Everyone who's ever put a word to paper has an excuse, or a justification if you want to be less nasty, for everything they do. Everyone who's ever written an 800 page novel can walk you through every sentence of that toe-breaker and explain in lavish detail why it needed to be there. Everyone can always come up with some defense for their ghastly lapses in aesthetic judgment, their air-pumped phrases, their plots with more convolutions than Lombard Street.
Of course I'm guilty of this. Guilty, and currently serving 15 to 25 upstate for it. Knowing this doesn't make me immune to it. If anything it makes me all the more vulnerable, because I can always imagine how much better my justifications are than your justifications.
Everyone has to concoct a defense for themselves, because 1) who the hell else is going to do it? and 2) people respect someone who sticks up for their own work. A bad writer with a fanbase is a popular writer, and therefore not really a bad writer anymore.
I'm throwing this on the table because it's hard to reconcile it with the urge I've always had to find, or devise, a proper playbook for how not to make excuses for one's work — how to craft it in such a way that no excuses are required, that the work speaks entirely for itself. Impossible, I guess. Nobody wants the same things out of their reading, anyway; why try to whomp up universal rules for something that isn't universal?
The most recent way I've revisited this dilemma stems from a criterion I find myself falling back on a great deal more: What kind of example does this set for other creators? Proust is a great reading experience, but a horrible model to follow. Ditto Joyce; ditto Cormac McCarthy (and even there I have my own qualms, but we'll set that aside). They're hard to use as models or object lessons, because it takes an order of magnitude more work to unpack their intentions. It's easier to just write in a way that's showy and suggestive of those greater masters, and let the allusion to past masterpieces do its work.
This is part of why I end up despising so much self-consciously "literary" fiction — because most of it seems written as a bid for immortality, a model to be followed and named by way of its creator ("Dickensian", "Pynchonian", "David-Foster-Wallacian"), instead of as a disciplined work unto itself. Any artist wants their art to partake of some share of the eternal, no question there, but the harder they work to make it happen, the more self-conscious and awkward the result. (Nobody sets out to make a cult film.)
Out of this self-seeking bid for immortality come any number of terrible behaviors on paper. Bad writing has many dimensions, but one of the least visible is bad writing we feel obliged not to call bad — because there was clearly so much effort and "vision" invested in it, or because it embodies so many of the chess moves we associate with "serious" fiction (literary fiction has become a trope-encoded genre label no less closed-ended and provincial than romance or SF), or because the credentials behind it seem unimpeachable.
I don't want to whip out any of those excuses for my own work if I can help it. I'd rather shrug and say, yeah, that was a bad idea, and move on. But I know a part of me resists doing so; it would sooner gnaw arms off than submit to that snare. A part of me wants to be adored, to have enough excuses made for me that the very idea of literature itself wraps itself around me, rearranges its furniture to make a comfy space for my cute little butt. What a glorious fantasy. What utter b.s.
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