Flight of the Vajra: Human Wave 6: To Be Read

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-04-06 14:00:00 No comments

What is Human Wave Science Fiction | According To Hoyt

You will write in language that can be understood. You will have an idea of what your story is about, or at least of its beginning, middle and end. And so will your reader, once he reads it.

Translation: "Write to be read."

In the earlier posts in this series I've mused about the way some writers seem motivated more by the urge to break rules, garner infamy or push boundaries than they are to communicate something worth hearing.

Here's the irony: After studying such writers and their work for some time, I've come to a strange conclusion: They do feel they're communicating something -- and what they're communicating is the breaking of rules, the pushing of boundaries (and yes, even the garnering of infamy for doing all those things).

They see themselves as heirs to an artistic tradition that has encompassed more than just literature, but the other arts as well -- everything from Rothko's color fields to Stockhausen's amelodic and theoretical music to you-name-it. That tradition has long been about form, not content. It has a rarefied, intellectual appeal that by itself can be quite exhilarating. I do not dismiss that exhilaration out of hand; I myself have experienced it in many forms.

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The problem is that such exhilaration has come to be seen as superior to other experiences that can be gleaned from art. Morally superior, even: that somehow the ambitions inherent in Infinite Jest are superior to the ambitions in the most recent Vampire Hunter D novel. It's just plain better to be David Foster Wallace than it is to be Hideyuki Kikuchi. Full stop.

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I have thought about this long and hard, and I cannot conclude that it is any less one-sided than the exact opposite impulse: that Wallace's writing is bloated pretense and Kikuchi is the "superior" author for being "just entertainment". One might as well complain that a taxi make for a lousy transatlantic trip. The two authors, their respective works, and the respective fields they work in are parallel territories. One does not eclipse the other, for the simple reason that neither of them are trying to do remotely the same thing.

I understand why people want to put such things into hierarchies. It makes life easier to know where you stand. Part of it is voiced in the grumbling I hear from writers and readers of more highbrow work. They hate the fact that the appeal of their work remains limited to a self-selecting minority; they resent how most people would rather "read dumb" than take a challenge; they despise the "dumbing-down" of fiction; and so on. Faced with all that, who wouldn't want to right such wrongs by constructing a hierarchy and placing yourself (or at least the company you keep) at the teetering top?

Except that these issues are all false dichotomies. The audience for a David Foster Wallace work is in no way endangered by the people who read Kikuchi (or, for that matter, John Grisham). If more people pick Grisham because he gives them what is comfortable, familiar and workable -- a fast-moving story, a few issues to toy with -- and eschew Wallace because of his studied impenetrability, no moral imperative is produced. Wallace is not the better writer for his obscurantism any more than Grisham is the better writer for his accessibility.

Any writer writes to be read, and they do so out of at least some consciousness of who is going to be reading them, thanks to the circumstances of their moment in time. It is possible for most any work, however deliberately esoteric, to find an audience, and it's not a question of a bigger audience being the better deal than a smaller one. It's a question of why that audience, big or small, latches onto your work. It's a question of recognizing that why and being honest about it, and that is as subjective for an author as it is for his audience, potential or actual.

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Here is what I mean. I have read much of both Wallace and Kikuchi. I have my problems with each one, but that does not mean I can pick the one I have fewer problems with and consider that man the "better" writer. I would not give Kikuchi to a fan of Thomas Pynchon, just as I would not give Wallace to a fan of Jim Butcher. I do not automatically feel fans of Kikuchi are "better served" by being exposed to Wallace, or vice versa for that matter. If I consider either one a better writer, it's always going to be in the context of their audience, their most immediate and comparable cohorts, and their own work.

The better metaphor for where to place those authors is in a palette, not a hierarchy, and every time we try to make ourselves believe a definitive hierarchy exists we do damage to both the high- and low-brow readers.

It helps, certainly, to read broadly. It helps to be a writer who seeks to speak to a wide and thoughtful audience. It does not help to do so out of a misguided sense of why. If one reads broadly, it should be as a reflection of one's existing breadth and curiosity, not as a way to forcibly cultivate such things. You cannot make a better reader out of someone by force-feeding them a book, any book. You can only do so by finding the works that connect to them, however peripherally, as they are now. The breadth has to come first, and that's not something that can be faked. I would rather see an honestly limited reader than a dishonestly broad one, because at least then I know who is going to be more genuinely receptive of what. I resent false pretenses more than I do artistic limitations.

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I doubt any author sits down and says "I will write to be misunderstood." Even the most brutally experimental of writing is conceived out of a sense that it communicates something, even if it isn't something that is directly on the page. If they are uncomfortable with being "obvious", or "mainstream", or any of the other formulas that are trotted out by writers as an end-run around the never-less-than-difficult business of telling a good story well, then I have to wonder if communication is even their real motive.

And yet, I understand completely what it is to want to say something in a way that has never been said before. It is a sublime temptation, to go up against all the words that have been spoken before and find a way to say something new. It's a shot at immortality. Who doesn't want to be thought of as an innovator, a groundbreaker? No writer I've known who had more than two kernels of ambition to rub together, that's for sure.

But here's the thing: if you're determined to break new ground, it's almost always because you feel what you have to say cannot be said any other way except by breaking new ground. You have to assume the peculiar gains you are driving towards cannot be had at all without steering off-road. This is itself another temptation that I don't think authors wrestle with as seriously as they ought to. They put more stock in their ambition, in their visions of a literature not yet written, than they do in what already exists to be drawn on. he more ambitious the author, the less faith they seem to put into writing as it is conventionally practiced.

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Such a thing seems to be a function of their emotional investment in their ambitions: What I have in mind is so grand that language itself can barely contain it. Therefore, language, bend to me! And so comes Ulysses, or JR -- but sometimes also Mrs. Dalloway or Maldoror. (I feel the latter works are more successful than the former.) No guarantees, for the price of calling anything an "experiment" is that the experiment sometimes must be seen as a failure. It's the price of placing a great idea, unseen and unknown to anyone but the creator himself, over the lumpen but earthy and approachable reality of an actual finished product.

I once said to someone else that one of my previous books was 90% of what I had wanted it to be, while another one was only 60%. I realized later on this was foolish: the book is 100% of whatever the reader experiences and nothing else, and even their own speculations about what it could be have nothing to do with my own. The only thing that matters is what makes it to the page, and why. My own comments about same only matter to me, or someone writing my biography, and nobody else.

In a way, I'm not surprised that authors tie themselves up in knots about such things. They've been taught to do so, schooled scrupulously in it. They've had it hammered into them a dozen different ways that the only alternative is hackdom, commercialism, the mediocrity of the mass market, that it's better to be a noble failure and wither on the vine with 500 barely-circulated copies than it is to break wide with something that panders.

Well, it's a lie. A well-meaning lie, a beautifully-motivated lie, but a lie nonetheless, because this dichotomy only exists -- to coin a phrase -- on paper. Every book that is written which shows how the sublime and the straightforward can be merged, sometimes effortlessly, is proof to the contrary. If in the end the definitive proof consists of nothing but individual books here and there, if not whole genres or approaches, that will still be proof enough. There is no point in not being read if it costs you all that you had to say anyway.

Tags: Flight of the Vajra Human Wave literature science fiction writing