in life and in the art I was working on.) I’m sure they were not even aware of me but still, witnessing their shared seeing was like a spiritual recognition similar to what I might experience alone in my room, reading the world through the eyes of a great writer.

That may seem an odd comparison, but it makes sense to me because it is a real-life example of what I was talking about at the start of this piece, how the deep nature of stories can be revealed through descriptive imagery of small things irrelevant to the obvious narrative — unexpectedly poignant things we notice intensely or just out the corner of our eye, glimpsed patterns outside the spectrum of our daily lives.

It makes me sad to think that those same boys, if they existed today, wouldn’t be looking out the subway window because they would be staring at a phone. But even so, they would still have that ability to see in them, waiting to come alive.

***

A version of this essay first appeared on Mary’s Substack, Out Of It.

 


Mary Gaitskill is an American novelist, essayist, and short story writer. Her Substack is called Out Of It.


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M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
2 years ago

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past 15 years in the company of children, and I’ve noticed a real change in their ability to look at things compared to when I was a child. I have very vivid memories of looking intently, at cracks in the road, at shadows and how they moved, at the blinds in the window at the bank. Many children don’t have these experiences now because they are never in a position to, there is always a digital distraction a moment away.
It was the bank that really made me think about this, when a young girl I was looking after complained because I said we had to go to the drive-through teller. I was surprised because it would only take a moment, not nearly long enough to be boring from my perspective. Not at all like spending a half hour waiting in the bank line with my mother, where the only things to contemplate were the blinds, the fake plants, or the cracks in the flooring. It struck me that the removal of the opportunity to pay attention in a close way to such mundane things was really a loss.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago
Reply to  M. Jamieson

 the only things to contemplate were the blinds, the fake plants, or the cracks in the flooring” sounds like this is going to turn into a Hitchcock screenplay!

You put it very well – we had so much time to really look at things and let our minds see them this way, then that way – nothing else to do but just be, and let things speak to you.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago
Reply to  M. Jamieson

Yes, and to illuminate that a little in relation to the main essay, apart from the small group of silent boys imagining moving away at warp speed, Star Trek-style, by staring out the back of the train on the NY subway, in 1982, is the tale of Oliver Hardy, of Laurel and Hardy fame, when he was a very young child growing up in Madison, Georgia in the mid-to-late 1890s. In the book ‘Stan And Ollie: The Roots Of Comedy’ by Simon Louvish, after Hardy’s mother, Emmie, had opened a small hotel, when he was barely three years old, The Hardy House in Madison,

‘it was here, legend and fact agree, that young Norvell (Oliver) Hardy sat in the lobby of his mother’s hotel, watching the guests come and go, observing their diversity and their gestures, picking up the small details of behaviour, subterfuge, anxiety, that he was to draw on in the distant future. There was also Aunt Susie, Emily’s sister, Susan Norvell, a lady of refinement from whose manners Norvell was able to pick up and retain such etiquette as the proper way of holding a teacup.’

Probably it seems a tad fanciful to imagine a very young child noticing, taking in, all the little various details of life around him or her. That would seem to be the case today what with all the tech devices that are plunged into children’s hands. I am reminded of the week I spent on holiday near MĂĄlaga some five years ago when in the lobby of a hotel, a young boy, slightly older than Oliver Hardy would have been, passed his days staring at his laptop, headphones on. He looked a happy enough kid, his fingers tapping the keys a lot – but instead of his noticing all the eccentricities of the world passing him by in the lobby, the world ended up noticing him. Where were his folks? Was he the hotel manager’s son? How could he just sit there all day like that? Was he not supposed to be on his holidays? He seemed to be the opposite of the very young Ollie.

When Oliver Hardy turned about eight, his mother moved to Milledgeville, Georgia, where she became the proprietress of another hotel. In Milledgeville, according to Louvish, ‘Norvell Hardy passed his teenage years.’
It would seem more plausible for the young Oliver to have observed the guests coming and going when he was here, a little older. But by this stage, he must have taken a great interest in his surroundings and in people. And with the arrival of cinema, he ran, before he turned twenty, Milledgeville’s first motion picture theatre. He was the projectionist as well as the manager. Later he would become the actor he used to project on to the screen.
I suppose there is a fear that if the very young do not observe their own little world, absorbed as they are daily by little screens, that they won’t properly engage with the world. And if they ever encounter ‘good literature’, it will mean less or nothing to them. How will THEY ever make the leap on to the other side of the screen?

According to Louvish: ‘Milledgeville, in Central Georgia, is an important, if sometimes neglected station along the Antebellum, Old South Trail. Planned at the turn of the nineteenth century as the state capital, it hovers today between the cultural heritage of local writer Flannery O’Connor and Uncle Remus fabulist Joel Chandler Harris, who was born a few miles upwind, in Eatonton.’

Judy Simpson
Judy Simpson
2 years ago
Reply to  M. Jamieson

Clouds are another neglected object of contemplation. I recall countless moments as a child, lying on my back on the grass, either alone or in the company of siblings or friends, simply contemplating the clouds.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Simpson

Gregory’s Girl!

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago

One worrying trend I’ve noticed in contemporary literature is the inability for some readers to separate a character’s thoughts from the author’s. So for instance, if you write up a character that is bigoted or sexist someone may suggest that said character is an actual reflection of the author’s own thoughts and feelings. Such readers are known to go on Twitter and intimidate publishers into cancelling authors.
Another annoying trend I’ve noticed is that of inclusion. A friend of mine recently submitted a novel for publication, but was told that he had to include at least one LGBQT character even though his novel is set in historic Appalachia.
Even the role-playing gaming franchise Dungeons & Dragons is succumbing to this. Some critics have asked for orcs (and other fantasy tropes) to be banned due to them being perceived as racially problematic:
https://www.wired.com/story/dandd-must-grapple-with-the-racism-in-fantasy/
Here is one article that, without a shred of irony, talks about making dungeons wheelchair accessible:
https://www.polygon.com/2021/1/12/22225381/dungeons-dragons-candlekeep-mysteries-wheelchair-accessible
I’m having a hard time imagining how to dungeon-master this scene:
“Welcome to my torture chamber,” Gundrek, Master of Pain, sneers at you with his fleshless face. “You have walked hundreds of leagues from the Great Desert of Anthoriel all the way here to to the Cracks of Vorgorath, only to wind up as my hapless prisoners. Thankfully, I have all manner of fiendish contraptions with which to torment you – oh, wait, one of you is in a wheelchair – do please forgive my oversight. I’ll have my orc slave, Jujubu, lower you down – what? Oh yes, I can’t say ‘slave’ any more, and orcs are racist, aren’t they? – hmm, in that case, um, my kobold man-servant – oh, yes that’s right, ‘man-servant’ excludes women – I’ll have Jujubu, my gender-neutral kobold companion, lower your wheelchair down to the Pit of Slow and Agonizing Doom where my pet carrion-crawlers will slowly suck the flesh from your bones. There, are you feeling quite comfortable? Good. Jujubu!” Gundrek, Master of Pain, snaps his fingers imperiously, while continuing to glare at you with his red-glowing eyeballs. “Go to Quartermaster Thorak and tell him to install a wheelchair ramp to the Pit of Slow and Agonizing Doom. I’d simply hate for someone on Twitter to accuse me of being an ableist. Last time they were all over me for being a homophobe when I had Joresh Manlover put to death. Pity they didn’t stop to think for one second that I was merely being inclusive…”

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

A thought-provoking essay. A feeling-provoking essay. Steinbeck’s dream-like opening chapter in The Grapes Of Wrath, I think, may help draw anyone who knows very little about early 20th century American history into the setting, the huge chunk of Oklahoma that was what it was. But not just the setting: into the mood and the minds of the folk who live in that world.
Perhaps some readers might balk at such descriptions (“He goes on a bit”), and they may disappointingly skim-read those sections. But those readers might appreciate all the same a movie-maker’s sensitive treatment of that opening chapter, just because a long book has been condensed into a three-hour film, say. THAT, they have time for.

Ever since mobile phones came to folk in force, the idea of “endless summer days”, that phrase in itself, strikes an odd thought, especially among the young today. They just don’t look up at the sky stretching into the distance anymore. There is apparently too much to do. To get done.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago

Steinbeck didn’t follow Elmore Leonard’s Rules #9 and 10, but the cinematographer did, perhaps making G of W a better movie than book. For sheer depth, scope, and magic without a single skip-able word, anything by Robertson Davies will always deliver.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

Lovely essay. Very thought-provoking.
Great writing always contains some undercurrent of meaning and imagery that’s beyond the conscious control of the author and that communicates the essence of the story. I think it’s a function of originality and is utterly spoiled by self-conscious cleverness trying to be arty.

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Self-concious artiness describes a lot of what is supposed to be literary fiction now. I am disappointed almost every time I try and read anything of that type. I’m finding better luck overall with genre books which are often more literary in a way that seems authentic to me. Or if not, at least they aren’t up their own arse and there is usually a story.

Last edited 2 years ago by M. Jamieson
Hitchcock Blonde
Hitchcock Blonde
2 years ago
Reply to  M. Jamieson

I agree that most 21st-century literary fiction is too self-conscious and pretentious, to the point that it actually becomes a genre with strict conventions of its own — yet doesn’t consider itself “genre writing.” There is a predictable tone that dominates short and long form literary fiction today, an elite language of metaphors and poetic descriptions that I have a hard time getting absorbed in because I can’t shake the feeling that the author was trying so hard to sound IMPORTANT they forgot to let the story, descriptions, and dialogue flow and breathe a bit on their own. It’s not natural but forced.
That’s why I read the classics, and 20th century literature mostly. Somehow Fitzgerald and Nabokov could write poetically without the self-important elitism, the pretension, in my opinion. Even Theodore Dreiser, with his dense, pages-long descriptions of trees and lakes and internal conflict in An American Tragedy, for example, may be tough to get through, but I find rewarding in the end because I sense the earnestness, the honesty, the layers of socially conscious meaning beneath the surface, rather than a hollow attempt to win a literary prize.
I feel like in the old days, stories were stories, and not as bound by the labels “literary” or “mystery” or “young adult.” I mean, what if Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye in 2022? Would he even be able to publish it in today’s market? There is certainly no snappy elevator pitch possible, no shot at a Netflix adaptation, no genre, no highfalutin language associated with modern lit fic. Or Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. These are absorbing character-driven stories with no real plots to speak of, well-written but readable by anyone with the literacy level of a 13 or 14-year-old.
I hope I’m wrong but I don’t see these books being published today.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago

This is an interesting essay. I have often wondered why I am no longer drawn to reading novels in the way that I voraciously consumed them when I was young. I think it is partly the lack of the density of expression and observation she describes in modern literature but also the decline of the poetic eye and perhaps ear. The poem is a condensed form of literature and the subtleties of sound in modern poetry seem to be lacking today compared to the writers of the past where the poetic sound that I can enjoy even in languages I am not all that familiar with like German and Italian seem absent in modern poetry. I tend to shuttle between the thought that it is me that has changed and that the change is in the writers. The essay’s author is pushing me towards the latter.

Hitchcock Blonde
Hitchcock Blonde
2 years ago

The part I find saddest is how many will defend the loss of Nabokovian literary style because “Who has time?” or “Nobody cares.” How many other awe-inspiring, life-affirming forms of artistic expression will we later lament having lost because we were too busy to appreciate them? Busy doing what, surfing the vast cesspool of sensationalistic garbage known as the internet? Bingeing a steady stream of forgettable “content” designed to glue our eyeballs to screens but leave our minds and souls malnourished? Sure, write me off as an old crank, a literary snob. But before you do: I’m not that old, and I never even went to college or formally studied literature. I simply see the value in weaving words together in a unique and creative way, and recognize the fact that it has taken humanity thousands of years to develop these tools of language and literature, to reach such lofty levels of expression. We should be horrified at the very thought of throwing it away.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

One of my favourite opening chapters of any novel is Call Of The Wild by Jack London. There’s just something universal about it that anyone in the world can relate to.

Hitchcock Blonde
Hitchcock Blonde
2 years ago

Agree. Your comment made me seek out and re-read it, and it’s a great example of the kind of beautiful yet not pretentiously artsy writing we rarely see anymore.

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
2 years ago

Are we talking about literature with a capital L here? There’s too much snobbery about Literature. One famous author said writers like Terry Pratchet, J K Rowling and Jeffrey Archer have done more for literature than anyone else and I agree with that. If I see a book with “Booker prize winner” on the cover I generally give it a miss. I don’t think literature is dying but it is changing. Books have never been more accessible. You can carry a library around with you on your smartphone, kindle or iPad.
It’s easy to self publish books now and while a lot of it might be rubbish I think it’s great that people are able to do that. You don’t have to read them but people do and enjoy them. I’m not a writer myself but I know how hard it is to get published and make a living from writing.
There are lots of excellent new and old writers around who are doing great work. They’ll probably never be nominated for a prize but their work is valuable nevertheless.
Long descriptions of skies, landscapes and people can be boring, you have to admit. Some writers can evoke a place or person in just a few of sentences. Others don’t do any description at all and just leave it to the readers imagination. I think all ways are valid.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
2 years ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

I’ll admit that long descriptions of skies, landscapes and people can be boring – but I submit that, in the right hands, they need not be. If an author’s descriptions fail for you, that’s either plain unfortunate, or the fault of a mediocre writer. Yet lyrical descriptions can be powerful: I think of Cormac McCarthy’s novel “Suttree”, in which the author fashions strange styles of beauty from the most sordid and unpromising of material.
My own tastes cut across the spectrum of literary “seriousness”, if there really is such a thing, and at base, I suppose my main concern is that (to borrow from Kurt Vonnegut) there’s an interesting narrative involving characters about whom I give a damn. Absent these things and all you’re left with is flummery and window dressing.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

I very much enjoyed this essay, and shall certainly be pondering some of the points made. Even though I adore reading, I’m not terribly good at analysing books/literature but some things did come to mind while reading:
1) Re: describing someone’s face, or the inability/unwillingness to. When reading these paragraphs, I thought spontaneously of Kate Clanchy who has been treated so awfully for the sin of writing that a child had “almond shaped eyes”. By my standards, this is a common, harmless and quite flattering way of describing someone’s facial features. And yet it was the trigger for the kind of uproar you might have expected if she’d written that the kid had a face like a smacked bottom that only a mother could love. Which aspiring writer, wishing to secure a publishing contract for their work would even venture onto that ice rink?
Literature and its creation and form depend on the prevailing conditions surrounding it. There weren’t very many female writers prior to the 20th century because the social conditions were not conducive to there being many. Evolving values and Virginia Woolf striding out into the fray and planting her flag with “A Room of One’s Own” mean that today, things are very different. Today, social (media) conditions where any harmless statement can lead to a sh**storm that ruins your life are not the ideal breeding ground for good literature. It is a slippery slope.
2) I loved the part of this essay about writing being a conduit for a deeper world and feelings existing within the novel. I have been living in Central Europe now for almost 20 years and have devoted much time to reading authors from the region – Czech, Polish, Slovak, Hungarian. These countries all have different literary traditions, but a feature which I find binds their respective literary cultures together – and particularly in terms of twentieth century literature – is an underlying feeling of uncertainty about the reality the book seeks to describe. These countries have been through so much turbulence and change, their literature is suffused with the idea that what appears real may not be: it could dissolve in the next second to reveal something completely different. Many characters operate on the basic assumption that their senses may be deceiving them.
Milan Kundera, Olga Tokarczuk, the great Bruno Schulz and Witold Gombrowicz are good examples of this.
3) Joyce Carol Oates. I read Mother, Missing a few years ago and hugely enjoyed it. Recommend!

Last edited 2 years ago by Katharine Eyre
Ballantrae
Ballantrae
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Congratulations on your selection of authors – they are all excellent, although for me Kundera is not quite in the same rank as the others. And chapeau if you can read them all in the original – I can just about manage Polish, but I don’t have any Czech.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago
Reply to  Ballantrae

No, I’m not that good! I can read English & German with no problems and French quite well. I speak a smattering of Czech but nowhere near enough to read a book! Goals for my 40s?

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
1 year ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Wiki has 173 entries for Victorian women writers. Not sure how many you were expecting.
Contra Woolf is the image of all those respectable nineteenth century women reading endless numbers of sentimental novels, just as they perhaps continue to do really. Surely these were written then by women just as they are now.
The change since then is that men have now withdrawn from that part of writing and publishing.

polidori redux
polidori redux
2 years ago

“I was teaching a novel by him which was hard for students to read partly because he was sexist and backward in his racial attitudes,”
Hardly this writers fault, but why did her students find it hard? An essential aspect of adulthood is being able to see the world as others see it, without having an attack of the vapours. Perhaps her students should give literature a miss.

Avery Morrow
Avery Morrow
2 years ago

In 1980s Japan, there was a very strong concern among literati that people were forgetting how and why to read books. The result was a massive wave of books about “how to read,” with each author giving their own opinion on why it is better to read books than to read reviews in the newspaper or skim the headlines. Some of these 1980s “how to read” (dokushojutsu) books are very fascinating to me and they are among the few Japanese language books I keep in my library purely for pleasure.
Did the “how to read” books succeed in bringing back slow reading? Of course not. As Gaitskill remarks, the public’s mentality was changing. Long before the era of smartphones, the sort of contemplation that people wanted in their lives was shifting away from Woolfian heavy description, perhaps towards genre fiction, television, and film. But I believe the “how to read” genre is incredibly valuable for preserving the art of the medium, and this essay is an excellent contribution.

Last edited 2 years ago by Avery Morrow
Richard Craven
Richard Craven
2 years ago

The death of literature is mainly due to the woke racist interdiction against white male fiction.

Last edited 2 years ago by Richard Craven
Mark Agnew
Mark Agnew
2 years ago

This is the most inspiring beautiful essay I have read on ‘Uherd’. Worth my sbscription for the year.

Victoria Cooper
Victoria Cooper
2 years ago

Excellent essay. I admit I am reluctant to read anything written after the sixties. One of my criteria is putting characters to names. So often a book is threaded with names and by the end of the book I still have no idea who they are. I am not too keen on the flicking back and forth in time either, it seems a gimmick to make the book more exciting. It should not need to.

Curious Person
Curious Person
2 years ago

It is characteristic of our time in history that we have many talented writers, but they have nothing at all to say. This is true in literature and even more prominent in theater and film, where our actors are exceptionally skilled but what they are given to say is rarely more than clever and witty. Thus we all subside into a morass of entertainment.

Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
2 years ago
Reply to  Curious Person

You need to pick your authors more carefully.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago

I think you can still find very good use of nature in literature, for example, Barbara Kingsolver. But there is also a popular genre of nature writing, think of Robert MacFarlane, or UnHerd’s very own John Lewis-Stempel.

When people talk of style I’m reminded of Truman Capote’s famous put-down: “That’s not writing, that’s just typing’. Too many novels these days are just typing. Some books have a very obvious style that supports the narrative, e.g. Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown, or Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Others are a bit less obvious, but I would say Edward St Aubyn is a stylist: characters, places, events are all caught in that consistent, restrained, ironic tone.

I first noticed style when I got to university, from a school with no library, and a home with no books, and found that apart from reading the obligatory Dostoevsky, Eliot, Hardy etc, I had time to read people like Joan Didion, or see films like Robert Altman’s Nashville .. and it struck me that not just the subject matter was contemporary, but that the style was also very 1970s, very now. It looked different, sounded different; it’s architecture, whether words or images, chimed with the zeitgeist.

There could be a 2020’s literary style, but I’m not seeing it. Any suggestions?

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

I’ve seen a lot of reviews and articles saying Sally Rooney is an example of what the 2020s are going to bring/inflict on us. Cannot comment as cannot bring myself to read any of her stuff.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Could be. I read Normal People, and the style does suit the detached, just can’t really commit characters. In the end, there’s not really much there. The story could continue, but should it and should I commit to reading it? Life as a series of transient phases.

I want to finish a novel feeling that my experience of life has been expanded. I want to have been stretched. I don’t really want to be left with the feeling that life is smaller than I had thought. Did you read Jean Rhys when you were young? She gave disappointment a bit more interest.

I would love to know how fans of Sally Rooney would react to reading Faulkner, or let’s go even further … how about a James Purdy novel that ends with the spectacular fragmentation/destruction of the main character. There are hundreds of great novels to read, but walk into a bookshop today and your chances of picking a great one are fairly slim.

Last edited 2 years ago by Russell Hamilton
Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

Your description of Rooney novels sounds like the literary equivalent of a film I saw this week and enjoyed immensely – The Worst Person in the World (a Norwegian production). I think this inability to commit, always thinking something better is going to come along in a world of seemingly endless possibility is very much an attitude widespread among millennials/Gen Z cohorts. The ones that grew up in a globalised world dominated by the internet and information overload.
I read Wide Sargasso Sea back in 2004 while I was waiting to leave London. Tbh I can’t remember alot about it. Might be one for my re-read list!
Currently reading “The Beekeeper of Aleppo” by Christy Lefteri. A nice book and very much of its time.

Big Kagi
Big Kagi
2 years ago

I’m a fan of both Rooney and Faulkner. They’re after very different kinds of experience, but each has found an idiom that takes us into that particular experience. The more interesting question is what Gaitskill would think about, say, Eliza Haywood or Jane Barker.

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

That’s a depressing thought.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Wouldn’t read her stuff after she decided to go after Jews by not publishing her book in Hebrew to punish Israel.

Dawn McD
Dawn McD
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

I’m sure the Israelis cry themselves to sleep every night because they can’t read Rooney’s books. Don’t most Israelis know English, anyway? In which case they can decide, in a fully enabled fashion, not to read Rooney’s books.

Kerie Receveur
Kerie Receveur
2 years ago

Tom Cox is worth investigating, too.

John Grabowski
John Grabowski
2 years ago

I’ve been searching in vain for a 2020’s style too–in movies, novels and everything else, even journalism. So far all I can see is Capote’s “typing.”

John Grabowski
John Grabowski
2 years ago

She’s hardly new and in 2022 might well be “done” writing (or so she has told me) but I am fanatical over Deborah Eisenberg. She works primarily in the short story genre, though her “short” stories are very long. I never knew you could do the things she does with the form, but it’s not artsy or unnecessarily complex at all. Complex sometimes, but not unnecessarily so.

Edmund Foster
Edmund Foster
2 years ago

I love reading (non-fiction) and I love good stories. I haven’t seen many of the latter around.

Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
2 years ago
Reply to  Edmund Foster

If you are looking for good stories, I would recommend The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and anything by Amitav Ghosh (Ibis Trilogy in particular) or David Mitchell.

Last edited 2 years ago by Philip Burrell
Edmund Foster
Edmund Foster
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

Thank you

Paul Hambrick
Paul Hambrick
2 years ago

Perhaps this essay is lamenting the loss of the transcendent. It took many years of maturity (and frankly, a study of the Hebrew language) before I would appreciate art forms such as high prose and poetry. Many layers of data are hidden in the choice of a single word and, even sometimes, the letters that make up the word choice. Not all writing transmits mere knowledge and explanation or paints a picture in the mind’s eye. Often, we should simply receive what we are reading.
But that’s an old way of thinking. People have moved on. Just as people have moved on from anything unexplained by the five senses or unmeasurable in a laboratory, if it can’t be measured, it is meaningless and not in any way meaningful.
Just give me the plot points, enough character description for me to barely care what happens to them, reveal the mystery and let me move on.
No.
There are many things in life that always look like they are dying, and they never actually die. Literature is one of those things.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

In the book “Connected: The Amazing Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives” the authors point out how we live in networks of connections – and how we are unconsciously affected by our friends views and also the views of our friend’s friends (who we don’t even know).
It’s quite possible that the Social Network of “people who derive pleasure and meaning from literature” has reduced in significance as there are so many other social networks available. Which is, I think, supporting Mary Gaitskill’s point. But in today’s atomised social networks there is no compelling argument to support ‘literature’ over other unconsciously learned social values.

Yigru Zeltil
Yigru Zeltil
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

The problem with this hypothesis may be that people who derive pleasure and meaning from literature ”in itself” might have always been a minority – or did not even really ever exist.
On one hand, there is the certainty that the vast majority of readers only want a ”good” story and/or something relatable, and the near certainty that even most people who write only ever want to tell a story, usually their story. On another hand, whoever cares more about how they write, or even experiment with how language works and what makes a writing, is in the minority and probably possesses certain autistic traits… That being said, at this point, one could say even this counts as ”stimming”, so everything about writing is potentially ”therapeutic”…
Oh well. My pet theory as an autistic leftie is that high modernist literature was essentially a ”conspiracy” of autistic middle-/upper-class writers. Of course, what matters most remains the social learned part, where people acquire the taste of such literature on an institutional basis. Look up Bourdieu’s Les rĂšgles de l’art to understand how writers like Samuel Beckett ever ended up profitable for their editors. Hint: it has to do with the notion of the autonomy of literature.
Nowadays, literature does not afford this illusion of autonomy – case in point, when certain people defend the “aesthetic value” of literature, most often they are actually just attacking “woke” criteria so they can re-enforce their own “conservative” criteria and claim being somehow less (or not at all) ideological. Most of these people never really talk much about the technicalities of writing or about “writer’s writers” (aka writers for the kind of people who are nerding out over things like Oulipo), though they care a lot about how the “woke” only read the canonical classics through their agenda.
When I started reading and writing books, I already had access to computers and picture magazines, that is how I was raised. Truth to be told, I started writing as I was fascinated with manipulating language and being able to do it by myself, yet it was also the barely conscious thought that through writing I could find a space of dignity, where I could be more than a “freak” and an awkward “nerd”. Eventually, I realized that the literary field – at least in my country, where it is dominated by conservative types – is not a safe space, but a battlefield, with a battle I went on to battle out of stubbornness, and a lot of people I have thought of as allies turned out to be hostile. Now I think publishing literature is not really a game worth playing if one does not possess enough privilege. Otherwise, one is bound to end up in this era practicing literature as a form of political action..

Olive
Olive
2 years ago

‘Style is not something applied. It is something inherent, something that permeates. It is of the nature of that in which it is found, whether the poem, the manner of a god, the bearing of a man. It is not a dress. It may be said to be a voice that is inevitable. A man has no choice about his style.’ Wallace Steven, Two or Three Ideas

Moshe Prigan
Moshe Prigan
2 years ago

The essay brings foreward important issues like consciousness, connection, meaning, undercurrent imagery – elements not found in standard mainstream mostly realistic writing that dominates the bookstores nowadays. Writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Gerald Murnane, Adolfo Bioy Casares are good examples of these invisible aspects.

Last edited 2 years ago by Moshe Prigan
Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
2 years ago

I can’t say I had ever heard of Mary Gaitskill and having looked up her in Wikipedia, I don’t think I will be reading any of her books. An interesting essay however despite the stupid title. I am sure people have been writing about the death of literature since Homer popped his clogs.
There is still a wealth of literary fiction writers to keep any serious reader satisfied. I am currently reading the Nobel Prize winning Polish author, Olga Tokarczuk’s magnum opus “The Books of Jacob” which I would thoroughly recommend. Looking at my GoodReads page that would appear to be the 17th book I have read this year (16 novels and 1 history book).
Unlike one previous commenter who avoids Booker Prize winning novels, I scan all the main literary prize short and long lists to find new names to add to the already large list of authors whose new novels I buy as soon as they become available in paperback. Recent discoveries include Richard Powers, Colson Whitehead and the aforementioned Polish writer.
Mary may be right about the change in literary style but I can’t see any excuse for anybody interested in literary fiction not being able to find plenty of current authors producing “good writing”.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

I’m with the commenter who avoids prize winners, and yet, I just read Damon Galgut’s The Promise, which won the Booker last year. The writing isn’t bad, but he isn’t as good as Coetzee, and I would never recommend the book to anyone. A cast of miserable, damaged characters set against the racial troubles of South Africa. I didn’t learn anything, I was glad to finish it.

OTOH, I also just read The Dressmakers of Auschwitz – I always alternate fiction and non-fiction – and though I wouldn’t normally pick up a book that had anything to do with Auschwitz (who wants to be depressed?), I would recommend it: a well-written book and a different angle on the horror you’ve always known about.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

I won’t be reading any of her books, because I have decided only to read books by white men until white men are allowed to get published again.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

There is an ancient name for this disconnect: Tragedy. It is a profundity, sadly occluded in slickened screens that shine with with contantly irreleveant serendipity. But beneath and somewhere beyond the screen is a masked jester modus operandi is comedy.
Comedy is the conductor of our instantly gratified times, comedy, masked, emasculated and false feminized, yet smiling gayly even as the world falls apart and the animals depart. Where do they go?
They go to ground, as all electrified energy does. And such is our destiny, our fate, our future and our date with tragic inevitability. From dust we sprung; in dust is rung out that fateful knell for whom our too-lately heard bell tolls. Even so, we manage somehow to slither through some glistening turnstile, en route to yon magic carpet subway where we descend into the underbelly of civilization and then rise in a masquerade of laughable tragedy. But Mary! you just gotta roll with the punches, even as you smile from mile to mile, in style.

William Shaw
William Shaw
2 years ago

“We have fallen out of love with good writing“
Who decides what “good writing” is?

Last edited 2 years ago by William Shaw
Mayo Adams
Mayo Adams
1 year ago
Reply to  William Shaw

We all do, of course. That there is disagreement as to what consitutes it is no argument that it doesn’t exist.

Last edited 1 year ago by Mayo Adams
Shawn Eng
Shawn Eng
2 years ago

“The publishing world is still dominated by a very specific type of rising star. She is online, progressive, and impeccably feminist. She has an elite background, got her BA at a northeastern liberal arts institution, before picking up a post-graduate qualification or two. Currently, she resides in a gentrified part of Brooklyn. Ironically, these beneficiaries of a push for inclusion have shaped a literary scene that is as lacking in diversity as their apartment blocks. They consider two types of books worthy of publication: the female-narrated, elite-world comedy of manners and the multicultural narrative of brown victimization and suffering. What they especially don’t consider worthy, which explains its disappearance from the publishing industry altogether, is the heterosexual male bildungsroman. Lads: it’s over.” 
https://im1776.com/2021/04/27/the-new-literary-bad-boys

Garrett R
Garrett R
2 years ago

The past couple of years I have become increasingly baffled as to why television shows are not considered for their literary merits. We read plays and consider the works as literature, but we do not assign television writing much, if any, literary value.

Why?

Television shows are an incredible art form. I agree that instant gratification coupled with oodles of information have rewired how we see and process the world. I disagree that great art is a victim of this change.

Furthermore, for those who subscribe to a belief that literary works must be the work of one mind, I say that is preposterous. Scientific achievements have long moved into teamwork as have economics. We have very talented writers who have given us incredible shows in the past 20 or so years. Shakespeare was incredibly popular during his time as television shows are. Why do the literary community overlook such beautifully crafted lines from a range of incredible shows that touch the inexpressible?

Last edited 2 years ago by Garrett R
William Shaw
William Shaw
2 years ago
Reply to  Garrett R

The Expanse is an example of excellent writing that is the product of two writers
 each writing alternate chapters actually.
The winner of many awards.

Alan Girling
Alan Girling
2 years ago
Reply to  Garrett R

I don’t watch much TV, but IMO, Mad Men from a few years ago had much to say for it. It’s true that TV is hugely collaborative, but I have to say, I take that the core vision of an individual creator, in this case, Matthew Weiner, was what made it really worth watching, not only as entertainment, but as something of artistic worth. For me, that is what engagement with art is essentially about, a relationship between the minds of two individuals. Without that basic contract, one is left with one side of the equation being little more than a committee. I don’t see anything produced by a committee as being at all satisfying the way great art can be. Where would the ‘vision’ come from?

Ed Aral
Ed Aral
2 years ago

Rob Nixon writes very trenchantly about the attention nexus and its environmental impacts in Slow Violence.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

A la recherche du temps perdu – never read it, not even started, as by dint of its reputation, I couldn’t face even attempting this Mount Everest of description.

Maureen Finucane
Maureen Finucane
2 years ago

Many people say they don’t read anymore.

Adam Wolstenholme
Adam Wolstenholme
2 years ago

Male writers in particular are increasingly wary of describing people, as I suggest here …
http://adamjwolstenholme.blogspot.com/

B Davis
B Davis
1 year ago

A beautiful, contemplative essay.
Too true.
But we do get what we pay for. This cannot be a surprise.
“The world is too much with us; late and soon….Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” That world that both Ms.Gaitskill & Wordsworth mourn, each in their own way, has been transmogrified.
For the post-modern Progressive there is no world — not really. Rather there is ME, the holy “I”…I celebrate myself and sing myself! My own lived truths , my subjective experiential sum is all there is: no better, no worse than yours, or theirs, or anyone’s… but always different & apart. There is no absolute in any of it. Nothing which is any more real or less real than anything else. Nothing to compare anything to and why compare when in the end, everything’s equally valid and valued (meaning, of course, that nothing is valued).
If there is no heaven, no hell, then value is whatever. Why bother with close-observation if your observations of the thing doesn’t matter in the least, nor does the ‘thing’ itself you’ve wasted your time observing (even were he ‘Proteus rising from the sea’). Reality, in this Humpty-Dumpty paradise, is …’just what I choose it to (be) — neither more nor less.’
The question always, per Humpty, is ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
But that is what happens, when “we’ve given our hearts away”, pixel, by click, by link….in endless scrolling, onanistic obsession.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago

I reread Eliot’s Daniel Deronda earlier this year and one of the things that struck me was the profoundly superior vocabulary most of the 19th century writers had. I’m not talking about just a few arcane words, but orders of magnitude. When you are a modern writer and your trying to work with a much smaller toolbox it has to impose some limits.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
2 years ago

The opening lines of Pretty Poli, or Monsieur Perroquet’s Ascent to a High Perch, by Richard CravenPrologue – April Fool’s Day in Bath
For that quarter hour as I waited, I gazed out of the window, which afforded a splendid prospect of the addicts and cider-drinkers cavorting with their hounds upon the grass across the road. A backdrop of honey-coloured Regency stone. It was very sunny, with the promise of warmth, although the gales of the previous night had yet to abate, and most of the outside tables were unoccupied. Eventually, somebody’s dog bit the raucous gentleman on crutches, and there ensued the predictable commotion. 

A voice spoke to me then, and I looked up, and found that I was being addressed by a thin man in yellow and black cycling lycra, for which he was just a little too old.
“It’s all put on for the tourists,” he said disgustedly, “reality busking. We pay for it. Was you waitin’ for Mr Vagus?”
I agreed that this was so.
“He couldn’t make it,” said the thin man, “got his bankruptcy petition. County Court in Bristol.”
“He might have told me,” I said crossly, “after I’ve come all this way.”
“Well I’ve come instead,” said the thin man very curtly.
“Have you got what we 
”
“Upstairs.”

I followed him through the salon, between the tables at which befuddled Japanese and Germans sat and sipped their tea. We went through the kitchen, where a temperamental hipster with a huge beard appeared to be stuffing the a**s of a creature resembling a pangolin with handfuls of coarse red sand.

We emerged into a dirty little courtyard full of bins, some blown over by the circulating wind. From these, rotting foodstuff spilled. The sun’s rays in declivity illuminated grime. The thin man opened a door, exposing a narrow staircase which led upwards into gloom.
“After you,” he said insinuatingly, and as I climbed I heard behind myself his laboured breathing.

At the top, a closed door. The thin man had to brush past me, and from his contact I had the briefest presentiment of something beyond all foulness. Thankfully, he did not attempt to kiss me, but instead opened the door, and I found myself on the threshold of a very dark and dingy room, with thick curtains over the window entirely blotting out the sun. The thin man snapped a switch, infecting the room with a palsied glow from the bare bulb pendant from the ceiling’s centre.
“In there,” he said, motioning with a jerk of his head towards a fibreboard cabinet leaning crookedly against the peeling and clammy wallpaper.
I opened the door to this contraption, and found myself inspecting a large number of children’s board games, and some videos with very disturbing titles. I turned and looked at the thin man.
“I don’t see 
”
“It’s the toilet roll you want. Underneath the Cluedo.”
I looked at the toilet roll underneath the Cluedo.
“You can touch it,” said the thin man, “it’s not second hand.”
“I need to get out of here,” I said, “I think I’m going to be sick.”

In the courtyard, more bins had been blown over by the wind. More foodstuff spilt therefrom. In the kitchen, the hipster with the huge beard had finished stuffing the pangolin, and had commenced angrily gutting a shaved macaque. In the salon, the Japanese and the Germans continued to sip their tea, and had been joined in this endeavour by a family of irritable Slavs.

Outside among the tables, solitary tourists hunched disconsolate against the wind. The addicts and the cider-drinkers and the raucous gentleman on crutches were arguing with the police. Their hounds circled each other and growled. The thin man rematerialised at my elbow.
“Got what you wanted?”
I had, yes. 
“See you around.”
He kicked the dog lifting its leg against the bicycle leaning on the window where it said “fride chickin”. I watched him pedal past the emergency accommodation charity and the drug treatment agency. He turned the corner at the end of the street and disappeared, and I do not think that I have seen him since.

I did not want to stay another hour in that sedulously faked city. I walked the half-mile back to the parking lot, and got into my car, and drove away, purposing never to come back.

Upon my return home, and much against my better inclinations, I set to examining the toilet roll. It was covered in a madman’s scrawl, but I could not countenance the prospect of another of those torturous consultations with Mr Vagus, and so I set about deciphering the thing myself. It proved to be a species of historical novel, concerning that peculiar epoch when Our City was ruled by a succession of birds – but in the form, as far as I could tell, of a parody of the Mayor of Casterbridge. There was in addition a large number of what I took to be footnotes, some of which appeared to be of authorial provenance, others additions by a later hand, but equally insane. Such being the narrative which directly follows. I never did meet Mr Vagus any more. I heard some time afterwards that he had been found dead in the room above his shop.

0 0
0 0
2 years ago

How many times does she use the word “I” and why ?
Seems to be the current expression of authority.

Last edited 2 years ago by 0 0
Basil Tomsky
Basil Tomsky
2 years ago

‘I was saying something like what I just said’

Should this lady really be giving lectures on literary style? She ain’t no Edward Gibbon!

Her point stands though. Smartphone culture is deleterious to the attention span and is also a conduit for trash culture. Standards are always under attack, and this will make things worse. We’re now probably close to a situation -or already there- where the education system has been jerrymandered to such an extent by neo-Marxism that some college graduates with jobs and careers will never have read a book, or at least never consumed one cover to cover because they enjoy the aesthetic experience and presentation of life therein.

Maureen Finucane
Maureen Finucane
2 years ago
Reply to  Basil Tomsky

And yet it is possible to download the entire collection of Dickens, Tolstoy, Wilkie Collins and Somerset Maugham as I have on my phone which I can carry around and dip into whenever I like.

Hypnopomp
Hypnopomp
2 years ago

If I were an instructor, I would assign the writings of Julien Gracq–infinitely superior to the grossly overrated Nabokov, et al.–to students, and then gleefully sit back and listen to their cries of agony. I’d wager that even the author of this piece would choke on Le Rivage des Syrtes.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
2 years ago

“it is a talk I’ve become — what is the right word? — uncertain…”
Pretty creaky rhetorical flourish to open with; especially for a creative writing teacher.

polidori redux
polidori redux
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

No creakier than yours, Tony.

0 0
0 0
2 years ago

Mary you use the word ‘I’ eight times in the first paragraph.
One would think they stumbled on your journal’s thoughts to yourself.
 Adrienne Rich, who later lamented the intense introspection of confessional poetry and wrote of those years, “We found ourselves / reduced to I.”Poetry Foundation.

Last edited 2 years ago by 0 0