Everybody loves a train wreck. This one started when Jonathan Lethem came barreling down the tracks with an essay in Harper’s called “The Ecstasy of Influence,” in which most of the lines were cribbed from other sources and then ingeniously stitched together to argue in favor of appropriation and against the tired old 20th-century notion that an artist owns what he or she makes – that dinosaur known as copyright. Then right behind him on the same tracks came David Shields with last year’s sensational freight train of a book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, an expanded echo of Lethem’s themes made up of a pastiche of Shields’s own words and the words of many other artists. Among Shields’s words: “Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize.”
Then suddenly – watch out! – along came the little engine that could, Marco Roth chuffing down the tracks in the opposite direction with an essay in the journal n+1 called “Throwback Throwdown,” in which he set out to derail the two speeding locomotives. He called Shields’s book “an authentic act of copying” that fits snugly into the “pervasive and growing fantasy of the writer as hip-hop DJ.” Roth added, “To a certain kind of white writer, engaged in the increasingly professionalized and seemingly ‘nice’ work of churning out novels, poems, essays and reviews, the rapper DJ comes to stand for this brazen, unapologetic appropriator, regardless of whether actual rappers think of themselves as heroes of ‘copyleft,’ Proudhonists of the ghetto.”
Once the collision took place, as you can imagine, there was a lot of twisted metal on the tracks. But before the smoke cleared, an actual rapper, the superstar Jay-Z, plowed into the debris with a book called Decoded that cleverly turned the train wreck upside-down by showing how a master of an art form built on appropriation uses old-school literary techniques and a quaint thing called imagination to write lyrics that bristle with originality and socially potent meaning. For good measure, Jay-Z tells the story about the time he stabbed a rival for stealing his music. Train wrecks don’t get any more perfect than this.
Which brings us to the fun part. Now we get to sift through the wreckage, counting bodies and looking for survivors.
I just found a survivor. It’s Michel Houellebecq, the baddest bad boy in French lit today. All this racket about copyright and appropriation (or bricolage, sampling, collage, poaching, rip-off, homage, plagiarism, call it what you will) – it bloodied him a bit but he’s actually in excellent shape. His latest novel, The Map and the Territory, was an instant smash – until someone pointed out that Houellebecq had lifted several uncredited passages almost verbatim from Wikipedia and other websites, including an entry on how flies have sex. The bad boy went ballistic when the word “plagiarism” was uttered. “If those people really think that (this is plagiarism), they haven’t the first notion of what literature is,” he fumed. “This is part of my method. This approach, muddling real documents and fiction, has been used by many authors. I have been influenced especially by Perec and Borges… I hope that this contributes to the beauty of my books, using this kind of material.” The novel wound up winning France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt.
Sitting next to Houellebecq, also battered but in remarkably good shape, is a German teenager named Helene Hegemann. Her novel about Berlin nightclub kids, Axolotl Roadkill, was a best-seller in Germany last year and was nominated for a major prize at the Leipzig Book Fair. Then word got out that she had lifted passages from several other sources. After admitting to “thoughtlessness” and “narcissism,” an unrepentant Hegemann told Die Welt newspaper: “But for me personally, it doesn’t matter at all where people get their material. What matters is what they do with it. If my novel is interpreted as representing our times, then it has to be recognized that the novel was created in accord with what we saw in the last decade – that is, with the rejection of all those copyright excesses and the embrace of a right to copy and to transform.” The newsmagazine Der Spiegel agreed, comparing Axolotl Roadkill to Naked Lunch and Manhattan Transfer: “Everything from newspaper articles to ads to all kinds of other texts are embedded in these foundational works of literary modernism.” In a statement released by her publisher, Hegemann added, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”
James Frey is slumped in a seat across the aisle. He’s not going to make it. As far as Shields and Lethem are concerned, his fatal mistake was not that he fabricated much of his “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces; it was that he went on TV and apologized for it and, to prove his contrition, allowed Oprah to pillory him publicly. He forgot the First Commandment of the 21st Century: “Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize.” Frey is toast.
Jay-Z came through without a scratch, of course, which brings us to this train wreck’s central irony. The makers of popular music have been brazen and fruitful plunderers for many years because, let’s face it, there are only so many ways to arrange a simple melody and only so many ways to say “I love you” or “It’s over” or “You tore my heart out and stomped that sucker flat.” While blues and jazz artists and practitioners of other more saccharine forms of pop music have been borrowing for years, hip-hop DJs were perhaps the first to revel in their piracy, though they made a point of dressing it up with the lofty word “sampling.” Being a pirate, an outlaw, a gangsta has always been central to the rapper’s pose. Jay-Z didn’t need to do a lot of posing, it turns out, because he was an industrious purveyor of cocaine long before he transformed himself into a one-man corporation.
The source of Decoded’s fascination, for me, is not the author’s projects-to-the-penthouse biographical arc, nor his tales of hustling drugs and hobnobbing with Russell Simmons and Bono and starting his own clothing line and helping turn Cristal champagne into a bling brand. The book’s fascination comes from three very different and very surprising sources.
First, it’s beautifully made – lavish illustrations, clever layouts and ingenious use of fonts, quality paper, plus a Warhol on the cover. Second, and most importantly, the book allows us to peek into the tent of Jay-Z’s creative process. He begins with his epiphany, the day he heard a kid named Slate rhyming couplet after couplet before a rapt, clapping audience at the Marcy projects in Brooklyn. Jay-Z writes that he “felt like a planet pulled into orbit by a star.” That day he started writing rhymes feverishly in a spiral notebook and poring over the dictionary to expand his vocabulary. (This brings to mind Lewis Hyde’s contention: “Most artists are converted to art by art itself.”)
Decoded illustrates its author’s creative process by laying out song lyrics on one page, then on the facing page letting Jay-Z deconstruct (decode) the sources and meanings of the lyrics through elaborate footnotes. It’s a revelation. On one drug-selling run to New Jersey, for instance, here’s how he describes his crew watching television while they work – Watchin Erik Estrada baggin up at the Ramada. In the corresponding footnote he writes: “There are a lot of motel references in my songs. Hotels are where a lot of our work got done, where we bagged our powder.”
There’s a telling reference to the made-up selves of rappers. The lyric “They’re all actors” is limned like this: “When I say that rappers are actors, I mean it in two ways: first, a lot of them are pretending to be something they’re not outside the booth; second, it also means that those who are being real often use a core reality as a basis for a great fantasy, the way a great method actor like DeNiro does.”
Street slang is dissected. “Spike Lees” are “the best seats in the house – in this case whether it’s at the arena or in the jet.” “Sprees” are “custom rims that have internal discs that spin when the car stops, named after Latrell Sprewell… Fun for kids, but for grown-ups, a sign that you might be trying too hard.” Sometimes the reader absorbs the method without aid of footnotes, as when the words “breakfast,” “Lexus” and “necklace” cozy up to each other in a single couplet. Jay-Z freely acknowledges that he plundered his parents’ vinyl record collection, floor-to-ceiling stacks of Motown, pop, R&B, soul and funk, but the act of plundering led to his creative birth, not to mere mimicry. “We were kids without fathers,” he writes, “so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history, and in a way, that was a gift. We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves… Rap took the remnants of a dying society and created something new. Our fathers were gone, usually because they just bounced, but we took their old records and used them to build something fresh.”
The book’s elaborate footnotes demolish twin misconceptions: that rappers are merely brazen, unapologetic appropriators with nothing original to say; and there’s no longer such a thing as originality, just authenticity. Jay-Z, for one, does not see himself as a hero of “copyleft” or a Proudhonist of the ghetto. As he puts it, “I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man.” He’s also a writer in the purest, oldest sense of the word – that is, he’s someone who uses his experiences, his influences and his skill with language to say something original and new.
I agree with what Michiko Kakutani wrote recently in the New York Times: “In the end, Decoded leaves the reader with a keen appreciation of how rap artists have worked myriad variations on a series of familiar themes (hustling, partying and ‘the most familiar subject in the history of rap — why I’m dope’) by putting a street twist on an arsenal of traditional literary devices (hyperbole, double entendres, puns, alliteration and allusions), and how the author himself magically stacks rhymes upon rhymes, mixing and matching metaphors even as he makes unexpected stream-of-consciousness leaps that rework old clichés and play clever aural jokes on the listener (‘ruthless’ and ‘roofless,’ ‘tears’ and ‘tiers,’ ‘sense’ and ‘since’).”
To say that rappers possess originality and that they rely on traditional literary devices is not to say that they don’t – or shouldn’t – borrow from other sources. And it’s not to say that writers of prose and poetry shouldn’t borrow from other writers of prose and poetry and, for that matter, from rappers and jazz musicians and newspaper reporters and advertising copywriters and absolutely anyone else. All art comes from art. To admit this is not to concede that there’s no such thing as originality any more than it’s a license to borrow without attribution and then call it your own. William S. Burroughs freely admitted that he cut up texts and re-arranged them and inserted the results in his novels. Michel Houellebecq is free to be influenced by Perec and Borges and Burroughs (and anyone else), but I think he’s making a mistake if he thinks copying from Wikipedia adds to the beauty of his books. He’s too good a writer to make such a lazy claim. And while I agree with Helene Hegemann that what matters is not where artists get their materials but what they do with them, I believe all artists need to give up the cheap crutch of claiming that since it’s all been done before, all they can hope to do is rearrange the familiar in some unfamiliar way and then call it “authenticity.” That trivializes art. And it’s stupid and wrong.
Back in 1992 Cormac McCarthy told an interviewer: “The ugly fact is, books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” That’s not to say that writers do nothing but steal from other writers; it is, rather, to admit that literature comes to us not through a writer’s unfiltered experience of life, but through that experience as filtered through the things the writer has read, as well as the things the reader has read.
In “The Ecstasy of Influence” Lethem writes, “The kernel, the soul – let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances – is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote.”
Of course we all quote. But if quoting is all we do, then we don’t do very much. Shields and Lethem seem to acknowledge this without fully admitting it, because they do so much more than merely quote in Reality Hunger and “The Ecstasy of Influence.” As Roth put it in his essay in n+1: “Art may be theft, as Shields likes to quote Picasso, but it doesn’t follow that theft is art. Art is not ex-nihilo, but neither is it all ‘ready-mades.'” Precisely.
Lynne McTaggart, who won a plagiarism lawsuit against Doris Kearns Goodwin, acknowledged in the New York Times in 2002 that all writers are “relentless scavengers.” Then McTaggart added, “Writers don’t own facts. Writers don’t own ideas. All that we own is the way we express our thoughts… But it is important not to excuse the larger sins of appropriation. In this age of clever electronic tools, writing can easily turn into a process of pressing the cut and paste buttons, or gluing together the work of a team of researchers, rather than the long and lonely slog of placing one word after another in a new and arresting way.”
I think she’s right. Shouldn’t we expect novelists to do more than cut and paste Wikipedia descriptions of how flies have sex?
The third and final source of Decoded’s appeal is the revealing story Jay-Z tells about what happened the night of December 1, 1999 at New York’s Kit Kat Club. His album Vol. 3, Life and Times of S. Carter was not due to be released for a month, but bootlegged copies were already selling on the street. This infuriated Jay-Z. After all, he’s a business, man. He believes that he – and he alone – should get paid for the music he makes. When a rival record producer showed up at the club and admitted that he was behind the bootlegging, Jay-Z stabbed him twice.
This violent outburst left no doubt about Jay-Z’s opinion of people who hijack his material and don’t apologize – and take money out of his pocket while they’re at it. You might argue that bootlegging is more invasive than sampling, and that it goes way beyond the relatively benign forms of plagiarism Lethem and Shields so ingeniously espouse. In fact, Lethem admits as much in the closing lines of his essay: “Don’t pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you. If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with my blessing.”
It’s a seductive bill of goods, but you simply can’t have it both ways. You can’t say Pay me for what’s rightfully mine and feel free to rob me while you’re at it. Jay-Z, who understands the workings and the worth of originality, isn’t buying this bill of goods. Neither is Marco Roth. Neither am I.
To get to the movie theater that’s playing the new documentary about William S. Burroughs, I had to pass a six-story tenement at 170 E. 2nd St. on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. A plaque by the building’s front door reads:
ALLEN GINSBERG (1926-1997) Internationally acclaimed poet and Member of the American Academy of Arts & Letters lived here from August 1958 to March 1961. His signal poem Howl (1956) helped launch The Beat Generation. Kadish (1961), a mournful elegy for his mother Naomi, was written in apartment #16.
The documentary, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, taught me several things about the author of Naked Lunch and other scabrous novels that, along with Howl and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, got the Beat Generation off the launch pad. I learned that Burroughs was fascinated by poisonous snakes, particularly when they were feeding, and he almost died when he rashly positioned a live mouse within range of a Gaboon viper’s fangs. I learned that Burroughs was a gun nut who liked to get liquored up before he started blasting, and that his beverage of choice was vodka and Coke. (This, surely, helps explain the “accident” when Burroughs shot his wife in the head during a drunken game of William Tell in Mexico City in 1951.) I learned that Burroughs was not much of a father either; his only son died of acute alcoholism at the age of 33. I learned that the poet-rocker Patti Smith, who recently won a National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids, used to have a crush on Burroughs and that the cult filmmaker John Waters considers Burroughs a “saint” and that Burroughs had a hard time expressing love because he was terrified of rejection and so he usually turned to young gay hustlers for sex and finally I learned that the poet who wrote Howl and Kadish was the great unrequited love of Burroughs’s life. Ginsberg died on April 5, 1997 and Burroughs died less than four months later and A Man Within suggests, not very convincingly, that Burroughs died of a broken heart.
Whew. That’s a lot of learning to get from a 90-minute documentary. But now the question must be asked: Am I better for knowing these things – richer, wiser, closer to some essential truths about Burroughs’s literary output? Not at all. I’m just a bit more stuffed with useless information because Yony Leyser, the writer-director of A Man Within, is a foot soldier in the army of Beat hagiographers who operate under the illusion that dissecting the personal lives of writers is essential to – even preferable to – understanding their writing. Burroughs’s writing is barely mentioned in the movie, just a quick note about how he appropriated his “cut-up” technique from the artist Brion Gysin. For the Beat hagiographers, not only is the work never enough, it’s almost beside the point. They’re in the business of erecting a cult, after all, and all cults need icons. It’s telling that A Man Within was released shortly after Howl, a documentary-feature hybrid starring the ubiquitous James Franco as the poet from apartment #16. At least there’s some poetry in Howl. At one point an interviewer asks Franco/Ginsberg, “What is the Beat generation?” He replies: “There is no Beat generation. It’s just a bunch of guys trying to get published.”
That may have been true in 1957. No more. Today the Beat generation is a thriving cottage industry.
What makes A Man Within such a dreary viewing experience is that it’s largely a parade of talking heads yammering on and on about what Burroughs meant to them. In addition to Patti Smith and John Waters, we get to hear from Iggy Pop, Jello Biafra, Laurie Anderson, David Cronenberg, Peter Weller (who played Burroughs in Cronenberg’s fine 1991 film version of Naked Lunch and also does this documentary’s voice-over), plus assorted lovers, writers, sycophants, enablers, academics, gun dealers, snake handlers and hangers-on.
My favorite of the bunch is Regina Weinreich, who is identified as “a Beat generation scholar.” While it’s no secret that the academic racketeers can turn just about anything into a “discipline,” Weinreich’s job description struck me as particularly delicious. Here is a woman who was canny enough to hitch her professional wagon to the Beat caravan more than 20 years ago. In 1986 she met Paul Bowles while teaching a creative writing workshop in Tangier, where Bowles had moved in the late 1940s. His home there became a station of the cross on the Beats’ holy itinerary. The year after she met Bowles, Weinreich co-wrote a documentary, The Beat Generation: An American Dream, that featured archival footage of Ginsberg reading “Howl” and Kerouac reading from On the Road accompanied by Steve Allen on piano. In 1994 Weinreich and Catherine Warnow co-directed Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider, an hour-long documentary about the author of the proto-Beat novel The Sheltering Sky. Weinreich also wrote a critical study called Kerouac’s Spontaneous Poetics and edited Kerouac’s Book of Haikus. Today she contributes to numerous periodicals, teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York, talks into cameras and, for good measure, blogs at Gossip Central.
Such industry is exhausting to contemplate but, it turns out, not unusual among the Beat hagiographers. The critical studies keep coming and the documentaries keep piling up, with titles like What Happened to Kerouac?, The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, The Source (a hash of TV and film clips spiced with performances by Johnny Depp as Kerouac, John Turturro as Ginsberg and Dennis Hopper as Burroughs), and One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur. This last train wreck – people getting weepy talking about Kerouac’s crack-up on the California coast – inspired Slant magazine to ask the one question that must be asked: “Who keeps inviting Patti Smith to these Beat docs?” Writing in The Millions last year, Lydia Kiesling speculated that Smith keeps getting invited back because she’s “perceived as having a never-ending fund of ‘cred.'” That must be it. It can’t possibly be that anyone still cares that she used to have a crush on William S. Burroughs.
I’m no fan of hagiographers, obviously, but I’m only a bit less distrustful of literary biographers. Too often their books slide toward what Joyce Carol Oates has dubbed “pathography,” which she defined as “hagiography’s diminished and often prurient twin.” Its motifs are “dysfunction and disaster, illnesses and pratfalls, failed marriages and failed careers, alcoholism and breakdowns and outrageous conduct.”
Since we live in an age that’s obsessed with personalities and celebrities, it’s not surprising that so few readers are satisfied with loving a book and so many insist on knowing as much as possible about the person who wrote it. While this appetite has inspired literary biographers to produce a long shelf of pathographies and other monstrosities – does the world really need Norman Sherry’s three-volume biography of Graham Greene? – it has also resulted in some well researched and finely written literary biographies that did what such exercises do at their best: they led readers back to the subject’s books. Among these I would include Blake Bailey’s recent biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever and, strangely enough, Ann Charters’s thorough and balanced 1973 bio of Kerouac. In her introduction, Charters wrote insightfully, if a bit clunkily: “The value of Kerouac’s life is what he did, how he acted. And what he did, was that he wrote. I tried to arrange the incidents of his life to show that he was a writer first, and a mythologized figure afterward. Kerouac’s writing counts as much as his life.”
I would argue that his writing counts more than his life, much more. Eventually Charters seemed to come around to my way of thinking. In 1995, after she’d edited two fat volumes, Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940-1956 and The Portable Jack Kerouac, I interviewed her for a newspaper article. “I wanted (the book of letters) to be a biography in Jack’s own words,” she told me. “His life is in his books, but on the other hand the most essential thing is missing from those novels. What he tells you in the letters is that the most important thing in his life is writing.”
At the time The Gap was using Kerouac’s image – and images of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and other ’50s icons – to sell its khaki pants. In the face of such shameless hucksterism, Charters’s insistence on the importance of Kerouac’s writing seemed both quaint and heroic to me. It still does today, as the hagiographers keep bombarding us with abominations like One Fast Move or I’m Gone and Howl and A Man Within.
In the end I must admit that “A Man Within” did teach me one thing worth knowing. I’d spent years believing that Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote were the Holy Trinity of Shameless Self-Promoters among American writers. (That, by the way, is not a putdown; it’s a compliment laced with no small amount of envy.) Thanks to this documentary, I now realize that Burroughs was easily their equal as a self-promoter. This came home to me as I watched the archival footage of him rolling up his shirt sleeve and shooting dope into his left arm. The effect on me was very different from the shiver Yony Leyser was surely hoping for. My first thought was: No man would allow himself to be filmed shooting dope unless he was eager to package and promote his image as an outlaw.
It’s not hard to see why Burroughs is catnip for documentary filmmakers more than a dozen years after his death. In his late years he became a weirdly irresistible figure – the bag-eyed, fedora- and three-piece-suit-wearing patrician junkie misanthrope with the deadpan baritone who droned on and on about the rot festering at the core of the American Dream. He is the closest we’ve ever gotten to an American Jonathan Swift, and he’s to be credited for shunning those who tried to idolize him, including many Beats, hippies, punks and gay libbers. The only organization I could imagine him joining is the National Rifle Association because, as he put it, “I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people allowed to have guns are the cops and the military.” He shrewdly burnished the Burroughs brand by branching into recording and acting, reminding us that the man who wrote Junkie and Naked Lunch could be caustically funny. His turn as dope-hungry Tom the Priest in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy is not to be missed, and one of the highlights of “A Man Within” is Burroughs reciting his “Thanksgiving Prayer” as Old Glory flutters behind him: “Thanks for a continent to despoil and poison…thanks for bounties on wolves and coyotes…thanks for the American Dream to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through…” Sadly, the documentary does not include any of Burroughs’s “Words of Advice for Young People,” such as, “Beware of whores who say they don’t want money. What they mean is, they want more money. Much more.”
A word of advice for readers and filmgoers of all ages: Beware of hagiographers who tell you a writer’s life is more important than the books he or she wrote. It never is. It might be diverting to watch a guy shoot dope and shoot guns and feed poisonous snakes. But the books are more important. Much more.
Some of the chiefest pleasures in a lifetime of reading fiction are those moments when you stumble upon a gem of a book you somehow missed. This happens more often than we might care to admit because reading fiction is a lot like its distant cousin, the acquisition of knowledge: the more you do it, the less of it you seem to have done. There’s no shame in this. Lacunae are inevitable for even the most voracious and catholic of readers. The consolation is that the deeper you go into your life and your reading, the more precious the long-overlooked gems become once you finally unearth them.
All this came to mind recently when I picked up a novel I’d been meaning to read for many years, John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. Reading the opening words was like touching a live wire: “In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke…”
I was instantly transported to another time and place, as much by the music of Barth’s language – fops, fools, flitch – as by his characters and story, which were at once fantastical, venal, ribald, preposterous, plausible and flat-out hilarious. Usually a slow reader, I galloped through the 755 pages, mystified by the criticism I’d heard over the years that Barth was a difficult and needlessly long-winded writer. Here was a masterly act of authorial ventriloquism, a vivid recreation of the cadences and vocabulary, the mind-set and mores (or lack thereof) of English colonists in America’s mid-Atlantic region in the late 1600’s, when tobacco was known as sot-weed and those who sold it were known as factors. One such man is Barth’s protagonist, Ebenezer Cooke, a feckless London poet in love with his own virginity and virtue, a dewy-eyed innocent who is sent to the cut-throat Eastern Shore of Maryland to tend to his father’s tobacco holdings and, in the bargain, write an epic poem about the place. Ebenezer describes himself as “a morsel for the wide world’s lions.” What a gorgeous set-up for a satire.
It was only after finishing the novel that I went back and read Barth’s foreword, which he wrote in 1987 for the release of a new, slightly shortened Anchor Books edition. From the foreword I learned that The Sot-Weed Factor was originally published in the summer of 1960, when Barth was just 30, exactly 50 years before I finally came to it. I also learned that the novel sprang from an actual satirical poem of the same title published in 1706 by an actual man named Ebenezer Cooke. Much more interesting, I learned that this was Barth’s third novel, and he originally envisioned it as the final piece of a “nihilist trilogy.” But the act of writing the novel taught the novelist something: “I came to understand that innocence, not nihilism, was my real theme, and had been all along, though I’d been too innocent myself to realize that fact.”
This realization led Barth to a far richer one: “I came better to appreciate what I have called the ‘tragic view’ of innocence: that it is, or can become, dangerous, even culpable; that where it is prolonged or artificially sustained, it becomes arrested development, potentially disastrous to the innocent himself and to bystanders innocent and otherwise; that what is to be valued, in nations as well as in individuals, is not innocence but wise experience.”
The dangers of innocence versus the value of wise experience. Here, surely, is a rich theme for any American novelist trying to capture the impulses and foibles and follies of a nation convinced of its own righteousness – in love with its own virtue and virginity, if you will – a nation that historically has had little use for history and therefore has spent several centuries blundering its way, usually uninvited and ill-informed, into the affairs of other nations, beginning with the settlements of native Americans and moving on to the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia and, now, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Perhaps no other novelist has explored Barth’s theme more surgically than Graham Greene did in The Quiet American. Published at that fateful moment in the mid-1950s when the French disaster in Indo-China was giving way to the blooming American nightmare in Vietnam, Greene’s novel tells the story of a world-weary British war correspondent named Thomas Fowler who can’t hide his loathing for all the noisy, idealistic Americans suddenly popping up in Saigon. He reserves special contempt for an American innocent named Alden Pyle, some sort of foreign-aid operative who shows up on Rue Catinat with a head full of half-baked theories and a heart full of good intentions. Fowler, despite himself, begins to feel protective toward Pyle. He muses, too late, that he should have known better: “Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
And therefore, of course, causing all natures of harm to himself and to bystanders, innocent and otherwise. Alden Pyle is the title character of the novel, and a perfect title it is – because you can’t get any more quiet than dead.
While Greene set out to illuminate the dangers of innocence in The Quiet American, Barth chose to mine its comic potential in The Sot-Weed Factor. And so innocent Ebenezer gets captured by rapacious pirates (twice) and murderous Indians, swindled, stripped of his clothing and his name and his estate – only to wind up with his virtue, if not his virginity, intact. His epic poem even becomes a hit. It’s one of the funniest, raunchiest, wisest books I’ve ever read.
While I believe it’s best to let fiction speak for itself, just as I doubt that an understanding of a writer’s life sheds useful light on his work, I itched to know more about Ebenezer Cooke’s creator and his methods. A little digging taught me that John Barth grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where much of the action in The Sot-Weed Factor takes place, and as a young man he switched from studying jazz at Julliard to studying journalism at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. It was there, while working in the library, that he discovered Don Quixote, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Petronius’s Satyricon and, most tellingly, One Thousand and One Nights. Barth became intrigued with the literary device known as the frame tale, in which a character in a story narrates the story. For Barth, then, the telling of the story is the story. This explains why he has called Scheherazade, the character who narrates One Thousand and One Nights, “my favorite navigation star.” She, like every writer, will survive only as long as she keeps coming up with good stories.
And Barth’s musical background helps explain why he channeled Fielding, Sterne, Smollett, Cervantes, Rabelais, Voltaire and other masters of the picaresque novel to arrive at the narrative voice for The Sot-Weed Factor. “At heart I’m still an arranger,” Barth once told an interviewer. “My chiefest literary pleasure is to take a received melody” – a classical myth, a Biblical scrap, a worn-out literary convention or style – “and, improvising like a jazz musician within its constraints, re-orchestrate it to present purpose.”
This got me thinking about my other belated fictional discoveries. A few stand out, including James Joyce’s magisterial Ulysses, which I’d dipped into many times but never read wire to wire until a few years ago. (What was I thinking to wait so long?) Another was James Crumley’s crime novel, The Last Good Kiss. I broke down and read it after I got tired of hearing fawning references to its immortal opening sentence – “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” For once, the fawners nailed it.
And then there was Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, which was once, according to Richard Ford, a sort of “secret handshake” among its small but devoted band of acolytes. For better and for worse, the novel forfeited its cult status not long after I discovered it, when Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were horrifically miscast as the disgruntled suburbanites Frank and April Wheeler in the big-budget movie version of Yates’s masterpiece. The movie, for all its many flaws, worked in concert with Blake Bailey’s biography of Yates to bring his work to a far larger audience than he ever enjoyed in his 66 years of life. Even bad movies sometimes do good things for books. It’s a pity Richard Yates wasn’t around to enjoy his revival.
And finally there was the curious case of Flann O’Brien, an Irish writer who, like Yates, was obscure in his lifetime and will soon receive the posthumous big-screen treatment. I first heard of Flann O’Brien (the pen name for Brian O’Nolan) when I read that Graham Greene had reacted to the humor of O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds with “the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage.” That sounded promising. So did the discovery that Anthony Burgess, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce were also O’Brien fans. While browsing in my neighborhood bookstore soon after making those discoveries, I happened upon the handsome Everyman’s Library collection of all five O’Brien novels. Books find us as often as we find them. I bought the volume and swallowed it whole, each short novel more hilariously disorienting than the last. “A very queer affair,” as the author himself admitted of his life’s fictional output. “Unbearably queer perhaps.”
Or perhaps not. In the forthcoming movie version of At Swim-Two-Birds, Colin Farrell has been cast as the unnamed hero, a dissolute young Irishman who is writing a novel about a man writing a novel full of characters who come to life when he’s asleep (including one he conceived with one of his own female characters). Frustrated by their maker’s iron authority, they set out to destroy him and win their freedom. On paper this might sound un-filmable, but I thought the same thing about William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and the director-writer David Cronenberg worked cinematic magic with it. We can only hope that Brendan Gleeson, the director of At Swim-Two-Birds, is a sharper interpreter of O’Brien’s weird proto-postmodernism than Sam Mendes was of Richard Yates’s blackly unblinking realism.
In the end, these belated discoveries did what all good fiction does: they illuminated the world I live in, enriched its colors, deepened its music. None moreso than The Sot-Weed Factor, because in addition to its purely literary virtues it helped me see just how different today’s world is from the world that greeted the novel 50 summers ago. Today Americans who write “serious” fiction face what the Dublin-born, New York-based novelist Colum McCann has called “the prospect of irrelevance.” When John Barth was hitting his prime in the 1960s, “serious” American writers faced no such worries. (I place the word serious between quotation marks because no one seems to know quite what it means as a modifier of writer, unless it means someone who is after something above and beyond the most basic and necessary thing, which is, of course, money.)
Among the discoveries during my brief background check on Barth was an essay by a man named John Guzlowski, who, as a grad student in the early 1970s, was drunk on then-current American fiction – not only the mainstream realism of Updike, Bellow and Roth, but all the untamed, unnamed new writing by the likes of Barth and Pynchon, John Hawkes and William Gaddis and Robert Coover, very different writers who eventually got lumped together under a vague and porous umbrella called Postmodernism. Guzlowski went on to teach at Eastern Illinois University, where he taught a course in Postmodern Fiction half a dozen times over the course of 20 years. “Every time I teach the class,” Guzlowski writes in his essay, “there is just a little less interest in looking at Postmodern novels.”
He might as well have said serious novels or literary novels or novels that seek to do more than titillate or entertain. Those things, as Colum McCann knows, are becoming harder and harder to sell to American book buyers, and the people who write them are edging closer and closer to the brink of irrelevance, which is a gentle way of saying extinction.
John Barth and John Guzlowski have reminded me that this wasn’t always the case. There was a time, not so very long ago, when serious – and funny, challenging, mind-bending – fiction was passionately read and discussed, a vibrant part of our national life. It was a time, in Updike’s phrase, when “books were a common currency of an enlightened citizenry.” Those days may be gone, and gone forever, but novels like The Sot-Weed Factor will always be with us. And as I was happily reminded this summer, it’s never too late to discover them.
I took a writing workshop with Diane Williams, and she had a very distinct style of editing prose. Her method was like pruning a tree: you pare the dead branches in order to let the viable parts flourish. Find the sentences that sizzle, excise them from the masses of empty phrases, rearrange them into a working narrative, and then set to work with that skeleton. At the end, if you’re lucky, the essence of the idea remains, and from this construction a better story may grow.
I had Williams’s process in mind as I read the latest volume of Paris Review Interviews, not because I found the interviews lacking. The Paris Review interview remains the gold standard of literary interviews, although the results are often as varied as the authors. Donald Barthelme listed them on his essential reading list for writers, which is now passed from one generation of students to the next, like a family heirloom.
Rather, I thought of Williams’s method because the authors often cover similar terrain that doesn’t set them apart. Each writer has developed method for getting the words down, is more inclined to solitude and reflection than most people, and derives a mixture of pleasure and pain from the act of writing. One can read that a writer wakes early and lives by a strict schedule only so many times before beginning to yawn. At the same time, hearing the echo of writers talking of their difficulties and triumphs with writing can provide the consolation and inspiration it takes to toil on, such as knowing that Orhan Pamuk “work[s] like a clerk” or that even Paul Auster feels stupid sometimes. These authors may also incite despair: how does one find the means to write like Pamuk, Maya Angelou, or David Grossman? Angelou rents a hotel room where she never sleeps, Pamuk spends ten hours a day writing in a flat, and Grossman writes in a one-bedroom apartment without a phone.
What stands out is an author’s attitude, his sarcasm, her humor, and perhaps even his disposition on the day or days he was recorded–simply put, character. Pruning to the essential parts reveals the essence of the writer’s outlook, and small, concentrated doses can have as forceful an impact as the whole. In David Grossman’s interview, he talks about the uniqueness of a person, or the luz, a word from the Talmud: “It’s the smallest bone in your backbone, which cannot be eradicated. All of your essence is preserved in it, and from that you will be recreated in resurrection.” He sometimes asks people to close their eyes and think for a minute about what constitutes their luz. He says, “I get interesting answers.”
Considering the luz, as well as Williams’s editing style–which I’m convinced is an attempt to uncover a story’s luz–I’ve culled a few quotes from the interviews in The Paris Review Interviews IV. They’re the quotes that best express the luz of these authors, at least in these interviews, at least on those days. They may not contain the entirety of each author’s character, but they’re quite revealing.
William Styron: “Let’s face it, writing is hell.”
“The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone’s neurosis, and we’d have a mighty dull literature if all the writers that came along were a bunch of happy chuckleheads.”
“I like to stay up late at night and get drunk and sleep late. I wish I could break the habit but I can’t. The afternoon is the only time I have left and I try to use it to the best advantage, with a hangover.”
Jack Kerouac on typing the manuscript for William Burrough’s Naked Lunch in Tangier: “The first two chapters. I went to bed, and I had nightmares … of great long bolognas coming out of my mouth. I had nightmares typing up that manuscript … I said, ‘Bill!’ He said, ‘Keep typing it.’ He said ‘I bought you a goddamn kerosene stove, here in North Africa, you know.’ Among the Arabs… it’s hard to get a kerosene stove. I’d light up the kerosene stove, and take some bedding and a little pot, or kef as we called it there … or maybe sometimes hashish … there, by the way, it’s legal … and I’d go toke toke toke toke and when I went to bed at night these things kept coming out of my mouth.”
“First I met Claude. And then I met Allen and then I met Burroughs. Claude came in through the fire escape… There were gunshots in the alley–Pow! Pow!–and it was raining, and my wife says, here comes Claude. And here comes this blond guy through the fire escape, all wet. I said, What’s this all about, what the hell is this? He says, They’re chasing me. Next day in walks Allen Ginsberg carrying books. Sixteen years old with ears sticking out. He says, Well, discretion is the better part of valor! I said, Aw shuttup. You little twitch. The next day here comes Burroughs wearing a seersucker suit, followed by another guy.”
“Is this my wine?”
John Ashberry: “…I try to dress in a way that is just slightly off, so the spectator, if he notices, will feel slightly bemused but not excluded, remembering his own imperfect mode of dress.”
“It’s rather hard to be a good artist and also be able to explain intelligently where your art is about. In fact, the worse your art is, the easier it is to talk about, at least I would like to think so. Ambiguity seems to be the same thing as happiness or pleasant surprise. I am assuming that, from the moment life cannot be one continual orgasm, real happiness is impossible, and pleasant surprise is promoted to the front rank of emotions.”
“I was impressed by an Ingmar Bergman movie I saw years ago–I can’t remember the name of it–in which a woman tells the story of her life, which has been full of tragic experiences. She’s telling the story in the dressing room of a theater where she is about to go on and preform a ballet. At the end of it she says, ‘But I am happy.’ Then it says, ‘The End.’”
Philip Roth: “I don’t ask writers about their work habits. I really don’t care. Joyce Carol Oates says somewhere that when writers ask each other what time they start working and when they finish and how much time they take for lunch, they’re actually trying to find out, Is he as crazy as I am? I don’t need that question answered.”
“Nathan Zuckerman is an act. It’s all the art of impersonation, isn’t it? That’s the fundamentalist novelistic gift. Zuckerman is a writer who wants to be a doctor impersonating a pornographer. I am a writer writing a book impersonating a writer who wants to be a doctor impersonating a pornographer–who then to compound the impersonation, to barb the edge, pretends he’s a well-known literary critic.”
“I am like somebody who is trying vividly to transform himself out of himself and into his vividly transforming heroes. I am very much like somebody who spends all day writing.”
V. S. Naipaul: “Actually, I hated Oxford. I hated those degrees and I hate all those ideas of universities. I was far too well prepared for it. I was far more intelligent than most of the people in my college or in my course. I am not boasting, you know well–time has proved all these things. In a way, I had prepared too much for the outer world. There was a kind of solitude and despair, really. at Oxford. I wouldn’t wish anyone to go through it.”
“These careers are so slow–I write a book, and at the end of it I am so tired. Something is wrong with my eyes; I feel I’m going blind. My fingers are so sore that I wrap them in tape. There are all these physical manifestations of a great labor. Then there is a process of just being nothing–utterly vacant. For the past nine months, really, I’ve been vacant.”
Naipaul: Do you think I’ve wasted a bit of myself talking to you?
Interviewer: Not, of course, how I’d put it.
Naipaul: You’ll cherish it?
Interviewer: You don’t like interviews.
Naipaul: I don’t like them because I think that thoughts are so precious you can talk them away. You can lose them.
Haruki Murakami: “Please think about it this way: I have a twin brother. And when I was two years old, one of us–the other one–was kidnapped. He was brought to a faraway place and we haven’t seen each other since. I think my protagonist is him. A part of myself, but not me, and we haven’t seen each other for a long time. It’s a kind of alternative form of myself. In terms of DNA we are the same, but our environment has been different, so our way of thinking would be different. Every time I write a book I put my feet in different shoes. Because sometimes I am tired of being myself. This way I can escape. It’s a fantasy. If you can’t have a fantasy, what’s the point of writing a book?”
“I want my readers to laugh sometimes. Many readers in Japan read my books on the train while commuting. The average salaryman spends two hours a day commuting and he spends those hours reading. That’s why my big books are printed in two volumes: They would be too heavy in one. Some people write me letters, complaining that they laugh when they read my books on the train! It’s very embarrassing for them. Those are the letters I like the most.”
“I’m not pretending it’s the real thing. We are living in a fake world; we are watching fake evening news. We are fighting a fake war. Our government is fake. But we find reality in this fake world. So our stories are the same; we are walking through fake scenes, but ourselves, as we walk through theses scenes, are real. The situation is real, in the sense that it’s a commitment, it’s a true relationship. That’s what I want to write about.”
Orhan Pamuk: “Early in life I realized that the community kills my imagination. I need the pain of loneliness to make my imagination work. And then I’m happy.”
David Grossman: “If I am going to write about a man joining a shoal of salmon, as in See Under: Love, I have to start by making the reality of the salmon very concrete and credible. So I joined divers, I became a salmon. I was unable to eat salmon for years–really. I felt like a cannibal when I ate salmon… Research is a way to get out of myself and be in the world.”
Grossman: There’s even a Hebrew proverb about it: Kin’at sofrim tarbeh hochmah. Jealousy of writers will produce more wisdom.
Interviewer: What does that mean?
Grossman: It means that competition is good, it forces you to be more creative.