Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Death Of Craft

There seems to be a lot of hand wringing and grief over the end of publishing in its traditional form. If you doubt you had a stake in it to begin with, it becomes easier to embrace the changes. I still don’t quite know what any of this means to me as a writer, but I’m worrying a lot less about what will come of it. And I’m glad to see that the book will never die. Maybe this should be considered the beginnings of a renaissance.

That writers can’t/won’t any longer make money from their work is considered inevitable. Journalism is becoming devalued. An untenable practice. The gist of this scenario is the fear that one’s work will become too easily copied, or reproduced (read: stolen) or worse still, evaporated into digital ether.

Rather than fret with Y2K type doomsaying, I’d rather see concern about craft. Until someone wants to read the work, fears of a plagiaristic public or “the end of cultural civilization” is off the radar.

I can see the day where craft might seem like it is no longer relevant. Is it wrong to say the writing is on the wall? (insert favorite mobile technology here.) There’s just too many voices clamoring to be heard (and voices here is as much the bloggorhea, the instant message which strains to be relevant). I trust I’m not alone in the dogged pursuit of craft. Even as much as the blog has an instantaneous thrill, I still insist thoughts committed to paper gestate before they appear here.

For all the immediacy of technology, the presumed benefit it offers an unheard of writer, I still avoid most of the technology whose expediency is largely useless to me. Had I had this technology available to me fifteen or twenty years ago, I think I would have been less wary, but I’m more interested in saying something useful or enlightening, rather than just chattering away on any old subject. I imagine that’s the case for a lot of writers who consider writing an art form.

On the optimistic side, the clamor is bolstered by the directives that getting published has become so commonplace as to be considered “easy.” But it’s not that easy. Not if you are trying to place your work where it might actually be read.

The all consuming needs of technology seemingly make it easier for more people to have a voice. The proliferation of voices implies there are more voices that want to be heard, and thus less with anything to say, or at least, less with any distinction. To which my immediate concern is an Orwellian death of craft. But the practice of writing has not been rolled under the bus. The tools of technology should not be imagined to have usurped craft.

I'll continue to be concerned with relevance, and craft. Relevance is in trying to get to truth, and to say what’s important. Being able to say that because it’s important to me, I trust it might also be for someone willing to read me.

Maybe this is the future, right here.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Return To Form?

I’m getting ahead of myself before I’ve even had time to read the new Banville, but I enjoyed what Maureen Corrigan had to say on Fresh Air in her review of The Infinities:

“I used to put a lot of stock in an adage about writing. It went roughly like this: "If a student says he wants to be a writer because he has something to say, discourage him. But if a student says she wants to be a writer because she likes to play around with words, well, that student may have what it takes to be a writer.

I don't believe in absolutes about writing anymore: People write out of all sorts of longings and take many roundabout paths to producing good books. But I thought of that axiom as I was reading John Banville's new book, The Infinities.”

I usually find her gloating reviews annoying, but this time she’s whetted my appetite.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Coetzee Reduction

The affinity with Beckett, though not always obvious, is apparent in Coetzee. His work often feels like it is attended to by lab coated technicians. This precision in Coetzee might make his writing dull for some readers, but clean prose is appealing. In the kindest sense of the word, this sterility keeps the words measured, never wavering in pitch. He is writing from his own register, untouched by any other writer, and untouchable. This is the uniqueness of voice; it’s a quality of the writers I can count on one hand who I secretly admire but can’t quite admit that I love. (Does love of a writer equal a desire to want to emulate the writer?) This voice elevates Coetzee above the merely functional writers far and wide. But voice doesn’t necessarily make one adored.

In Summertime, the surprise of the author writing about himself and calling it fiction sates a prurient fascination, and yet we are aware he is not writing strict autobiography; in fact, the Coetzee in Summertime is dead. The stature of the real Coetzee imposes a Zelig-like quality in the narrative, and it’s conspicuously his thoughts on what others might think about him as the prodigal returning to shock them (Coetzee’s femmes) from their comfort zones. By absenting himself, he is everywhere.

As in Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man, Coetzee frames this narrative of a self-referencing narrator within the story. Coetzee takes this a step further, imposing a mental puzzle on the narrative that calls into question the layered self-referencing. It is one thing to refer to your earlier pseudo-autobiographical self as “he,” as in Youth, but when a narrator transcribes another character’s words back to her as “she,” complete with running editorial from this subject character, there are intrusions that feel like a fold in the brain:

“In the Standton set in which she [Carol] and Klaus move, she confides, quite advanced things go on. She does not spell out what these advanced things may be, and she, Margot, does not want to ask, but they seem to have to do with sex.

I won’t let you write that. You can’t write that about Carol.

It’s what you told me.

Yes, but you can’t write down every word I say and broadcast it to the world. I never agreed to that. Carol will never speak to me again.

All right, I’ll cut it out or tone it down, I promise. Just hear me to the end. Can I go on?

Go on.

Coetzee’s dialogue blanches with the moral indignation that feels Doestoyevskian: there is no urge for the put upon character to resist saying what everyone wants to ignore.

In Coetzee there is a lack of adornment. His writing might be the stripping away of all poetic language (or what I mean by this loose term for inflated, purple, adjective laden writing), so that what is left either zips along for you or it violates a cardinal rule of the creative writing manifestos (“show don’t tell”). Coetzee writes psychological prose. But it’s not describing a lot of action, it’s more of thought and gesture. The style is a discursive and projected thinking on the part of the character.

Writing consciously in this vein--and Coetzee is never an unconscious writer; self-conscious, yes--rolls the story forward. One doesn’t dwell and linger; the lack of modifying words drives the narrative because Coetzee has already distilled the prose to a reduction, and it’s necessarily succinct.

Thinking about Coetzee, after reading him, is almost a gray wash. It becomes difficult to recall specific moments in his work, or why they make an impression. But I find reading him is like settling into a highly engineered piece of machinery--even when I might have the hesitation of doubt, however brief, I’m soon rocketing back into the stream of the writing. I have come to trust him. There is a compelling consistency in his writing, like religion. Or from the words of a character in Summertime: “As a writer he knew what he was doing, he had a certain style, and style is the beginning of distinction.”