On Being Wrong
Almost three decades ago I wrote this short essay attempting to say one or two things about literary minimalism, which was just then being widely sneered at in the reviewing press. Now that all that is safely in the rear view mirror and the exuberance of your author has retreated somewhat, let’s look again.
(from The New York Times)
With all the talk in these and similar pages about the new, faulty literature, about things left out and whole tenses turning up bum, not to mention indictments for excessive reticence, moral skinny-dipping, and too much time in the shopping mall, a writer hardly has time to put a new word up on the easel, let alone paint it, before somebody’s deciding it’s the wrong word. My initial reaction to being wrong usually takes the form, “Hey, Mom, here’s more dumb stuff in the newspaper,” which is uncharitable, unfair, and un-useful, sort of “I know you are, but what am I?” So this time, instead of talking back to the newspaper, and for my penance, I thought I’d toss my own self-lighting, burns-in-colors!, artificial log into this fiery debate.
As I get it, the charges against so-called “minimalist” fiction center around its comparison with some ideas of what fiction used to be, or is thought to have been. In particular, the main charges are a) omission of big “philosophical” ideas, b) not enough history or historical sense, c) lack of (or wrong) political posture (expressed as ease with the culture), d) insufficient on-page thinking resulting in boil-in-bag characters, e) commonplace description too reliant on brand names, f) drabness of “style”, g) moral poverty.
These charges, one notices, come from all over the ballpark, from every political and literary angle, suggesting that the one thing the arguers agree on is this thing called minimalism. They hate it. I notice, though, that the charges are typically framed in the negative–these are criticisms of what this fiction isn’t, not of what it is. This is odd because if it’s not doing all this stuff, if this fiction is as innocuous as its critics suggest, why all the screaming? One can’t read a book review these days without encountering the obligatory attack on “minimalist” prose (even unto USA Today, literary bulwark), so I guess we must conclude that a nerve’s been hit.
By way of exploring that nerve, I want to use a little autobiography to speculate about how we might have gotten where we are (I say we because the charges have sometimes been aimed at me, and because, even though I don’t feel a special kinship with others against whom they’re routinely levied–say, Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Mary Robison–I do feel the kinship of appreciating their work, thinking it serious and compelling, worthy of our attention).
Way back in the sixties, when I personally was extremely young, people had a lot of ideas. We were always in some cafe, vigorously rapping about these ideas we had–that the language creates itself, the word is a gesture, irony is the primary and required means of seeing the world. It was a great and silly time–you could put dirt in the work, a bag of dirt, staple it in there, and argue that it recontextualized the prose. Something about that way of focusing, of seeing things close and cut loose from their moorings, was informative. More than that, it was often touching, catching the glint of some painful, or goofish, or wondrous idea in the craw of a famous fragment. You could see things that way, in high relief. And there was a certain jaunty puberty in that work, a “why, we can do anything” excitement–look here whilst I twirl this here torpedo roll on the backside of that red-headed battleaxe, Mrs. Col. Enrique Bumberkin, rubber stamp heiress on whose trendy hide are the tattoos chronicling old Enrique’s rarely great notions.
It was sort of a David Letterman thing–the “more is more” joke.
Alas, as time went on, any hare-brained thing would do, and, did. Too many people started having ideas, and the ideas got slack. It was so easy everybody was doing it. You couldn’t turn around without some being trumping up something that got treated, in the critical eye, as if it were a full-fledged idea. Things were headed off the beam. The honchos–Barth, Gass, Hawkes, Mr. Barthelme–were doing fine. Barth was at Buffalo encouraging his students to write on volleyballs, though I don’t believe he was himself writing on volleyballs, in spite of a one-time plunge to the Mobius level; Gass was at Washington University taking an especially useful high line on the teaching of writing; Hawkes was somewhere being stranger than fiction; and Mr. Barthelme, while not instructing the kids at City College and elsewhere, was busy instructing little brothers. The difficulty was that after these top-of-the-line guys, you had guys getting the stuff off the rack, figuring a funny name and a disjointed narrative and a list or two would get them through–nice guys, mind you, and smart, just not very good.
So this went on. These few guys could really do this stuff right, but they couldn’t keep up with the demand, so pretty soon the B guys were promoted to fill the need, but these B guys never did get it, never understood what has come to be known to all artists of every kind the world over as Alfred Leslie Syndrome (this is sort of an assistant-anecdote: in the fifties, Leslie was a terrific painter coming in about ten minutes after de Kooning; as good as his pictures were, they had the stench of the late about them, were thus sapped of truth and vitality. He figured it out, after a while, and did something else–eight-foot snapshots of himself–and that worked fine). The B guys didn’t get that, though, so they kept pulling out these B versions and getting minorly famous, while the four people doing the A stuff worried about how to do it again.
After a while, any fool could see getting into that game was taking a bite out of the wrong end of the lizard. Besides, it was tiring–the work was so frail. You had to hold it up all the time. You had to go along with it into readers’ houses and explain it, adjust their glasses, help them get their feet up, turn the pages and point out the highlights–full throated it wasn’t. So writers started looking around for other things to do. One place you looked was Cheever–what was he doing out there? He hadn’t been much of a factor in your education, but he was funny, apt. And mean, too. Even Updike, painfully beset with George Will Syndrome, started looking good. Some people were thinking “Well, so much for irony.” Because once you’d been to the big irony of the Postmodern–“all over” irony, to put it a painterly way–you couldn’t very well go back to the periodic. This was around 1974, 1975. I’m not sure everybody was thinking “So much for irony,” but it was talked about a lot, even though the big guys had said irony was all the way of it, the only way, said the world was broken and could not be apprehended without it. That sounded right, looked right; everybody was impressed with how much sick, half-crazy stuff was everywhere by that time, and irony seemed to be the way to handle the whopper (times change: nowadays that irony seems a little like Ernie Kovaks comedy).
So the world of literary art then was one of those idealized, trance-like states in which all kinds of things that aren’t important are allowed to be important for a minute–a reaction to the unknowable. The trick was a suspension of disbelief thing, with the real world viewed as the fiction. This is a reverse whammy: the real, treated as if it requires suspension of disbelief, becomes unreal (and knowable by reason of being self-defined) in order to sustain the suspension. That trick was at the center of things back then, but the problem was you figured it out, and once you figured it out it wasn’t interesting anymore. Because now you were Alfred Leslie, and you were cranking out the work several fishes too small for the stringer. You, with concerto-level aspirations, wanting to be fair and talented and to make a genuine something or other, wanting to do good and avoid evil, remanded to the dinghy for the duration.
There was a lot of this “art without irony” talk in 1976 at Johns Hopkins–Barth was there, having thrown off his volleyballs, and Charles Newman was there, in his BMW, planning his underground pool, and Tony Tanner was there, mid-crisis but intriguing. And the students were good, too. Mary and Jim Robison were there; everything in Mary’s stories “snicked”–any time any object hit any other object it “snicked.” That was interesting. And Lisa Zeidner was there, already writing a mile a minute, putting everything she could think of and some things she couldn’t into the fiction. Things were pretty loose–some guy got told we’d need a bottle of Clorox and a sponge to fix his story. Then Leslie Epstein came in to teach second semester and it was like he was in from Planet Ten. People tried to beat him up in class, so the story goes, for his views on fiction, which were thought to be . . . conservative. A rump movement occurred! And then another. But the growing sense was that a plain sentence, drab as it may seem, might be more powerful by and large than the then standard issue clever sentence. Mary Robison’s work was instructive–already dry, people in the workshop grudgingly admired it, noting that the ordinariness of her subject and sentence was offset by the intense particularity of her language. Everybody agreed that it worked, that her cold eye produced a kind of drama. And drama, Uncle Jack said, drives art.
This was the tail end of the Postmodern times (no one knew then that the word would be redefined along Philip Johnson’s Sunday supplement line and applied to everything from doghouse architecture to hitter bars), and you had these four guys out there dancing in the street, walking the dog and walking the cat, and you had 35 imitators doing minis, and you wanted to learn something from that, so what you thought was a) you couldn’t do it as well as the four, and b) you could do it better than the 35, but who wanted to?, and c) doing it didn’t fit your world view, anyway–yours was closer to that moment when Indiana Jones pulls the gun and blows the Arab away–why futz with it? A couple of people had already turned the Postmodern on its head. Carver, who must’ve thought, “Well, if you can do anything, maybe you can do nothing,” did. Perfectly clear and simple, a brilliant idea: self-imposed poverty of means, the inverted image of the usual proliferations. The problem was that it still mainlined artifice (though most people seem to want to take him straight, to overlook the artifice; put that down to the power of reading). His work was just showing up, and so was Ann Beattie’s, though maybe she was coming out of Cheever, reintroducing character–something that had been mislaid in all the high flying. There was this proposition in her work, and in Carver’s to a lesser extent, that you could go straight at something, ignore the big irony, and that was a remarkable idea at that moment.
So then, if you were a trained Postmodern guy, sold on the primacy of the word, on image, surface, sound, connotative and denotative content, style, tone, but short on sensitivity to the representational, what you did was drive from Texas to Mississippi and realize, while crossing the twenty-mile bridge over the swamp outside of Baton Rouge, that people were more interesting than words. That one lounged on the rim of the trite bucket for a while, until it was joined by the sense that ordinary experience–almost any ordinary experience–was more complex and interesting than a somewhat contrived encounter with big-L Language. Then you remembered that experience was itself a language, even if it was a language mostly unknowable in the sense irreducible. So there you were with years invested in this one literary system and faced with this contrary idea that looked like a homemade industrial revolution.
Understandably, you wanted to put these things together–the heightened sense of the valences of words on the one hand, new-up people-interest on the other. This brought you back to “realism,” and as soon as you looked again you remembered why you weren’t doing it to begin with. First of all, it was full of lies, falsifications of experience for the sake of drama–which was paradoxical, since it purported to be representation; second, there was a lot of writing a thing to death, writing and writing until the only hope was that in the aggregate, something had gotten onto the page; third, there was the posturing, as if the author was trying to sell you something; fourth, and finally, the sense that in “seeing through” the prose into the depicted world, writers too often overlooked the prose itself, the result being cat food–you, a newly degreed Postmodernist, flush with finally locating that hog high on which you wanted to live, knew better: writing bad was O.K. only if you did it intentionally, and well.
These “realism” problems went against the grain of training and experience. The big “philosophical” ideas in realist fiction too often seemed like setups, photo opportunities for the discharge of the somebody’s prefab opinions in a protected environment. I don’t know where the presupposition that fiction traffics in big ideas comes from, but I take it as axiomatic that people who make out as if they’re carrying the big ideas of the day probably aren’t. That’s just good sense. If a fella comes up to you in the mall (or the library) and tells you he’s the best looking guy in the county, about the last thing you’re going to think is, “you know, he’s right.” So here are my rules about big ideas: they’re often big by reason of inflation, product of the considerable airs of some poor soul with an ordinary idea and a enterprising imagination; even if they are genuinely big, they don’t always look that way when you’re right on top of them; a lot of times big ideas are after-the-fact things people make up to make sense of experience, that sense being a kind of statement of personal limitations; and, in art, both big and little ideas are often embedded rather than put up on the surface.
As a reader, inference and imagination are useful tools, and if critical types prefer older work, perhaps it’s because there’s plenty of secondary material to reduce the ideas to managable proportions. See, there are ideas and ideas. The first are the kind you can plug into in a sentence suitable for a thirty second slot on Ted Koppel; the second kind are more difficult to handle–they’ve got no clear lines, no digest versions, they wander around and poke into things, they suggest and hint at and gesture toward experience, and generally elude classification, which makes them real hard to talk about. So throwing out everything but direct address is probably not the absolute best way to find big ideas in fiction. Somebody is an artist not because he or she knows something you don’t, but because he or she can do something you can’t–make the art; if somebody bothers to make it, it’s a fair bet that there are ideas in the art, even if they’re not frontalized.
Another realist fiction problem was that what passed for characterization was obedience to a set of literary conventions–people didn’t froth as much in life as they did in realist fiction. People didn’t pontificate a great deal. People were cagey and quiet, they kept things to themselves, they picked their spots, they didn’t hang out at the Burger King swapping world views. They were smarter than that, perfectly aware of how limited their world views were or would ever be–they were modest, that is. The idea was that world views made simple (stock in trade of realist fiction) were about as useful as professors: you tolerate them as long as you must; then, while they dingle in their tiny offices, helping the next generation get things wrong, you salute smartly and charge up the hill (to mow the lawn, refuel the hummingbird feeder, call Mom and see if she’s feeling any better).
So there you were on that bridge (time stood still) thinking of the current incarnation of the greatest story ever told: Cable News Network. Unending drama, a cast of thousands, a plot so complex and wearying, a narrative so thick with rising and falling action, fully rounded characters, paradigmatic action, social and historical context, notions of psychological depth, controlling imagery, and an overwhelming sense of the times that one ends each day (or page, chapter) both satisfied and expectant, pleased or disgruntled about one or another of the newscasters (narrators), enriched by the tone and settings and song. Who will feast on tragedy tomorrow? We will. But something is characteristically missing in this monumental work, something in the area of pattern, but, perhaps more important from your view, intimacy. We don’t very much experience these lives we watch (read) every day, instead, we quantify them, compare them to our own, and conclude that the drama comes up a little short: we don’t feel like that guy caught on the escalator in Poughkeepsie, or that woman taken hostage by her neighbor, or that couple necking in the background in that piece on ethnic diners in Milwaukee. Events are witnessed, not experienced. Instead of visiting a town, we sort of go through it at night in a slow Pullman.
The “Postmodernism” of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, by contrast, was sort of like getting a snapshot of the town and then making a lot of jokes about it–this as a means of coming to know something that was, if not the town, then just as good as the town. Both texts provide information, senses of the town, but in the case of the sleeping car, the reader is hindered by apparatus (train), whereas in the other the reader is overwhelmed by the observer. And in no case does the reader ever actually get to town.
So neither realism nor the adventure of Postmodernism was going to get it–that’s what you imagined, anyway, since that neatly suited your purpose, which was to employ hard-won skills, your “ear,” your carefully developed “touch,” and, at the same time, react to your highway revelation. What you wanted to do was draw a distinction between realism, standing for a whole system of literary artifice, and representation, standing for only one part of that system. What you figured was you could try some of this representation stuff and see what happened. So suddenly you had characters that looked as if you just slowed for them in the parking lot outside the K&B drugstore, but instead of waiting patiently and driving off, as you would in life, now you were talking to them, and they were talking back–not in conventional “realist” fashion, nor as people might in life, but like some character in a tree, or somebody discovering ice, or some other artificial being in some other artificial text–very careful, very clear, achingly pristine and precise. But, because you’d put them right down on an ordinary planet that looked strikingly like ours, the readers were reading right along as if what you’d written was some kind of one-for-one depiction of a real world. And, you know, you couldn’t say for sure that it wasn’t; maybe it was sort of a well-edited, delicately vetted, meticulously rendered, persnickety version thereof, even if it also was as wholly constructed, as made up as any Postmodernist’s, made somehow remarkably real because the context and components were not obviously fantasies, abstractions, assertions about the language, arguments dressed up as fictions, but ordinary things, ordinary places, just the stuff literary people were trying to flick off the shoulders of their jackets twenty years ago.
There were side benefits: what you knew about these people was what you know about people in life–what you see. There was intrigue in that–in not filling their heads with your boil-in-bag ideas, because when you refrained from that traditional literary act, the people on the page started being pretty interesting. Just like people you ran into in grocery stores, the characters took on dimensions, shadows, possibilities–you could wonder about them.
Here the story takes a twist. Doing this work you begin to be refreshed, to see how beautiful stuff is, regular stuff, the by-product of our reputedly disgusting culture, the snail-trace of the villain capital grinding up the natural world, and stamping out inexpedience, and irradiating economically non-feasible value systems–and all the other fancy ways to say that if nobody’s living there right now, let’s go ahead and build the new mall. So, months later, when you roll through that mall parking lot cutting street-to-street one night looking for the 24-hour grocery (you want, maybe, something chocolate), well, bam! a certain kind of sizzling mercury light hits you, and there’s all that new-black asphalt with the perfect yellow lines, and that parking lot is stunning. The way you figure is it’s your world and welcome to it. You’ve got this residual capacity to feel these certain feelings, so instead of waiting for the world to change, instead of waiting for some major natural beauty to jut up, or jetting off to encounter that beauty in some carefully preserved natural setting, instead of ignoring the by-product of sixty kinds of venal and reprobate corporate behavior (all of which you, too, abhor, more or less), you look around, you let yourself be touched. Part of it’s physical, part graphic, part symbolic, part connotative–part of it’s the wind, slipping through that open space, being wind in the world, still in the world, in spite of everything. Maybe it’s not as good as the wind that was, not as pure, not as strong, not as sweetly scented, not…wait a minute. What’s that smell? It’s weird. Smells like a gas can or something, smells like a horse factory. Maybe you ought to roll down the window and see. So you do. And here’s this breeze coming in with this smell that ain’t lilacs, but it’s something, it’s pretty damn good, really, it’s kind of like when you’re on the highway and the skunk’s around. The first time you roll up the windows and make a bad-smell noise, but it’s interesting–a big olfactory incident out there in the middle of nowhere. Next time you leave the windows down, and the time after that you’ve got your head out there getting a good whiff. That’s what’s going on in the parking lot–the place is empty and big, might as well be an ancient temple, and cars are whizzing by up on the highway, lights like foreigners, and things are greenish, your skin is greenish, and you’ve got this burning scent from the refinery, intriguing because it’s not a normal smell, but, too, for its particular, startling self.
So I guess that’s mostly what’s going on with this new fiction–people rolling down the windows, trying to get a good whiff of what’s out there. That’s hard, given all the air freshener that’s going around. As a writer you’ve got to avoid the empty conventions of character and “style,” you can’t “philosophize” in that too-easy way that comes too easy to literary types, you have to side-step the made-simple versions of political and moral issues that bad writers and good TV journalists are so fond of, you’ve got to use the language carefully, so you get more than just language. It’s hard, but when it works it blows you away, not because you have the world on the page, but because you have a world, palpable, compelling, frightening.
It’s not a world without history, as it is so often accused of being, but it is a world in which history isn’t what it used to be. Instead, history is seen as either fiction or docu-drama, and it doesn’t matter which, because its primary use is self-defense. This is not to deny the charm of facts, but to remember there are so many of them that no matter what you want to believe, there’s history, just waiting to line up behind you. And it’s a world in which literary history (apart from the books themselves, and the color of the ribbon whosit employed to walk his lobster in the gardens of the Palais Royale in Paris–the palest, shimmering blue) fares badly. It’s characterized by implication as largely a matter of self-serving personal and political nattering, nonsense–the revisionist’s paradise. This seems important because if we don’t acknowledge that history, especially as it is used in polemic, is a kind of high-tone PR, then some of us are more gullible than others of us, and we’d better stop and get that straightened out before we try to proceed.
I’m not certain why there’s so much shouting about this disobedient new work, so much critical reliance on the Literature as Favorite Chair approach, which allows us not to recognize the high probability that some of this writing is as good as writing was when the literature was rich and resplendent with the bountiful harvests of many fabulous and worldly imaginations (some of which harvests were silly, but which we’re pleased to recall fondly, anyway). Maybe what we ought to do is quit grumbling that it isn’t the old (lovely to think of, sweet to sit in) standby, and start trying to figure out what it is. If, in the meantime, some folks come around and stipulate you’re a minimalist, indicting reader and writer at one swipe with a small-making term supposed to cleverly suggest the limits of capacity, tell them you’re involved in the discovery of automatic fire, tell them you prefer to think you’re not filling the bus with a lot of off-the rack world views, a lot of brown air and ripe opinion and “historically” certified political/intellectual cant. Tell them you prefer to think you’re leaving room for the readers, at least for those who like to use their imaginations, that you hope those readers fill out, in the best sense, the forms, and that the prose tricks them into the drama, and that the drama breaks their hearts. Just like old times.