Tuesday, June 08, 2010

More Lessons From the Brideshead Generation

This is going to be largely about writing and the process of becoming a writer, subjects which remain of great interest to me in spite of my increasingly frequent desires to leave the realm of literature behind and find something else to do and be interested in, preferably my elusive authentic and intended calling. This has not yet come about however, and it remains my intention and desire for the time being to someday write another book, and more after it. Though I have no longer any hope of having a career as an author, and very little of even producing something publishable, I really can't think of anything else that I both could do, and would be interested in doing. Psychologically this is a very depressing place to be in middle age, as one is left asking oneself the same two questions over and over, the first being Where did it all go wrong?, and the second, increasingly, Was there ever any real hope of things turning out otherwise than they have?

In studying the history of this group of writers I have been referring to lately one is immediately struck by how rapidly they were able, especially in their youth, to turn out a completed book. Waugh's and Graham Greene's 1930s and 40s novels were regularly knocked out in 3-4 months, George Orwell's not much more. 8 months was considered a long time. P.G. Wodehouse, who is increasingly considered as a great writer, was perhaps the model of a professional author in this period, and required even less time to knock out a book. To me the lesson the young writer should take from this, and indeed pretty much the whole history of letters is, get that first book done and out of the way quickly at all costs, and then, get the second one out of the way. After that, you can start to move on. The young American writer who has the misfortune of finding himself trying to navigate the contemporary literary world exclusively through the university system and workshop/ MFA circuit may not ever hear this. First of all, he probably won't understand that if he really had serious literary potential he'd already be employed in some capacity as a writer and developing a readership. As such, he'll be treated by his teachers as an ingenu and told about the importance of endless revision, and grow obsessed with the idea of the airtight, fact-checked, error-free, and ultimately lifeless book impermeable to the criticism of these same. He may also have bought into the idea that the only worthwhile end of writing is to produce a certain kind of masterpiece, and having seen two routes to this end extolled, one of which is pretty much to be a genius, and the other, seemingly more attainable one, being the Thomas Pynchon/David Foster Wallace/James Joyce/Flaubert, etc model, where one labors for a decade or more ensuring every word is in its proper place, by the end of which process our would-be author is well into his 30s and the cultural moment has long passed him by. The process and critique of writing are important, but at a certain point, especially if it is what one is ultimately interested in, so is moving one's work in the direction of getting ready for the press, and any sense of this urgency, or even of much of a connection to the actual publishing world, is largely lacking from the collegiate/MFA system.

The books of the Brideshead-era writers are loaded with imperfections, but they are on the whole smart, vigorous, funny, and oddly personable and accessible. They tended to repeat themselves in their many books, and I'm not sure how profound their engagements with the human condition were, though I do think they approach meaningful insight at intervals within most of the volumes I have read. Graham Greene published 7 short novels, one a year, from age 25 through 31, of which only two received favorable criticism and one, Stamboul Train, had even modest sales (8,000 copies, which in 1932 was a decent number I guess). His second and third novels were apparently very poor, and once he became successful he disowned them and would not allow them to be re-printed. But he finished books and got them to press, and in time he made himself into a writer. Anthony Powell, same kind of thing. Had a well-reviewed, though modest selling, debut at 26, wrote three or four more novels over the next 8 years that showed declining promise, then had a odd lacuna between ages 34 and 46 where he didn't publish any novels (the first half of this period was the war), and then emerged from this fallow period with a volume of his great Dance to the Music of Time sequence (which Waugh and some of their other friends thought was too much) every two years until he was 70. Of course, these guys had money, and connections, and a very different education and upbringing, drenched in literature and art, and moved in a world where writing and criticism were things everybody more or less did naturally, but that doesn't make the lessons on how to become a real writer any less valid.

Another refreshing side of this book is that it is nice to read (not that I can necessarily believe it) some antidote to the relentless chest thumping of the internet especially that technological progress is the greatest thing ever, that scientists and engineers and computer geeks and business owners and such value creators are the only genuine smart people in society and the other 95% of the population is essentially worthless, and certainly nothing without them. Waugh especially of course, fancying himself an 18th century style aristocrat and aesthete, regarded the whole modern project of ever increasing comfort and entertainment and shopping opportunites for the masses to be an unrelieved horror, and in his literary world at least technicians and businessmen and their like are kept in their proper places, both seen and heard as little as possible, and endured only at extremities (Graham Greene seemed to have more respect for doctors/scientists and other types of worldly men so long as they were 1) very accomplished in their fields and 2) of an existentialist kind of bent). I admit, old-fashioned European literary culture seems to me much more interesting and attractive than this supposed super high-IQ utopia that is supposed to have been created in modern America. The internet obviously is an incredible invention, and people who have never lived without it probably won't be able to imagine how anyone ever did so, and it is obviously great for things like buying airplane tickets or checking schedules or looking up one's friends even if one doesn't always quite know what to do once one has found them, or buying books--but then see, for example, before the internet took off I used to have to go to Boston several times a year to buy books that I couldn't find up here, which now I don't have to do, but the thing is, I really liked going to Boston every couple of months to buy books, and the defined nature and perceived necessity of the task ensured that I would do so. I'm not really making my point, which is that in the techno-society our intelligence and experiences seem to move primarily in a certain direction, to put it bluntly an ever geekier, less sensual, less verbal, less aesthetically conscious one, which I hate.

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