The Winter Of Our Discontempt Dept.

Back in an earlier post I mentioned the "turn off your TV if you want to get some real writing done" crowd. I've touched on that idea before, and how inadvertently destructive it is.

Note that I'm not talking about the idea of minimizing distractions, which is perfectly okay. I know at least one person who can't write without the TV babbling away full blast behind her. Me, I barely even have music playing when I write; different scenes for different genes, and all that.

I'm talking about the idea, gaining a disturbing degree of acceptance in certain cultural circles, that one must manifest contempt for popular culture as a prerequisite to writing something truly great. What's worse is that I've come close to saying such a thing plenty of times myself, if not outright declaring it in so many words.

Contempt for the world is something at the center of any number of ecclesiastical traditions, especially those with a contemplative incarnation. Thomas Merton spoke of it and practiced it, but clarified his position: contempt for him meant non-reliance or non-dependance. You could be aware of what was going on around you (and he was, passionately so, as per his antiwar protests and so forth); you just had to remember not to let those things become substitutes for what you really wanted, what with the real Kingdom of Heaven being within.

The current trend of high contempt for popular culture may not be directly related to such things, but it seems at least partly informed by them. It gives the whole enterprise a high-minded air: here I am, turning my back on the trash heap of this world, because I have found something better, something sanctified, something untouched by all that clabber. Here I can brick myself in and create something unpolluted, and then come back down from the mount like Moses with the tablets, and destroy the golden calf. You get the idea.

It would be wonderful if it were even the least bit true.

Everything I have seen has suggested that the more a creator of any kind turns his back on the world he is attempting to reach — and which, to a great degree, produced him in the first place — he simply deprives himself of that much more perspective. Perspective on his work, perspective on other people's work, perspective on the world around him, good or bad, indifferent or engaged — all of that gets thrown out, or at the very least has damage done to it.

Dwight Macdonald had a classic example of this in his review of J.G. Cozzens's By Love Possessed. The book was bad enough — treacly, pretentious, overblown, sub-Faulkner / sub-John O'Hara middlebrow puffery, and worst of all, written in dead earnest. "[The book] is [Cozzens's] bid for immortality," Macdonald wrote. "It is Literature or it is nothing. Unfortunately none of the reviewers has seriously considered the second alternative."

What really bowled Macdonald over was not the book but the author, a man who spoke of the outside world as if it were some dread contaminant that needed to be purged from his environment with all due haste whenever it had the temerity to creep back in. Cozzens was rather proud of the fact he had virtually no social life worth speaking of and hadn't even been to the movies in years (yet another corruptive influence, I guess). This was not just reclusiveness ala Pynchon or Salinger; this was a deliberate cultivation of incuriosity about life, an outright contempt for anything that wasn't him. ("To those who wonder how he can write novels when he has so little contact with people, he says: 'The thing you have to know about is yourself; you are people.'") And it showed in his writing, which played like a snapshot that had been fading for two decades straight.

Macdonald used all this to point out how this sort of thing seems unfortunately common in the U.S.: "The American novelist is sustained and disciplined by neither a literary tradition nor an intellectual community. ... It is a pattern of cultural isolation that brings out a writer's eccentric, even his grotesque side." He went on to note how "[t]he wheel has comically come full circle: it used to be those odd, isolated, brilliant writers who were in advance of their times — the Stendhals, the Melvilles, the Joyces, and Rimbauds — who later on were discovered to be 'the ones who wrote that age's literature'; but now it is the sober, conscientious plodders, who have a hard time just keeping up with the procession, whose true worth is temporarily obscured by their modish avant-garde competitors." (I should note Macdonald didn't seem to be casting his lot with either the plodders or the modders, but simply with whoever happened to be producing work that stood out on its own merit.)

Where the wheel stands now seems to largely be a function of your own professed cultural allegiance. If you're a middle-to-highbrow grouser (damn that J.K. Rowling!), you favor the cultural isolate who can block out all the noise and chaff. If you're one of the shrewd, businesslike sort that David Denby pitied, one of those folks whose attitude is sensible to a fault and for all the wrong reasons, you most likely favor the cultural assimilate and social connector, the guy whose first move was to set up Facebook and Twitter accounts to get his book known, even if the book in question is essentially an interchangeable LEGO block of a product. Don't hate the player, hate the game — no, not even if the player is the one stacking the deck in the first place.

The hardest part is not shutting out the outside world's noise and annoyances, but overcoming your own prejudices, which are even more stifling. Somewhere in this mess of stuff I have a nearly-completed list of "non-SF for SF authors" — books I recommend to budding writers as a way to remind them that not everything they read has to, or should be, in the same genre they want to contribute to, because that creates redundancy and narrows the field of what's possible.

Yes, you have to be willing, and able, to step away from things to a degree, yourself included. But you also have to be willing to return to, and participate fully in, the world you are writing for. You cannot write for "the future", which does not exist except as a concept in your own head, and not even a wholly accurate one either. You must write for the world you have, not the world you wish for.

Tags: culture writers writing

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