Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Weaving a big enough basket

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George Saunders

By now, if you read the New York Times, you’ve probably seen Joel Lovell’s wonderful piece on the author George Saunders, which for the last few days has deservedly been one of the paper’s most emailed stories. The entire profile is worth reading—the account of Saunders’s early career as a geophysical engineer and oil prospector is particularly fascinating—but I was especially taken with the passage that I quoted here over the weekend. Saunders says that out of ten given readers, two might not be interested in his work under any circumstances, while he may have three or four of them already. If there’s something he can do to appeal to readers five, six, and seven, while remaining true to his own voice, he’ll do his best to figure out what this is. “I can’t change who I am and what I do,” he concludes, “but maybe there’s a way to reach those good and dedicated readers that the first few books might not have appealed to. I’d like to make a basket big enough that it included them.”

This is, by any measure, the sanest statement I’ve ever seen from a major writer. It’s realistic, humble, and above all confident: it could only have been made by an author who trusted that his integrity as an artist could survive the effort to reach a wider readership. Such a combination of assurance and humility is extraordinarily rare. Many writers, both good and bad, seem to believe that any attempt to broaden their potential audience can only come at a lowering of their artistic standards, when really the opposite is true: inaccessibility is more often the result of a failure of craft. Whenever an author seems convinced that his work, by definition, can be understood by only a tiny sliver of receptive readers, I want to ask: “Can you conceive of a version of this story that, while remaining true to your vision and intentions, can be enjoyed by a wider audience than it can now?” And if the answer is yes, it strikes me as a greater test of an author’s abilities to express his ideas using the tools that might attract a larger readership, rather than to settle in advance for the closed, hermetic circle of readers that initially seemed possible.

Portrait of Jorge Luis Borges by Ferdinando Scianna

The fact is that most good authors should be able to reach a wide audience, if they’re willing to extend themselves in ways that might not at first seem obvious. The opposite is also true: very few authors are legitimately original and difficult enough to justify the refusal to seek as diverse a readership as possible. Acknowledging this can be hard: it means knowing the difference between honest artistic exploration and the timidity, or frigidity, that can lead a writer to shy away from giving up his dearest affectations. It requires certain sacrifices, but only of the kind that every writer is forced to make sooner or later—the sacrifice of ego, pretension, and self-indulgence. Plenty of these qualities will remain on their own, no matter how objective a writer tries to be. But the author who can’t kill them wherever possible while still retaining his principles and ambitions can only be one of two things. Either he’s a genius of the kind that comes along a handful of times in a generation, in which case all bets are off. Or, more likely, he’s afraid of finding out what remains when all those comforting affectations are stripped away.

That said, it’s often best for an author to start by writing for a particular circle of readers, and then gradually expand himself outward: if you begin by trying to please everyone, you’re likely to please no one, or at least never to inspire the kind of passionate identification that comes when an author seems to be writing for you alone. An author’s voice and identity emerge from a prolonged engagement with his own set of individual, idiosyncratic ideas of utter specificity, things that it often seems nobody else could possibly care about. It’s the effort of taking the highly personal and drawing as many readers as possible into this shared obsession that marks the very best novelists, both literary and mainstream. The basket can always be a little bigger. And for any writers who doubt that their personality can survive the process, I can only repeat, once more, what Borges is supposed to have said, through his editor, to the translator who claimed that it was impossible to render one of his poems properly in rhyme: “Borges thinks you should try a little harder.”

Written by nevalalee

January 7, 2013 at 9:50 am

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