Two things from this piece caught my eye.
In one essay, “Deep Readers of the World, Beware!” Bellow offers a few comforting words to the 17-year-old version of myself sitting in a classroom, developing an ulcer after listening to his high-school English teacher inelegantly trying to shoehorn imaginary themes into great works of literature. Bellow uses the example of a young student theorizing that Achilles drags Hector’s body around Troy not because he is angry with the Trojans, but because The Iliad actually contains a series of circle motifs. And laughable as this may seem, I can assure you that there is no shortage of readers in the world who read literature with decoder rings. Deep reading, as Bellow calls it, is not the act of reading closely, but rather, the act of deliberately going after something that simply is not there.
You don't have to go to high lit to find this kind of thing. Pop culture is riddled with it as well. Sometimes I think it manifests far more acutely there, since it tends to be the product of people who seek to justify their love of something ostensibly low- or middlebrow by way of an analysis.
I'm not saying all such things are this shallow and facile (I'm in the business of it myself!), just that it's a tendency that's easy to succumb to. The idea that the most morally superior pleasure to be derived from art (again: high or low art) comes by way of being able to explain it to others is a bad joke on all the reasons we love it anyway.
In another essay he goes after the notion that writers must necessarily have real experience, that they need to be authentic people, whatever that means. Bellow writes in his essay “The University as Villain” that if one wants to sit in the streets and slum it, one should do it only because one wants to, but definitely shouldn’t do it for the sake of writing. And Bellow pokes fun at those artists who try to live decadent, bohemian lives and go out drinking as if doing so will improve their work and make them greater artists.
To purposefully go out and accumulate experience as a means of becoming a more authentic writer is probably the most disingenuous thing one can do—it is performative, and often makes for very one-dimensional fiction. It is because of this same misunderstanding of what a writer does that people sometimes try to put a spin on terrible situations by suggesting they can be turned into material for stories. Bellow intimates that the obsession with collecting bits of real-world experience for the benefit of one’s art belongs almost exclusively to American writers, and it is precisely because of their relentless dedication to writing only what they know that American writers are more limited.
Bellow wrote his essay against the fetishization of the writer’s experience in 1951. Today, there are perhaps an even greater number of people who believe in a hierarchy where only those who have cavorted enough, suffered enough, or lost enough can write well, or should be allowed to write at all.
When I was in college, one of my writing professors had a dispiriting conversation — out in front of the rest of us, mind you — with one of the other students. The professor came to the conclusion that this poor person had not had enough experience to write meaningful fiction. Nothing had happened to this person. The fact that this judgment was mean-spirited on the face of it was bad enough, but the fact that it was just plain false was another.
It took me a while to figure out why it was false, but reading the above snapped the last piece into place. It's not the experience that matters as much as the ability to regard it. A person who has a life of mountain-climbing and sexual adventures, but who has no perspective on it better than "Look what I did!" is going to have far less to say than the guy who lives in the same town his entire life but whose curiosity about whatever he encounters in that space is boundless.
This line also caught my eye: "It is precisely because of their relentless dedication to writing only what they know that American writers are more limited." For the longest time there's been this self-conscious rift between those who wrote Serious Fiction and those who wrote That Escapist Trash. The rift shows some signs of closing — more "serious" authors not only credit SF&F with being an influence, but take stabs at writing the stuff (although the jury's still out on whether or not any of that stuff will outlast its moment any more effectively than a well-crafted piece of escapism-and-nothing-but).
My thought is that the folks who have faith in being able to write confidently about what they don't know firsthand are less likely to feel hidebound. They can take what they know about life and human nature and abstract them to a degree, and invest them into something entirely invented. This is difficult and I don't expect everyone who writes to be able to do it, but some are more determined to do it, more drawn to the possibilities it offers, than people who only Write What They Know. The write-what-you-know cult is well-intentioned, but one of its most visible products is reams of meticulously observed fiction that have all the aesthetic appeal of mayonnaise sandwiches on white bread with a side of matzoh. It's not about what you know; it's how you know what you know, and about what you dare to do with what you know.
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Other Lives Of The Mind