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The World of Serious Writing Confuses Me

January 31st, 2007 20 comments

by David Niall Wilson

I’m finding a lot of similarities between discussions we’ve had here at Storytellers Unplugged, and the novel I’ve been reading, so I thought I’d use this place, and this space, to try and sort them out a little. The novel in question is “The World According to Garp,” written by John Irving and narrated by Michael Prichard. I include the narrator here because I may comment on my interpretation of his reading of the book at some point, and since we have the inestimable Mr. Dick Hill among us, maybe he’ll have some insight that is germane.

My train of thought left the station about the time I’d heard the author’s preface in its entirety, and it has only made sporadic stops since. At some later point I may dwell on my dismay that, at the time of writing that introduction, Mr. Irving was waiting on his twelve year old son’s opinion of his manuscript. I don’t know Mr. Irving, or his son, so I can’t properly put into perspective what thought process made him believe that this book is appropriate for a twelve year old (no matter how mature). What I can try to put into perspective is the author’s contention that it is inappropriate for an adult to ask a question like — “is it autobiographical?” –about a novel. He further states that it is the reader’s responsibility to understand the book, and if he can’t, he shouldn’t read it.

Slipping back a few days here at Storytellers, I remember a very wise man named Richard Steinberg telling us that first and foremost, as writers, we must communicate. It doesn’t matter how smart or clever we are if no one can share in it, and if our chosen profession is to communicate our cleverness to the world, we’d better be damned sure we can do it. Anyway, to make a long rant much shorter, I went into this novel ready to dislike it based on the introduction.

Let me preface this by stating that I am probably one of the few people in America that have survived into their forties without reading this book, or seeing the movie starring Robin Williams. I’ve seen little bits and pieces, but when I picked up the book I very literally had no idea what it was about.

After the author’s preface, which he narrated himself, and very well, I nearly ran aground on the next stumbling block. Michael Prichard has a unique style of narration. Some narrators bring the characters to life by changes in vocal inflection, (thank you Dick). Mr. Prichard does not. He reads in a very precise voice, and it can become monotonous. Thankfully, I am tenacious. When I first started to listen, it grated on my nerves, but I found – after time – that it grew on me, and that it began to fit my perceptions of the book, and the intent behind it. I forged on, and I came upon the crux of the matter, as far as this essay is concerned.

Garp, our hero, is a “serious” writer. His mother, Jenny, is a popular writer of accessible material that does much better in the bookstores. It irritates Garp, and you can almost feel that irritation dripping from the pages. He rants about it. He and his pretentious over-achieving wife discuss it at length, this “serious” writing as opposed to, I suppose, all the rest. It is very difficult, after listening to the self-narrated preface, to disassociate Garp from the author, and so I have to think – either he believes the argument himself, or he is lampooning it. Garp trivializes the amazing and often startling life and accomplishments of his mother based on his perception of the inferiority of her writing and his contempt for the people who read and are captivated by it. I’ve told the story many times about the panel I attended years ago where an editor from a major genre publishing house made the mistake of jumping into this lake of fire. Almost the exact words, in the end, crossed her lips, and all heck broke loose. The words, directed at a mainstream author with serious sales who had been given his own “branded” look for his novels (popping out two or three a year), were these.

“Well, he’s a real writer. I mean, he’s a “serious” writer.”

The response was swift. It came from a genre author who was well-known at the time and on the rise. He said…

“I guess the rest of us are just jerking off.”

Now that I have that out of my system, I have to wonder at the apparent rift between “serious” and “important” writing and popular writing. I wonder equally at those who seem absolutely certain such lines exist, and yet, when asked to draw them fall north and south of one another, often with violently differing opinions. It reminds me a lot of organized religions facing off against one another trying to win debates on theology by stating over and over again that what they believe is right, and, therefore, everything else is wrong – and if this doesn’t seem to be so, it’s a matter of faith. George Michael also told us we “gotta have faith,” and you see where he ended up.

The mother in Dick Hill’s poem owned Joyce because he was “brilliant,” but it is not clear whether she owned the book because she BELIEVED he was brilliant, or because it was the consensus of learned opinions in “serious” literary circles. How many classics, I wonder, are owned and never read because the reader feels they should be experiencing something they don’t find when they try to read? Do those readers feel as if it’s some understanding, or intellect that they lack? Is it? Is there really an illuminati-like group of readers so superior that they can pick the “serious” work for the rest of us to be amazed by, or is it all a matter of who is in favor, and who isn’t? If a work is serious, and then the style in which it was written falls from grace, is it still serious?

Some wool-gathered notions about serious writing:

  • If too many people like it, it can have brilliant points, but it is flawed.
  • A fantasy that is published as mainstream can be literature, but a mainstream story with a bit of the surreal in it published as genre fiction is “pop” fiction, and not serious.
  • The clarity of writing from the reader’s perspective is inversely proportionate to the seriousness of the work.
  • If the work is incomprehensible, but has the appearance of philosophy, it can become a classic with the proper critical backing.
  • If the work is incomprehensible, has the appearance of philosophy, but the author makes the error of suggesting it is serious prior to said critical backing, it will be dismissed as incomprehensible garbage.
  • It is okay to have lots of graphic sexual content as long as it is accompanied with sufficient dissection of the human psyche, and as long as it is either described clinically, or in poetic, flowery prose. The word erotic in a review can boost sales by a serious percentage, while the word perverted has a more limited audience.
  • The ratio of quotes must fall heavily toward classics and great thinkers. Too much pop culture reference will drop your “serious” rating, as it tends to cause academics to believe you have a social life and are actually FAMILIAR with the pop references, as opposed to lampooning them with your razor-sharp and far-superior wit.
  • Apparently, it is difficult to write a serious work if the protagonist isn’t miserable.
  • In serious writing, it is okay to take shots at critics and English professors because they derive satisfaction from the idea that you are paying attention to them. It may even cause them to criticize you further – any review in the right places grants you “serious” status because they only REVIEW serious works in serious places. Just ask them.
  • If you have never been reviewed in a serious place, and you take shots at the critics anyway, you will be dismissed as a “pop” fiction whiner and actively ignored. In rare circumstances, this may actually boost sales and cause a real review to happen at some point in the future, but the rarity of this makes it a bad practice.
  • Very little serious fiction is written about monkeys. There may be an avenue of hope here.
  • You will rarely see the word erotic in a review of a book about a monkey.

And that is enough, I think, of that.

Some final thoughts on Garp, his world, his mother, and Mr. Irving’s book. I am enjoying the novel. It has engaged my imagination, and has made me think – even if those thoughts were not always positive in relation to the author, the book, or Garp. If this is all it takes to make the book serious, then I suppose that it is. The fact is, though, that it doesn’t incline me toward more of Mr. Irving’s books as strongly as I’m inclined to read the new book by Stephen King, or the next Harry Potter novel. What does that say about the book, literature, serious writing, and my own taste?

I’m told Mr. Irving is one of the great writers of our time, and that this book is a masterpiece. I’m likely the wrong one to judge that. I wonder, though, if the popularity of the work, in conjunction with the movie, has invalidated it in some way. It is pretty obvious in the preface, and in the character, Garp, that the author takes exception with popular writing, and those who read it. He seems to have little patience for readers who have questions about the writing of the book, but there is also a sense of detachment, much like Jenny’s detachment from the world within the pages of the book. In a way, all of the main characters of “The World According to Garp” seem to be impatient with life, and the world that surrounds them, so I leave you with a thought.

Perhaps the seriousness of a writer’s work is, as Einstein would nod, smile, and tell you – simply relative. The thoughts of each reader, the comparisons he or she will make to the world, to life, and to other literary works will be different every time the pages of a book are cracked open and turned.

Meanwhile, I believe I’ll keep plodding along. No…SERIOUSLY!

Onward!

DNW

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