Friday, December 29, 2006

Reading, Writing and Absurdistan

I don’t quite get it. On a very basic level, I can’t figure out why people would want to write unless they like to read. I mean, what would be the point? For the incredibly glamorous fast track lifestyle? I don’t think so. —Francine Prose, Atlantic, July 18 2006

I don’t get it either. That writing programs are increasing by the ten-fold while actual reading is plummeting does not surprise me. Perplexes me yes, but surprise? No. What does surprise me is how many of these non-readers are writers themselves, or people who want to write. This is what I do not understand. Why in heaven’s name, if you do not like books would you want to write one? And if you really don't care much for books, why, why, why should anybody read yours? But this is more common than I thought. James Frey made no secret of his rather lean library which seemed apropos for his rather massive hubris. In her wretched book, The Right to Write, Julia Cameron speaks about everybody being a writer merely because they write. She got particularly defensive at what she thought was writerly elitism. I can’t remember her mentioning a single book, other than the ones she wrote.

My belief is this: Writers who do not read have no right to write. How do you get the right to write? You need to be given permission first. In a blog I posted on Amazon several months ago I wrote about being given permission to write. It went like this:

“Gabriel Garcia Marquez talks about being given permission to write by Kafka. He read the following: "When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a night of troubled sleep he found himself transformed into a monstrous insect,” and was stunned out of his mind. “I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that,” he said. “If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So immediately I started writing.”

I have always been a writer, but wasn't given permission to write until I read Salman Rushdie’s Shame, about the sisters Chunnee, Munnee and Bunny. Among its many preposterous bits was a narrator who kept inserting himself in the narrative, even telling beforehand which character he was going to kill off. Then there was Omar Khayyam (no relation to the poet) who may have been born from all three sisters at once. I was appalled. Who told him he could do this? Who told him he could ruin the element of surprise and wag it in front of my face? But in asking the question he freed my answer. I trashed my first book and wrote another, the one I published.

I’m not going to blow my own horn about what I accomplished with my first book, but none of this could have happened were I not a reader. It just makes sense. How can anyone hope to blow somebody away with prose if they have not been blown away by prose? One of the many remarkable things about Gary Shteyngart’s magnificent Absurdistan is how much of writer’s novel it is. Absurdistan celebrates the very idea of the larger than life literary hero, something we have not seen in at least a century. More than that the book dares to suppose that fictional heroes are the only true models for real humanity. Shteyngart takes an audacious line; supposing, as his main character Misha Vainberg does that fictional heroes are realer and more instructive than real heroes. He also takes for granted that the reader is as well read as the narrator. I wasn’t in fact. But I did end up with a brand new copy of Oblomov as a result.

Absurdistan is the type of book that makes me want to write books. This is the type of magic that can happen with a novel, when it frees your mind and your pen. The book opens up new ways of seeing things, reading things by putting words together that excite me like never before. Can I do something like that? Not to copy him but to write in a way that I grab words together, throw them against a wall and watch them bounce? Because, to tell the truth I was bored with skinny prose. Okay that’s a lie. I dislike skinny prose. I dislike it profoundly. I dislike when people wave Hemmingway in my face as if he wrote with a scalpel instead of a pen, claiming that he fixed literature, as if anything was wrong with it. Joyce, Fitzgerald, Anderson, Woolf, Lawrence, and Svevo were all doing quite fine, thank you very much. The reductionism school of literature has been lauded too long as some sort of panacea. The very idea that smaller prose must be better prose has been neutering too much fiction. The result is horribly efficient and meticulously unadorned writing with as much pulse as a gnat.

Don’t get me wrong.
I’m all for Hemingway.
I think Carver is an absolute genius.
But writing like this.
Because I want to.
Because the night is cold.
And I’m alone.
Is just bad.
No to mention lazy.

There is nothing lazy about Shetyngart’s prose. Like the main character, Absurdistan is a huge lumbering beast of a novel, rattling off literary Molotov cocktails with such abandon that it doesn’t care who gets hit. Maybe Shteyngart needed an Eastern European with spotty English to pull this off. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated certainly echoes this point. But whereas Foer’s “English” revealed the desperate heart of a wanna-be, Shetyngart’s English is the global village that language has been threatening to become; equal parts Bronx Jive, literary overheatedness, Russian Rhythm and gruff Hebrew all set to NYC hip-hop. I’ll go further to say that Absurdistan is the first true Hip-hop novel: Bold in its ambition to associate itself with the Gogols, Dostoeyskies and Goncharovs, but borrowing, sampling and stealing words, then slamming together to see what sticks. A trick to be sure but if this what we have to do to set fire to prose, then bring on the tricks. It’s such a thrill to read a novel that takes chances, consumes itself and downright gluts on a feast of words, without announcing that that is exactly what it is doing. And managing to do so while being a crazy and hilarious road movie disguised as a fiction. I’m so anxious to finish this blog just so I can write again.

And that dear reader is what reading can do for a writer. There are other reasons of course. Under-read writers also betray a certain narcissism evident not just in the preponderance of first person narrators who sound like the author but also in the assumption that one's prose is already so perfect that one cannot risk being “influenced” by someone else. Figures. Only an troglodyte would not want to be influenced by others. That's why there are no Mona Lisas on cave walls. If you have not read enough, you may be a writer, but you have not yet been given permission to write. And you will never write great fiction until you have been given permission. This comes from reading and reading widely. It comes from reading outside of your race, gender, age group, sexuality and era. It comes from reading the very book you wouldn’t touch in a million years, or maybe it simply means taking down Moby Dick and reading past page 2. If you are one of these non-readers, do me a favour. Grab a few books including Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer and don’t stop reading until you get that feeling—You’ll know it when you feel it. The feeling where you say, damn! this book makes me want to write. What comes next will be better than anything you ever written before. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.