Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Susan Sontag

How to be useful

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In his recent review in The New Yorker of a new collection of short stories by Susan Sontag, the critic Tobi Haslett quotes its author’s explanation of why she wrote her classic book Illness as Metaphor: “I wanted to be useful.” I was struck enough by this statement to look up the full version, in which Sontag explains how she approached the literary challenge of addressing her own experience with cancer:

I didn’t think it would be useful—and I wanted to be useful—to tell yet one more story in the first person of how someone learned that she or he had cancer, wept, struggled, was comforted, suffered, took courage…though mine was also that story. A narrative, it seemed to me, would be less useful than an idea…And so I wrote my book, wrote it very quickly, spurred by evangelical zeal as well as anxiety about how much time I had left to do any living or writing in. My aim was to alleviate unnecessary suffering…My purpose was, above all, practical.

This is a remarkable way to look at any book, and it emerged both from Sontag’s own illness and from her awareness of her peculiar position in the culture of her time, as Haslett notes: “Slung between aesthetics and politics, beauty and justice, sensuous extravagance and leftist commitment, Sontag sometimes found herself contemplating the obliteration of her role as public advocate-cum-arbiter of taste. To be serious was to stake a belief in attention—but, in a world that demands action, could attention be enough?”

Sontag’s situation may seem remote from that of most authors, but it’s a problem that every author faces when he or she decides to tackle a book, which usually amounts to a call for attention over action. We write for all kinds of reasons, some more admirable than others, and selecting one idea or project over another comes down prioritizing such factors as our personal interests, commercial potential, and what we want to think about for a year or more of our lives. But as time goes by, I’ve found that Sontag’s test—that the work be useful—is about as sensible a criterion as any. I’ve had good and bad luck in both cases, but as a rule, whenever I’ve tried to be useful to others, I’ve done well, and whenever I haven’t, I’ve failed. Being useful doesn’t necessarily mean providing practical information or advice, although that’s a fine reason to write a book, but rather writing something that would have value even if you weren’t the one whose name was on the cover, simply because it deserves to exist. You often don’t know until long after you start if a project meets that standard, and it might even be a mistake to consciously pursue it. The best approach, in the end, might simply to develop a lot of ideas in hope that some small fraction will survive. I still frequently write just for my own pleasure, out of personal vanity, or for the desire to see something in print, but it only lasts if the result is also useful, so it’s worth at least keeping it in mind as a kind of sieve for deciding between alternatives. As Lin-Manuel Miranda once put it to Grantland, in words that have never ceased to resound in my head: “What’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world?”

One of my favorite examples is the writer Euell Gibbons, who otherwise might seem less like Susan Sontag than any human being imaginable. As John McPhee writes in a short reminiscence, “The Forager,” in the New York Times:

Euell had begun learning about wild and edible vegetation when he was small boy in the Red River Valley. Later, in the dust‐bowl era, his family moved to central New Mexico. They lived in a semi‐dugout and almost starved there. His father left in a desperate search for work. The food supply diminished until all that was left were a few pinto beans and a single egg, which no one would eat. Euell, then teen‐aged and one of four children, took a knapsack one morning and left for the horizon mountains. He came hack with puffball mushrooms, piñon nuts, and fruits of the yellow prickly pear. For nearly a month, the family lived wholly on what he provided, and he saved their lives. “Wild food has meant different things to me at different times,” he said to me once. “Right then it was a means of salvation, a way to keep from dying.”

In years that followed, Euell worked as a cowboy. He pulled cotton. He was for a long time a hobo. He worked in a shipyard. He combed beaches. The longest period during which he lived almost exclusively on wild food was five years. All the while, across decades, he wished to be a writer. He produced long pieces of fiction and he had no luck…He passed the age of fifty with virtually nothing published. He saw himself as a total failure, and he had no difficulty discerning that others tended to agree.

What happened next defied all expectation. McPhee writes: “Finally, after listening to the advice of a literary agent, he sat down to try to combine his interests. He knew his subject first- and second-hand; he knew it backward to the botanies of the tribes. And now he told everybody else how to gather and prepare wild food.” The result was the book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, which became the first in a bestselling series. At times, Gibbons didn’t seem to know how to handle his own success, as McPhee recalls:

He would live to be widely misassessed. His books gave him all the money he would ever need. The deep poverty of his other years was not forgotten, though, and he took to going around with a minimum of $1,500 in his pocket, because with any less there, he said, he felt insecure. Whatever he felt, it was enough to cause him, in his last years, to appear on television munching Grape-Nuts—hard crumbs ground from tough bread—and, in doing so, he obscured his accomplishments behind a veil of commercial personality. He became a household figure of a cartoon sort. People laughed when they heard his name. All too suddenly, he stood for what he did not stand for.

But Gibbons also deserves to be remembered as a man who finally understood and embraced the admonition that a writer be useful. McPhee concludes: “He was a man who knew the wild in a way that no one else in this time has even marginally approached. Having brought his knowledge to print, he died the writer he wished to be.” Gibbons and Sontag might not have had much in common—it’s difficult to imagine them even having a conversation—but they both confronted the same question: “What book should I write?” And we all might have better luck with the answer if we ask ourselves instead: “What have I done to survive?”

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December 19, 2017 at 8:14 am

Quote of the Day

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The idea is that everything that was hoped for and attempted in the sixties basically hasn’t worked and couldn’t work out. But who says it won’t work? Who says there’s something wrong with people dropping out? I think the world should be safe for marginal people. One of the nice things that happened was that a lot of people chose to be marginal and other people didn’t seem to mind. I don’t think of myself as marginal in that I don’t particularly want to sit on the sidewalk and take drugs, because I’m too restless and I don’t want to calm my restlessness. On the contrary, I’d like to have more energy and be more mobile. But part of my efforts are to keep myself marginal—to destroy what I’ve done or to try something else.

Susan Sontag, to Rolling Stone

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October 4, 2017 at 7:30 am

The myth of the public novelist

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sontag

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on April 8, 2015.

Novelists, by nature, are neurotic types, and never more so than when they’re justifying the pursuit to which they’ve devoted their lives. Looking around at the issues that beset us—social and racial inequality, poverty, terrorism, institutionalized sexism, and much more, all arrayed like a tapestry of woe beneath the gloomy specter of climate change—it’s easy to regard writing novels as an activity of spectacular uselessness. When we do try to rationalize it, we have a few stock answers at our disposal. The art of fiction, we say, is largely the art of empathy, or of training ourselves and our readers to take an interest in the lives of others, and even if the novel has rarely, if ever, changed the course of history, it encourages a habit of thinking outside ourselves that teaches us how to walk in another person’s shoes. (In theory, anyway. But you could also argue that it provides the illusion of empathy, a way of exercising or discharging our emotions that lets us off the hook when it comes to putting those impulses to work in the real world.) And it also turns us into skeptical, even agonistic generalists, capable of grasping complex systems of cause and effect, even if in practice we spend most of our time tackling excruciatingly specific problems of narrative, which often feels like constructing a cathedral out of toothpicks.

Deep down, though, I suspect that a lot of novelists nurture a secret hope. One day, we’ll break through with a major novel or work of nonfiction that will establish us in the sphere of public intellectuals. Glossy magazines and talk shows will solicit our opinions, whatever they are, and our voices will be heard on a range of subjects simply because everything we say is deemed to be interesting. Writing a decent novel, which is undeniably one of the most challenging projects a human being can undertake, is assumed to qualify us to think about other subjects. (Literary novelists, like chess players, have a way of seeing themselves as more intellectually fit than others, as Charles Colton said of mathematicians: “He will be in argument what the ancient Romans were in the field: to them the day of battle was a day of comparative recreation because they were ever accustomed to exercise with arms much heavier than they fought.”) And it can’t be an accident that so many of our most versatile intellectuals—Norman Mailer, Edmund Wilson, Susan Sontag, Jean-Paul Sartre—either started in the novel or devoted a fair amount of attention to it. Thinking hard about reality and about problems of fiction feels like the same skill set directed into two different streams, and an accomplished writer should be able to switch effortlessly between one and the other.

Edmund Wilson

A glance at recent rankings of public intellectuals suggests that this ambition, to put it mildly, is misplaced. The most widely distributed list of this kind, published annually by Foreign Policy, includes just a handful of novelists or imaginative writers: Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa, the late Chinua Achebe, J.M. Coetzee, Gao Xingjian, and maybe Michael Ignatieff, an author better known these days as the former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. A most recent Prospect Magazine list adds a few more names to the pile: Hilary Mantel, Michel Houellebecq, Marilynne Robinson, and Arundhati Roy, who is returning to fiction after a lengthy sojourn in more political fields. For the most part, though, these lists are composed largely of academics, scientists, economists, and businessmen. You could attribute this partially to the decline of the novel as the central art form of our culture: these days, if an entertainer wanders into a position of punditry, he’s likely to look more like Russell Brand. But there’s also a real sense in which a good novelist might be less equipped than average to deal with the complicated problems of public life. Writing is so solitary, so focused on points of craft that have no application anywhere else, that it turns a serious novelist into a machine who can speak credibly on issues of fiction alone—and maybe not even then. And an ability with words only makes it easier to be convincingly wrong.

Yet the illusion persists. And it’s a useful one, at least to the extent that it allows intelligent people to stick with writing when they might have found a more acceptable outlet for their ambitions. I wouldn’t want to live in a world in which writing novels wasn’t seen as a worthwhile pursuit for raw talent. If I’m honest, though, I also find that part of the reason I was so annoyed with Jonathan Franzen’s attempt two years ago to inject himself into the climate change debate is that he’s one of the few authors who actually got the platform that every writer wants. There isn’t a novelist alive who doesn’t secretly wish that The New Yorker would give him space to speak out on whatever he perceives to be the central issue of our time. And Franzen squandered his chance on an argument that even his editors must have known was insupportable. Yet I have a hunch that most novelists would have responded in the same way. Along with being inherently neurotic, writers are often misguided, even perverse, in their social and political stances: they spend so much time willing themselves into the minds of others that they turn into creatures who aren’t like anyone else. Franzen is part of a proud tradition, stretching back through Mailer and Sontag and beyond, of novelists backing themselves into weird, indefensible positions. Writers aren’t reasonable; if they were, they wouldn’t try to be writers. And it’s good to keep this in mind whenever a writer—including this one—tries to give you advice.

Written by nevalalee

January 17, 2017 at 9:00 am

Reading while writing

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Norman Mailer

When Norman Mailer was working on The Naked and the Dead, still in his early twenties, he fell back on a trick that I suspect most novelists have utilized at one time or another. Here how he described it to his biographer Peter Manso:

I had four books on my desk all the time I was writing: Anna Karenina, Of Time and the River, U.S.A., and Studs Lonigan. And whenever I wanted to get in the mood to write I’d read one of them. The atmosphere of The Naked and the Dead, the overspirit, is Tolstoyan; the rococo comes out of Dos Passos; the fundamental, slogging style from Farrell; and the occasional overreach descriptions from Wolfe.

I haven’t looked into this in any systematic way, but I have a feeling that a lot of writers do much the same thing—they select a book by another author whom they admire, and when they start the day’s work, or feel their inspiration starting to flag, they read a few pages of it. If you’re like me, you try to move straight from the last sentence of your chosen model to your own writing, as if to carry over some of that lingering magic. And if you’re lucky, the push it provides will get you through another hour or so of work, at which point you do it again.

I’ve followed this routine ever since I started writing seriously, and it isn’t hard to figure out why it helps. One of the hardest things about writing is starting again after a break, and reading someone else’s pages has the same effect as the advice, often given to young writers, as retyping a paragraph of your work from the day before: like the running start before the long jump, it gives you just enough momentum to carry you past the hardest part. I’ve also developed a set of rather complicated rules about what I can and can’t allow myself to read while working. It needs to be something originally composed in English, since even the best translations lose something of the vitality of a novel in one’s native language. (Years ago, I saw one of Susan Sontag’s early novels described as being written in “translator’s prose,” and I’ve never forgotten it.) It has to be the work of a master stylist, but not so overwhelming or distinctive that the tics begin to overwhelm your own voice: I still vividly remember writing a few pages of a novel shortly after reading some Nabokov, and being humiliated when I went back to read the result the next day. I stay away from such writers for much the same reason that I avoid listening to music when I write these days. It’s all too easy to confuse the emotional effects produced by proximity to another work of art with the virtues of the writing itself. When you’re reading in parallel, you want a writer who bears you forward on the wave of his or her style without drowning you in it.

Ian McEwan

This also means that there are books that I can’t allow myself to read when I’m writing, out of fear that I’ll be contaminated by their influence, for better or for worse. Obviously, I avoid bad writers, but I also steer clear of great writers whom I’m afraid will infect my style. In practice, because I’m nearly always writing something, this means that I’ve avoided certain books for years. It took me a long time to read Cloud Atlas, for instance, because it seemed like exactly the kind of overwhelming stylistic experiment that could only have a damaging impact. Mailer makes a similar point:

I was very careful not to read things that would demoralize me. I knew that instinctively. There’s a navigator in us—I really do believe that—and I think this navigator knew I wanted to be a writer and had an absolute sense of what was good for me and what wasn’t. If somebody had said, “Go read Proust,” I’d say, “No, not now.”

Or as the great Sherlockian scholar Christopher Morley noted: “There is no harm in reading any number of unimportant books for pastime, but the significant books must be taken cautiously. You don’t want them to get in the way of what might perhaps be growing and brooding in yourself, taking its own time.

And this search for books in English that have a great style, but not too much of it, has led to some curious patterns in my reading life. Usually, when I’m working on something and need a helping hand to get me over the rough patches, I go with Ian McEwan. I’m not sure that I’d describe him as my favorite living writer, but he’s arguably the one whose clean, lucid, observant prose comes closest to the ideal that I’d like to see in my own work. You can’t really go wrong with an imitation of McEwan, whereas there are other writers in the same vein, like Updike, who are more likely to lead you astray. With McEwan, at worst, you’ll end up with something boring, but it probably won’t be outright embarrassing. (It reminds me a little of what T.S. Eliot once said along similar lines: “If you follow Dante without talent, you will at worst be pedestrian and flat; if you follow Shakespeare or Pope without talent, you will make an utter fool of yourself.”) McEwan is the closest I’ve found to a foolproof choice, which is why I’m currently reading The Children Act, a few pages at a time, while I’m working up a new short story. James Salter and J.M. Coetzee are two other good options, and if I’m really stuck for inspiration, I’ll often fall back on an old favorite like Deliverance by James Dickey, or even Mailer himself, for early drafts when I’m pretty sure that I’ll have a chance to pare away any excesses of style. Every writer eventually develops his or her own personal list, and there aren’t any wrong answers. You just listen to your navigator. And maybe you don’t read Nabokov.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

September 1, 2015 at 7:04 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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What’s the point of the novel?

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Virginia Woolf

Why do we write novels? I’m not talking here about a defense of the form itself—when a novel is good, that’s all the justification it needs. Rather, I’ve always been interested in the question of why so many young writers, whose strongest gifts might lie in other kinds of expression, are instinctively drawn to the novel as a sort of testing ground. Susan Sontag, for instance, was manifestly born to be a cultural critic, but she made her debut with the novels The Benefactor and Death Kit, neither of which exactly set the world on fire. Norman Mailer made a bigger splash with The Naked and the Dead, but its success turned out to be an outlier: he struggled to recapture that initial magic throughout his career, and he achieved his most lasting fame as a journalist and rogue public intellectual. The novel, it seems, is a ceremony of initiation for aspiring talents, a medium of tremendous complexity and difficulty that establishes a writer’s credentials, even if he or she seems likely to move on to other battlefields. And this is despite the fact that the novel itself is an increasingly hard sell for publishers and readers, at least compared to more marketable genres like memoirs and creative nonfiction.

That said, even if it no longer stands at the center of our culture, there’s no question that a novel still carries a certain cachet. And you could even argue that as the novel becomes marginalized, it grows more useful as a test of talent: to break through in fiction these days requires a writer of exceptional skill and determination. Yet I sometimes wonder if there might not be better alternatives. From the outside, it seems that writing a novel would train you to do just about anything else. Certainly other forms feel easier, or marginally less backbreaking, once you’ve willed three hundred pages of story into existence. Sooner or later, though, you find that the novel has peculiar requirements of its own, and doing it well demands that the author develop skills that may not have any application elsewhere. When I was younger, I wanted to work in every form and genre—I saw myself moving with ease from novels to short stories to essays to criticism, like the man of letters I dreamed of being. Over time, however, I’ve learned to be content with being mediocre in everything except being a good father and novelist. The novel, if you’re doing it right, sucks up everything you have, leaving little else for hobbies or side projects. And if I really wanted to be a critic or journalist, it would have made more sense to focus on that, rather than diverting my energies on a form that asked for everything I could possibly give it.

sontag

Yet I can’t shake the sense that the novel can also teach transferable skills that can’t be acquired in any other way. That isn’t a good reason to write a novel if it isn’t what you already want, but if you end up there anyway and survive the experience, you’ve learned a few things that you wouldn’t have known otherwise. To take an example from the very highest levels, here’s what Virginia Woolf once wrote to a young poet:

Can you doubt that the reason Shakespeare knew every sound and syllable in the language and could do exactly what he liked with grammar and syntax, was that Hamlet, Falstaff, and Cleopatra rushed him into this knowledge; that the lords, officers, dependents, and murders and common soldiers of the plays insisted that he should say exactly what they felt in words expressing their feelings? It was they who taught him to write, not the begetter of the sonnets.

Woolf is talking about drama, not the novel, but her underlying point—that a genre that deliberately creates a multiplicity of imaginary voices will push the writer into making new discoveries more reliably than any other—rings particularly true for novelists. (You could argue that a series of short stories could produce the same effect, but even if the writer tackled a wide range of character types, there’s something to be said for a single narrative in which everyone is forced to jostle together in surprising combinations.) The novel, which compels the writer to keep a diverse body of material under control to the breaking point, still feels like the form most likely to generate unique talents, even, or especially, if they move on. So it’s possible that writers who tackle the novel first, even if they end up elsewhere, are exactly where they need to be. But Woolf deserves the last word:

So that if you want to satisfy all those senses that rise in a swarm whenever we drop a poem among them—the reason, the imagination, the eyes, the ears, the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, not to mention a million more that the psychologists have yet to name, you will do well to embark upon a long poem in which people as unlike yourself as possible talk at the tops of their voices. And for heaven’s sake, publish nothing before you are thirty.

Written by nevalalee

June 8, 2015 at 10:12 am

The myth of the public novelist

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sontag

Novelists, by nature, are neurotic types, and never more so than when they’re justifying the pursuit to which they’ve devoted their lives. Looking around at the issues that beset us—social and racial inequality, poverty, terrorism, institutionalized sexism, and much more, all arrayed like a tapestry of woe beneath the gloomy specter of climate change—it’s easy to regard writing novels as an activity of spectacular uselessness. When we do try to rationalize it, we have a few stock answers at our disposal. The art of fiction, we say, is largely the art of empathy, or of training ourselves and our readers to take an interest in the lives of others, and even if the novel has rarely, if ever, changed the course of history, it encourages a habit of thinking outside ourselves that teaches us how to walk in another person’s shoes. (In theory, anyway. But you could also argue that it provides the illusion of empathy, a way of exercising or discharging our emotions that lets us off the hook when it comes to putting those impulses to work in the real world.) And it also turns us into skeptical, even agonistic generalists, capable of grasping complex systems of cause and effect, even if in practice we spend most of our time tackling excruciatingly specific problems of narrative, which often feels like constructing a cathedral out of toothpicks.

Deep down, though, I suspect that a lot of novelists nurture a secret hope. One day, we’ll break through with a major novel or work of nonfiction that will establish us in the sphere of public intellectuals. Glossy magazines and talk shows will solicit our opinions, whatever they are, and our voices will be heard on a range of subjects simply because everything we say is deemed to be interesting. Writing a decent novel, which is undeniably one of the most challenging projects a human being can undertake, is assumed to qualify us to think about other subjects. (Literary novelists, like chess players, have a way of seeing themselves as more intellectually fit than others, as Charles Colton said of mathematicians: “He will be in argument what the ancient Romans were in the field: to them the day of battle was a day of comparative recreation because they were ever accustomed to exercise with arms much heavier than they fought.”) And it can’t be an accident that so many of our most versatile intellectuals—Norman Mailer, Edmund Wilson, Susan Sontag, Jean-Paul Sartre—either started in the novel or devoted a fair amount of attention to it. Thinking hard about reality and about problems of fiction feels like the same skill set directed into two different streams, and an accomplished writer should be able to switch effortlessly between one and the other.

Edmund Wilson

A glance at recent rankings of public intellectuals suggests that this ambition, to put it mildly, is misplaced. The most widely distributed list of this kind, published annually by Foreign Policy, includes just a handful of novelists or imaginative writers: Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa, the late Chinua Achebe, J.M. Coetzee, Gao Xingjian, and maybe Michael Ignatieff, an author better known these days as the former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. The most recent Prospect Magazine list adds a few more names to the pile: Hilary Mantel, Michel Houellebecq, Marilynne Robinson, and Arundhati Roy, who appears to be returning to fiction after a lengthy sojourn in more political fields. For the most part, though, these lists are composed largely of academics, scientists, economists, and businessmen. You could attribute this partially to the decline of the novel as the central art form of our culture: these days, if an entertainer wanders into a position of punditry, he’s likely to look more like Russell Brand. But there’s also a real sense in which a good novelist might be less equipped than average to deal with the complicated problems of public life. Writing is so solitary, so focused on points of craft that have no application anywhere else, that it turns a serious novelist into a machine who can speak credibly on issues of fiction alone—and maybe not even then. And an ability with words only makes it easier to be convincingly wrong.

Yet the illusion persists. And it’s a useful one, at least to the extent that it allows intelligent people to stick with writing when they might have found a more acceptable outlet for their ambitions. I wouldn’t want to live in a world in which writing novels wasn’t seen as a worthwhile pursuit for raw talent. If I’m honest, though, I also find that part of the reason I’m so annoyed with Jonathan Franzen’s attempt to inject himself into the climate change debate is that he’s one of the few authors who actually got the platform that every writer wants. There isn’t a novelist alive who doesn’t secretly wish that The New Yorker would give him space to speak out on whatever he perceives to be the central issue of our time. And Franzen squandered his chance on an argument that even his editors must have known was insupportable. Yet I have a hunch that most novelists would have responded in the same way. Along with being inherently neurotic, writers are often misguided, even perverse, in their social and political stances: they spend so much time willing themselves into the minds of others that they turn into creatures who aren’t like anyone else. Franzen is part of a proud tradition, stretching back through Mailer and Sontag and beyond, of novelists backing themselves into weird, indefensible positions. Writers aren’t reasonable; if they were, they wouldn’t try to be writers. And it’s good to keep this in mind whenever a writer—including this one—tries to give you advice.

Written by nevalalee

April 8, 2015 at 9:38 am

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