Death Becomes You, Dear Novel

The novel is dead, so eulogizes Will Self, the serious, difficult novel, which I suspect is the so-called literary novel that’s been hanging around on book corners ever since modernism and has caused a few scuffles with readers and critics alike.

I’ve read some of Self’s work. I like that he perambulates long distances. I even enjoy that he pulls words like “benison,” “Gesamtkunstwerk, “Panglossian,” and “melioristic” out of his rattlebag. But, then, when it comes to fiction, I favour Maximalism over minimalism — it’s the cherry picker in me.

But, sod you Self and your aging anxieties that you will cease to be as a writer for being the reason you’ve chosen to write about the death of the novel.

Although I must admit it’s sobering news for a writer like myself who is still brewing in the vats of the emerging writing life. It also brings on a tidal wave of creative anxiety to be told the book is dead even before I’ve even had a chance to get a book published. It’s akin to telling a child don’t bother living because you’re only going to die.

Ok, let’s say the novel is really dead, nails are in the coffin, mourners are dressed in black, and the Gutenberg press weeps tears of ink.

That’s fine by me. Bring on the wake! Let’s open the bubbly and get rip-roaring drunk on the death of the novel because all it means is that the Graustarkian literary standard by which all books are written is now demolished. There is no “great” book left to be written, no “great” writer about to swoop down in a blaze of tweed and pipe smoke to carry off the novices in his golden claws. Anyone now has a chance to write a book — and that includes me. A great new brave world of opportunity knocks. Open Sesame!

Unless, of course, it’s all premised on sell, sell, sell and there will be only a handful of novels that can shift the tectonic plates of the mind to new visions, eclipse and super nova the life of the emotions, and locate the soul in the overwhelming somatic rush of flesh. If the death of the novel is simply leading to a land of mediocrity, then I want to go down the mine with Self and his canaries and face the subterranean gases. I’m not interested enough to live with the endless flow of entertainment toxins that will pass through my body pretending to be art. Thanks, but no thanks. My kidneys are working well enough to know piss when it streams before me.

But if the novel is dead and a panoramic vista of new horizons opens up with the Millennium Falcon on the nearest hill, I’m up for the ride. Let’s park that old literary junker out back and get into something more relevant, more post-postmodern, something that isn’t flashy but is made from the recycled goods of the past. Everything under the sun has been done before, and done better, so let’s space hop to new frontiers on the magic of the past and the literary genius of the moment will become less obvious and more fulfilling.

Why should the death of the novel be such a bad thing? Ovid, a writer, proclaimed the beauty of metamorphosis, the power of mutability over the fragility of things, the freedom of the finite self to the many selves. And what is fiction but a series of little deaths of the selves. A writer dies with each book he or she writes and is reborn again with a new one.

So if the novel is dead, I for one am not going to let it go gentle into that good night. I’m going to rage and fight and get as many words down as possible. I’m going to write as if the devil himself is at my heels and wants my soul for eternity.

The time is ripe to rise like the phoenix from the ashes of dead novels.

Le livre est morte, vive le livre!

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Tempted By the Quote of Another

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.” Rilke 

“The theme of art is the theme of life itself. This artificial distinction between artists and human beings is precisely what we are all suffering from. An artist is only someone unrolling and digging out and excavating the areas normally accessible to normal people everywhere, and exhibiting them as a sort of scarecrow to show people what can be done with themselves.” Lawrence Durrell

“Allowing space for change is allowing space for grace. That’s what I get from good writing.  I have nothing to say that will change anybody’s mind. Nothing. Being didactic is uninteresting. But allowing space for people to remake their minds about things, to change—or to get angry—is a viable literary purpose. That I fail at this over and over is my reason to continue. Failure is edifying. We break the lights.” Colum McCann

Keats said, “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination.”

“Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it. Ignore the authors who say “Oh, my God, what word? Oh, Jesus Christ…”, you know. Now, to hell with that. It’s not work. If it’s work, stop and do something else.” Ray Bradbury 

“The waking mind, you see, is the least serviceable in the arts. In the process of writing one is struggling to bring out what is unknown to himself. To put down merely what one is conscious of means nothing, really, gets one nowhere. Anybody can do that with a little practice, anybody can become that kind of writer.”  Henry Miller 

“Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song.” Plato   

“I keep thinking about writing another long piece of fiction. Then I lose heart because fiction has to have some fight in it. By which I mean it shouldn’t be smooth as a tube to glide along. Imagination is an interruption; it interrupts repetitive thinking, predictable thinking. It jolts the mind. Trouble is, the mind likes what it knows. It enjoys a cheap thrill, sure, but it likes what it knows. A real challenge is never just about content; it is some stranger way of seeing the world.” Jeanette Winterson

“Without creative, independently thinking and judging personalities the upward development of society is as unthinkable as the development of the individual personality without the nourishing soil of the community.” Einstein

“Of all the arts, fiction is the most powerful, since, with no materials other than a pen and paper, a writer can convince a reader that a man has changed into a monstrous vermin.” Will Self

The Session of Sweet, Silent Thought

The Books section of the Guardian has posted advice from a broad spectrum of writers about 10 Rules for Writing Fiction inspired by Elmore Leonard’s ten commandments. It’s a cool list of writers that includes Jeanette Winterson, Michael Moorcock, Philip Pullman, Sarah Waters, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Anne Enright, Geoff Dyer, Will Self, Neil Gaiman, and more.

It’s fascinating what each writer considers important to the writing experience. There’s some gems there as well as duds. The best advice I took away from it would be this holy trinity: Write, edit, and edit some more. The most pointless don’t was this one from Richard Ford: “Don’t have children.” Total crap. That’s like saying don’t have sex unless you mean to have offspring. Actually his rules are the weakest of the bunch. Which leads perfectly into this advice from Moorcock: “Ignore all proferred rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.”

And to get semantic, I’m not sure “rules” is the best noun to use. I’d use “advice.” Rules imply an explicit adhering to, and if I come away with anything from these rules, I think it is use at your own discretion.

Here are the 15 I would be able to live and work with, tacked up beside my writing desk along with the most useful advice I’ve come across in a long while: “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

1. Write

2. Love what you do. (Winterson))

4. Trust your creativity. (Winterson)

5. Do it every day. The most important rule of all and, naturally, one I don’t follow. (Dyer)

6. When people tell you something is wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. (Gaiman)

7. Never take advice from anyone with no investment in the outcome. (David Hare)

8. Write whatever way you like. Fiction is made of words on a page; reality is made of something else. It doesn’t matter how “real” your story is, or how “made up”: what matters is its necessity. (Enright)

9. Write for tomorrow, not today (Motion)

10. Always carry a notebook. The short-term memory only retains information fro three minutes. (Self)

11. Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom. (Winterson)

12. Stop reading fiction, it’s all lies anyway, and it doesn’t have anything to tell you that you don’t already know (assuming that is, you’ve read a great deal of fiction in the past). (Self)

13. Have more than one idea on the go at any moment. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the later. (Dyer)

14. Protect the time and space in which you write. (Zadie Smith)

15. Hold the reader’s attention. (Atwood)

When all the Jacks have found their trades

The idler is, contrary to most dullards’ ideas, not a pathetic slacker with his bum potted in the couch nervily flicking channels of thought of “Should I, Should I not.” He’s, to paraphrase Henry Miller, deliciously detached from the constraints of civilization but fully engaged in daily life.

He is mixing the mandarin and the demotic. Seeking emancipation rather than freedom. And as Henry Miller wrote: “From the time you wake up until the moment you go to bed it’s all a lie, all a sham and a swindle.” And he is fucking dead on, smack dab on the erogenous zone that we all wish we could feel.

I love how Miller (yes, him again, because he is to my slowpoke mind, the American flâneur) wrote this about being idle, or better yet, at the pulse of life: “A beautiful nap this afternoon that put velvet between my vertebrae.” Ahhh.

Work is the opposite of creation, which is simply play, or as Amis writes, literature is “reason at play.” And I play , every day, at least, at being omnipotent, creating a tiny world of words where others can also play.

Writers are the great tricksters, the idlers who always find time to have a thought solidify into a word and a word sensuously couple with a thought, and only when I am writing can I create this place where the rituals are my own, not someone else’s artifice in the “monkey world of human values.”

I abhor the Protestant work ethic that values hard work at another’s expense over the salvation of your own soul. I prefer a pagan work ethic, which is: let the civilized build there new worlds while you hide out in the wilds, making a conscious living with few possession beyond love, honesty, truth, and beauty, purposefully sitting still while everything around you goes to rack and ruin, because when civilization is busy destroying itself on the illusion of progress, you can actually go about living without the need of a backdrop because the heart needs no sounding board to beat.

And I certainly want to do more of this: “Listen to the sound of your own psychic bowel.” I really have to read the Self. I think he and I might share the same vintage.

Now I shall end with Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Ah yes, the mob who considers themselves above the idler may want to seriously consider their paltry place in this ever-changing world. What they think of as success was brewed out of failure, and as heady as they get, the quicker they’ll get addicted to the spirit of the self, megalomaniacs drowning in their own vomit.

Only if you fail can you succeed. Those who simply succeed are riding a nonexistent wave to a desert island. I’d rather ride the turbulent wave of failure that comes crashing down on the bounty of solitude. And I think that solitude, considered by many as failure, is the triumph of humanity. I want to live apart but be in deeper with life than the six-foot hole we all end up in.