Martin Amis, the essay, the novel, and how to have fun in fiction

There’s an unusually interesting interview with Martin Amis in New York Magazine, where he says:

I think what has happened in fiction is that fiction has responded to the fact that the rate of history has accelerated in this last generation, and will continue to accelerate, with more sort of light-speed kind of communications. Those huge, leisurely, digressive, essayistic, meditative novels of the postwar era—some of which were on the best-seller lists for months—don’t have an audience anymore. [. . .]

No one is writing that kind of novel now. Well [. . . ] David Foster Wallace—that posthumous one looks sort of Joycean and huge and very left-field. But most novelists I think are much more aware than they used to be of the need for forward motion, for propulsion in a novel. Novelists are people too, and they’re responding to this just as the reader is.

I think people aren’t reading the “essayistic, meditative novels” because “essayistic, meditative novels” reads like code-words for boring. In addition, we’re living in “The Age of the Essay.” We don’t need novelists to write essays disguised as novels when we can get the real thing in damn near infinite supply.

The discovery mechanisms for essays are getting steadily better. Think of Marginal Revolution, Paul Graham’s essays, Hacker News, The Feature, and others I’m not aware. Every Saturday, Slate releases a link collection of 5 – 10 essays in its Longform series. Recent collections include the Olympics, startups, madness in Mexico, and disease. The pieces selected tend to be deep, simultaneously intro- and extrospective, substantive, and engaging. They also feel like narrative, and nonfiction writers routinely deploy the narrative tricks and voice that fiction pioneered. The best essay writers have the writing skill of all but perhaps the very best novelists.

As a result, both professional (in the sense of getting paid) and non-professional (in the sense of being good but not earning money directly from the job) writers have an easy means of publishing what they produce. Aggregators help disseminate that writing. A lot of academics who are experts in a particular subject have fairly readable blogs (many have no blogs, or unreadable blogs, but we’ll focus on the readable ones), and the academics who once would have been consigned to journals now have an outlet—assuming they can write well (many can’t).

We don’t need to wait two to five years for a novelist to decide to write a Big Novel on a topic. We often have the raw materials at hand, and the raw material is shaped and written by someone with more respect for the reader and the reader’s time than many “essayistic” novelists. I’ve read many of those, chiefly because they’ve been assigned at various levels of my academic career. They’re not incredibly engaging.

This is not a swansong about how the novel is dead; you can find those all over the Internet, and, before the Internet, in innumerable essays and books (an awful lot of novels are read and sold, which at the very least gives the form the appearance of life). But it is a description of how the novel is, or should be, changing. Too many novels are self-involved and boring. Too many pay too little to narrative pacing—in other words, to their readers. Too many novels aren’t about stuff. Too many are obsessed with themselves.

Novels might have gotten away with these problems before the Internet. For the most part, they can’t any more, except perhaps among people who read or pretend to read novels in order to derive status from their status as readers. But being holier-than-thou via literary achievement, if it ever worked all that well, seems pretty silly today. I suppose you could write novels about how hard it is to write novels in this condition—the Zuckerman books have this quality at times, but who is the modern Zuckerman?—but I don’t think anyone beyond other writers will be much interested.

If they’re not going to be essayistic and meditative, what are novels to be? “Fun” is an obvious answer. The “forward motion” and “propulsion” that Amis mentions are good places to start. That’s how novels differ, ideally, from nonfiction.

Novels also used to have a near-monopoly on erotic material and commentary. No more. If you want to read something weird, perverse, and compelling, Reddit does a fine job of providing it (threads like “What’s your secret that could literally ruin your life if it came out?” provides what novels used to).

Stylistically, there’s still the question of how weird and attenuated a writer can make individual sentences before the work as a whole becomes unreadable or boring or both. For at least a century and change, writers could go further and further in breaking grammar, syntax, and point of view rules while still being comprehensible. By the time you get to late Joyce or Samuel Beckett’s novels, however, you start to see the limits of incomprehensibility and rule breaking regarding sentence structure, grammar, or both.

Break enough rules and you have word salad instead of language.

Most of us don’t want to read word salad, though, so Finnegans Wake and Malone Dies remain the province of specialists writing papers to impress other specialists. We want “forward motion” and “propulsion.” A novel must delight in terms of the plot and the language used. Many, many novels don’t. Amis is aware of this—he says, “I’m not interested in making a diagnostic novel. I’m 100 percent committed in fiction to the pleasure principle—that’s what fiction is, and should be.” But I’m not sure his fiction shows this (as House of Meetings and Koba the Dread show). Nonetheless, I’m with him in principle, and, I hope, practice.

So you wanna be a writer: What Anthony Bourdain can tell you even when he’s not talking about writing

There’s a great essay called “So You Wanna Be a Chef” by Anthony Bourdain, who wrote Kitchen Confidential. Based on “So You Wanna Be a Chef,” culinary schools sound rather like MFA programs. Money drives both decisions, even when artistry is supposed to:

But the minute you graduate from school—unless you have a deep-pocketed Mommy and Daddy or substantial savings—you’re already up against the wall. Two nearly unpaid years wandering Europe or New York, learning from the masters, is rarely an option. You need to make money NOW.

You could replace “cooking” with “writing” and “being a chef” with “being a writer” in Bourdain’s essay and have more or less the same outcome. Going into the “hotels and country clubs” side of the business is like getting tenure as a professor. There are a few differences between the fields—you’re never too old to be a writer—but similarities proliferate. Like this:

Male, female, gay, straight, legal, illegal, country of origin—who cares? You can either cook an omelet or you can’t. You can either cook five hundred omelets in three hours—like you said you could, and like the job requires—or you can’t. There’s no lying in the kitchen.

You can either sit (or stand) at a computer for years, producing words, or you can’t. There’s no lying at the keyboard. If you want to be a writer, the keyboard is where you’re going to spend a lot of your time (Michael Chabon on book tour in Seattle for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: “If you want to write a novel you have to sit on your ass.” I can testify that the same is true of writing a blog). All the chatter in the world about how how you prefer early Ian McEwan to late Ian McEwan isn’t going to help you produce words.

As with many disciplines, what’s important is not just being good or adequate—it’s being amazing. “There is, as well, a big difference between good work habits (which I have) and the kind of discipline required of a cook at Robuchon.” There is a big difference between good work habits and being an artist: a surprisingly large number of people can crap out a novel if given sufficient time and motivation. Milan Kundera in The Curtain:

Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional—thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious—is contemptible.

This overstates the case: an indifferent or “mediocre” novel by a “mediocre novelist” does not tangibly hurt anyone, and its most likely fate is to be ignored—which is the most likely fate of any novelist. But the writer needs to aspire “to a lasting aesthetic value,” which means that merely existing and producing something isn’t enough. Hence my derogatory phrase: “crap out a novel.”

Instead of traveling to “Find out how other people live and eat and cook,” as Bourdain tells the chef to do, the writer must read widely and voraciously and omnivorously. If you’re writing in a genre, read the classics. If you’re a literary novelist, read some of the better genre fiction (it’s out there). Read books about writing. Read books not about writing to learn how the world works. Get out of your literary comfort zone with some frequency. You’ll need it.

Also wise: “Treating despair with drugs and alcohol is a time-honored tradition—I’d just advise you to assess honestly if it’s really as bad and as intractable a situation as you think.” Steven King writes in On Writing about his own problems with drugs. He points out that drinking or taking drugs doesn’t make you a writer—if you’re a writer, you might drink or take drugs, but skipping straight to the drugs doesn’t do anything for you.

The bottom line: creative fields and top performers in many disciplines appear to have more in common than not. From what I’ve read, the same basic dynamic described by Bourdain applies not just to cooking and writing, but to software hacking, most kinds of research, athletes, architecture, music, and most forms of art. Don’t pursue these fields unless you want to master them. And you probably don’t. And if you do, you might be better off not realizing how difficult they are before you start, because you might never start.

So you wanna be a writer: What Anthony Bourdain can tell you even when he's not talking about writing

There’s a great essay called “So You Wanna Be a Chef” by Anthony Bourdain, who wrote Kitchen Confidential. Based on “So You Wanna Be a Chef,” culinary schools sound rather like MFA programs. Money drives both decisions, even when artistry is supposed to:

But the minute you graduate from school—unless you have a deep-pocketed Mommy and Daddy or substantial savings—you’re already up against the wall. Two nearly unpaid years wandering Europe or New York, learning from the masters, is rarely an option. You need to make money NOW.

You could replace “cooking” with “writing” and “being a chef” with “being a writer” in Bourdain’s essay and have more or less the same outcome. Going into the “hotels and country clubs” side of the business is like getting tenure as a professor. There are a few differences between the fields—you’re never too old to be a writer—but similarities proliferate. Like this:

Male, female, gay, straight, legal, illegal, country of origin—who cares? You can either cook an omelet or you can’t. You can either cook five hundred omelets in three hours—like you said you could, and like the job requires—or you can’t. There’s no lying in the kitchen.

You can either sit (or stand) at a computer for years, producing words, or you can’t. There’s no lying at the keyboard. If you want to be a writer, the keyboard is where you’re going to spend a lot of your time (Michael Chabon on book tour in Seattle for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: “If you want to write a novel you have to sit on your ass.” I can testify that the same is true of writing a blog). All the chatter in the world about how how you prefer early Ian McEwan to late Ian McEwan isn’t going to help you produce words.

As with many disciplines, what’s important is not just being good or adequate—it’s being amazing. “There is, as well, a big difference between good work habits (which I have) and the kind of discipline required of a cook at Robuchon.” There is a big difference between good work habits and being an artist: a surprisingly large number of people can crap out a novel if given sufficient time and motivation. Milan Kundera in The Curtain:

Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional—thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious—is contemptible.

This overstates the case: an indifferent or “mediocre” novel by a “mediocre novelist” does not tangibly hurt anyone, and its most likely fate is to be ignored—which is the most likely fate of any novelist. But the writer needs to aspire “to a lasting aesthetic value,” which means that merely existing and producing something isn’t enough. Hence my derogatory phrase: “crap out a novel.”

Instead of traveling to “Find out how other people live and eat and cook,” as Bourdain tells the chef to do, the writer must read widely and voraciously and omnivorously. If you’re writing in a genre, read the classics. If you’re a literary novelist, read some of the better genre fiction (it’s out there). Read books about writing. Read books not about writing to learn how the world works. Get out of your literary comfort zone with some frequency. You’ll need it.

Also wise: “Treating despair with drugs and alcohol is a time-honored tradition—I’d just advise you to assess honestly if it’s really as bad and as intractable a situation as you think.” Steven King writes in On Writing about his own problems with drugs. He points out that drinking or taking drugs doesn’t make you a writer—if you’re a writer, you might drink or take drugs, but skipping straight to the drugs doesn’t do anything for you.

The bottom line: creative fields and top performers in many disciplines appear to have more in common than not. From what I’ve read, the same basic dynamic described by Bourdain applies not just to cooking and writing, but to software hacking, most kinds of research, athletes, architecture, music, and most forms of art. Don’t pursue these fields unless you want to master them. And you probably don’t. And if you do, you might be better off not realizing how difficult they are before you start, because you might never start.

Hope or despair for the would-be novelist?

I’m reading the edition of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio edited by Ray Lewis White, and the introduction says:

On September 13, 1915, Sherwood Anderson (1876 – 1941) became thirty-nine years old. He was living in Chicago for the third time, writing advertising copy to support himself while trying to achieve his greatest ambition: to become a published novelist.

It took Anderson—now, if not a major author, then at least an important one—until middle age to find and execute that ambition. Many writers seem to take longer, and at times I wonder how they persevere. Perhaps they are afflicted with what Robertson Davies said novelists must be. I’m reminded of a famous quote, given here in the Guardian: “Robertson Davies, the great Canadian novelist, once observed: ‘There is absolutely no point in sitting down to write a book unless you feel that you must write that book, or else go mad, or die.’ “

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