Posts Tagged ‘Lev Grossman’
One of the most difficult truths that we all have to face sooner or later is that every human life tends to take the same shape. When we’re young, we’re all convinced that we’re exceptional, and that our lives will be qualitatively different from the ones we see around us. Eventually, though, we come to recognize that as unique or unusual we may be in other ways, when you stand back, every life is strikingly similar in its overall structure, however much it may differ in the particulars. We all tend to pass through the same phases at roughly the same intervals, and that’s as true in our thirties, forties, and beyond as it was when we were children. It’s a realization that has inspired some fascinating academic research—notably the work examined in the classic book The Seasons of a Man’s Life and the epic Grant Study of men from Harvard and Boston—and some great works of art, from John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom to Michael Apted’s Up series and the trilogy of films by Richard Linklater recently crowned by Before Midnight. And although the process may not be more any striking for writers than it is for anyone else, we’re certainly more likely to muse and obsess about it in print.
Recently, I was talking this over with a friend of mine who is also a writer around my own age. We bonded over the fact that we’re both trying to figure out a balance between work, life, and family, and that all of these elements tend to reach a period of peak intensity, inconveniently, at around the same time. Like most writers, we spent our twenties learning the craft and slowly building up a body of work, published or not, until we finally began to see the results of our efforts. At the same time, we’ve gotten married and settled down after years of moving from one city to another, and are either starting families or preparing to do so. And these aspects of life don’t always comfortably coexist. As a writer, I’ve reached a curious point where I’m the only one responsible for my own success or failure: I’m surrounded by people who are dying to see me do good work, and if I don’t achieve the goals I’ve set for myself, it’s solely because I haven’t been able to live up to those expectations. Under other circumstances, this would be a time at which I’d be focusing on writing to the exclusion of all else. As usual, though, the reality is a little more complicated.
But that’s also probably how it should be. Last year, Lev Grossman, the senior book critic at Time and author of the novel The Magicians, posted an essay on writing and fatherhood that I’ve thought about frequently since. Here’s the money quote:
I personally needed to have kids to become the person and the writer I wanted to be. This is not a universal thing; I’m not recommending having children as a writing tip. I think it only applies to people who even as adults are the emotional equivalent of frozen cavemen, and who need somebody to thaw them out and seriously kick the shit out of them, emotionally speaking, before they have any idea who they are or what they’re doing. I was one of those people. Having children did that for me…
I bitch and moan a lot about how I’m always changing diapers and giving baths and making school lunches and strapping and unstrapping little people into and out of car seats while I could be writing books…But it’s also true that I never wrote a book I was proud of till I had children.
And while I wouldn’t quite put myself into the frozen caveman category, I absolutely agree that it’s only by going through the radical changes brought about by life’s major transitions that a writer can grow, both as an artist and as a human being. I may not write as much or as quickly as I once did, and it’s going to take a lot of trial and error to figure out a mode of living that brings both sides of my life into balance. But that’s what it means to enter a new phase: we don’t evolve into something new as much as we have it happen to us, whether we’re ready or not, and it’s up to us to become the sort of person who can integrate all these conflicting pieces into a harmonious whole—or at least to come close enough to it on a daily basis to remain reasonably sane and happy. The result, whatever form it takes, can’t help but be good for craft, which consists in its own way of an endless series of rebalancings, compromises, and improvisations. Like everything else in life, it takes time, flexibility, and a willingness to accept the things we can’t change. And if we’re lucky, when the next phase arrives, we’ll be ready for whatever it brings.
On December 4, City of Exiles, my second novel, will hit store shelves. The following week, my wife and I are scheduled to deliver our first baby. In some ways, the timing is perfect, since our due date falls at a point when I was already planning to take a natural break from writing—assuming, of course, that this baby comes on schedule. All the same, the prospect of balancing a newborn with my already hectic writing life promises to be one of the greatest challenges I’ve ever faced, and I’m not entirely sure how it will look. Still, I couldn’t be more excited, and look forward to sharing some of this journey with you over the coming months, as well as introducing you further to the little person I think of as Ponyo. (In the meantime, Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians, has expressed his thoughts on writing and fatherhood better than I ever could.)
Last month, the critic Arthur Krystal published a piece in The New Yorker titled “Easy Writers: Guilty Pleasures Without Guilt.” I’ve held off on talking about this essay until now because even after two readings, I’m not quite sure what Krystal’s point is—he seems to be saying that we think of certain novels as guilty pleasures, but we really shouldn’t, unless perhaps we should—and because Lev Grossman has already done such a fine job of responding in Time. Yet the fact that Krystal felt capable of weighing in on such an ancient debate makes me inclined to share a few of my own disorganized thoughts. (Krystal, incidentally, commits a basic gaffe when he writes: “Preferring Ken Follett’s On Wings of Eagles to Henry James’s Wings of the Dove is not a negligible bias.” This neglects the fact that the Follett book is actually a work of nonfiction that has no place in his discussion of the novel, guilty pleasure or otherwise.)
There are three points I’d like to make. First is the obvious fact, which nonetheless bears repeating, that while our very best novels are properly defined as literary fiction, simply stating that one book, or even a group of books, is “literary” and another is “genre” gives no indication of their relative quality. A literary novel like The Magic Mountain—which, incidentally, cares a great deal about story and suspense—clearly stands head and shoulders above most other novels of any kind, even as paperback smut stands more or less clearly at the bottom. But in the middle is a vast gray area of novels of varying quality, including very great genre fiction and rather trashy literary fiction, and a lot of books that fall somewhere between the two extremes. “Literary” and “genre” aren’t statements of quality, but of intent. And if, by literary fiction, we tend to mean contemporary realism, then we’re talking about a genre with its own formulas and rules, as James Wood has accurately, if smugly, pointed out.
My second point is that these classifications are unfairly skewed, because whenever a genre novelist shows signs of exceptional quality, we immediately promote him into the literary sphere, creating a kind of reverse survivorship bias. My favorite example is Ian McEwan, a great suspense novelist who has been embraced by the literary camp because of the quality of his prose and ideas. Atonement aside, most of McEwan’s books are essentially thrillers—they often end with a home invasion or a man wielding a knife—that happen to be written with impeccable style and intelligence. The same is true of Borges, who writes fantasy and mystery fiction on a higher level than any author in history. To say that they aren’t really part of the genre because they’re so good is to impoverish the genre label, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we automatically exclude all great writers from the category in which they belong, it’s no surprise that the category will start to look a little thin—but that’s only because we’ve defined it that way.
And my last point is that if literary fiction tends to receive certain kinds of recognition that genre fiction does not, this is less out of its inherent quality than a case of simple economics. If we agree that it’s a good thing, in general, to have a steady supply of both genre and literary novels, we need to find nonmonetary ways of encouraging the latter. Genre or mainstream fiction sells better, on the whole, than literary fiction, so a separate, noncommercial system of incentives needs to be set up for the literary side. These include prizes, fellowships, and reviews in prestigious publications. If these were portioned out equally to both sides, the attraction of the literary novel would disappear—which is why giving a National Book Foundation medal to Stephen King was perceived as such a threat. Literary novelists need to feel special, and to be treated as such, because otherwise, there wouldn’t be any at all. And if classifying all other books as guilty pleasures is what literary novels need to survive, well, that’s a price we should be willing to pay.