Saturday, September 1, 2012

Wrestling with Jon Franklin Again

The SFChron Hups (Higher Ups) have given editorial writer Caille Milner a Saturday column, which I have only just noticed. Today she shows some disrespect for the arch and precious David Foster Wallace, saying the new DFW bio presents the late author as one who bears:

... a striking resemblance to that horrible guy who was in your college creative writing class - you know the one I'm talking about - the one who never stopped interrupting the teacher and one-upping his classmates; the one who wanted to be a writer because it was good for his ego but who held nothing but contempt for his readers.

"Fiction for me is a conversation between me and something that May Not Be Named - God, the Cosmos, the Unified Field, my own psychoanalytic cathexes, Roqoq'oqu, whomever," Wallace once wrote in a letter to the writer Jonathan Franzen. "I do not feel even the hint of an obligation to an entity called READER."

Remember that guy? I choose the comparison for a reason - Wallace spent his entire life in academia, and one of the biggest problems with literary fiction is that it's now written overwhelmingly by writers who live in academia and write only for other people who are there, too.

People who slave away at soul-crushing jobs, only to come home and slave away at running a household, do not want to spend their precious free moments slogging through 1,200-page novels whose chief purpose is to demonstrate the author's superb understanding of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

These readers want novels with people, and yes, plots, and it is in no way unchallenging or demeaning for authors to offer these things. I wouldn't have gotten through childhood or adolescence - and I sure won't be getting through adulthood - without novels, and I know there are many others who feel the same way.

She's talking about fiction, but without too great a stretch we can imagine a connection between her critique of novelists who are too smart for the bourgeois masses and Jon Franklin's notion of finding a silver sliver in the most depressing real-life events and turning it into a tale.


professordoctor said...

And a friend writes:

Dammit, Michael, why did you put that blatant, soul-crushing, godawful, pinched-minded ignorance in front of me? I was having such a wonderful night. It just makes me hate newspapers that this Callie person can spread such hackneyed, fake-demotic, reactionary, anti-intellectual, sentimental claptrap in front of the public, and be proud of it. She may think that she uses the same tools as David Foster Wallace, such as words, sentences and paragraphs, but that's like saying that an anonymous hack who picks up a tennis ball and a racket and can hit the ball over the net is Roger Federer. You owe me a refreshing Martini next time you see me for making me read such dreary, self-satisfied, dispiriting banality.

professordoctor said...

And I write back:

I have to admit I did not finish Infinite Jest (?), though I still have it. I read a couple Wallace short stories, which I found a little "distancing." Of course, I don't like most Faulkner, which I also found distancing, and as a southerner I was supposed to embrace him and perhaps validate - guarantee he had pretty much put his finger on it - him in conversation with Yankees and such. Oddly enough, I rather liked some of the late Henry James, but that was probably because of Anglophilia, and the irresistible lure of imagining the accents!

professordoctor said...

And my friend writes back:

I like Wallace and Foster a bunch, and feel The Sound and the Fury, in particular, was mainlined right into my brain the first time I read it. But my objection is not to our personal responses to Wallace or Faulkner but to the hoary notion of writing for the "reader," whose daily life is so hard and troubled that she needs to be entertained or elevated by writers who speak for them. The entire entertainment complex is based on such specious and disingenuous logic. And the political one too. Pandering keeps the customer satisfied, appeased, and easy to control. Also, the idea that most Americans have "soul-crushing jobs," "slave away" at home, and have "precious free time," is sentimental hogwash. America is not a Siberian labor camp or an Ivory Coast ghetto. Nobody here is working for 25 cents a day in diamond mine ruled by war lords with rifles at their side. Average middle class wages across America are as good as they've ever been. People have precious free time for novels? Nonsense. People spend endless hours watching TV and surfing the Internet when they're at home and on mass transit (and in the car) and at work. The time-crunch argument has been disproven by social scientists countless times. Her notion that novels must be a certain way, with plots and characters that people can relate to, is absurd. Novels can be anything the writer wants them to be. Wallace textures his novels with philosophy and history and science and sports and business and creates a brilliant and expansive and complex, golden bowl, since you mentioned late James, which reflects the careening spirit and complexity of consciousness, that it's painful to read a self-satisfied hack denigrate it with banal notions about "people and plots." And finally, artists should never care about "the reader." At the canvas, Caravaggio didn't care about his viewers. In her room, Emily Dickinson didn't care about her readers. In the studio, Lennon and McCartney didn't care about their listeners. All of them were following their own visions. All of their artistic breakthroughs, and subsequent impacts on culture, came about because they were following their own hearts and minds, not being guided by some notion of what people with "soul-crushing jobs" need or want. Ridiculous.

professordoctor said...

And I write back:

I really do think you should give up commercial real estate and pursue a career in journalism or writing of some sort. Just a lovely and thoughtful piece of wisdom, and one in which I find no fault and which I am thankful you took the time to do. When it comes to doing the thing for its own sake - insert quote from Keats about the individual necessity to write all night even if it were all to be torn up the following morning - lord knows I agree with that. All this turmoil arises from my return - once every five years or so - to Jon Franklin's "Writing for Story" as my feature writing text. His ideas on finding the "arc of positivity" in the life of someone you're profiling do seem useful in nudging my young writers toward more assertive interviewing, searching for a shape for the story that on some level inspires and instructs. That last idea sounds a little saccharine, but the journalism of hopelessness ...? It really doesn't sell, does it? All "news" is made, assembled from some facts (Hersey's legend on the license: but none made up) embedded in a particular context with all kinds of cultural assumptions uncritically assumed. Same thing with profiles. I suppose I want the kids to move beyond a random collection of impressions - though lord knows such collections if done by one of talent aren't really random, nor could be - to looking for shape and to understand it is always imposed. And why not look for a positive shape? And then, of course, I want them to accept the ethical responsibility that comes with choosing one shape from many possible shapes. I think perhaps I want them to transcend Franklin's simplicities. Still, in journalism it really is always about the reader, isn't it? No qualifications. Isn't it???

Oh I love this blogging. Ideas on the fly, like a migration of passenger pigeons. Hey, let's see if Le Pat and Le Peter have some ideas. (And I've bc'ed a couple other big brains, who may choose to lurk)