Sunday, June 27, 2010

"A feeling of long-term fondness which is perhaps the most important residual emotion of the experience of literature," or, How I love Nicholson Baker

Months ago, when I was first contemplating writing about David Shields's Reality Hunger, I was struck by something that Nicholson Baker said in the course of a wonderful interview with Chris Lydon for Radio Open Source. Baker was talking about his charming and funny novel The Anthologist, and he said it all started when he was sitting in the side yard one day and began thinking of a new way of understanding poetic meter and rhyme:
So when I realized that I had, this to me exciting discovery, I thought, you know, I've got, I've got a novel here, and I rubbed my hands together and then, and I wrote lots of notes, and I didn't have a novel, I had, I had a theory. But it was an extreme enough theory that it seemed to me the right thing for a fictional character to have. This guy has strong opinions, and the great liberating thing about writing it as a novel is that you can just follow out those, those, strong opinions--you can just lay it out, and realize you're being inconsistent with yourself, but you're, you're, you're telling it as truthfully as, as you know how to tell it, that afternoon, out in the side yard. You're doing your best--that's what a novel allows you to do, is do your best at that moment and not worry about the fact that you're not coming up with a codified, perfectly consistent body of theory that you can publish as a, as a new doctrine of rhyme.
"You're doing your best--that's what a novel allows you to do." The task of defining the novel is impossible, every definition doomed by exceptions, but I'm tempted to adopt Baker's: it's an attempt, the best attempt one can make, to get down what it was like at that moment. Which, unexpectedly, aligns me to some extent with Shields, who loves the idea of the essay as the verb form of the word, a test or attempt, and who lists Baker as one of the hybrid writers he admires--though if one accepts that the novel (and, let us be broad, fiction in general) is fundamentally a hybrid genre, capable of assimilating nearly everything, then the need for a manifesto damning its sins rapidly fades away.

And while I'm on the topic of Baker, towards whom I feel inordinately fond, in no small part because of the way that he blurs the line between authorial and fictional voice, it seems right to make sure you've all seen his letter to John Updike that appeared in the June 21 issue of the New York Review of Books. Baker explains in the introduction that he sent the letter to Updike in March of 1985, as he was in the throes of writing his first novel, and that Updike's failure to respond was entirely forgivable, since he didn't include a return address. The letter is worth reading in full--hell, it's worth buying the entire issue for. While I've never been an Updike fan, it seems succinctly to get at many, if not most, of the charms of reading a living writer. If you've read this blog for long, you know how I love Trollope, and the way Baker invokes him will give you a sense of the appreciative tone of the letter:
I thought what an amazing thing that Mr. Updike has been writing all the years that I have been growing up, and how I have come to depend on the idea that he is writing away as a soothing idea, and then I was reminded of Trollope, and how nice it must have been for writers back then to go about their lives knowing that Mr. Trollope was going to have a new book coming out soon, that it would be good; and they might not read all of the things he wrote, but they would read some, and they would know that what they didn’t read they were missing, but were comforted also that they knew what kind of man he was because they had already read a lot of what he wrote; and the idea they had of the man who gradually had written all these books was a powerful, happy thing in their lives.
All too often, we aim for detachment, rational assessment of artworks; once in a while, it's okay to make a space for unabashed love, and the gratitude that should follow.

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