I wrote yesterday of my respect for clear writing, and how often I drowned in the words of clever writers. No sooner had I put down one edition of Harper’s and took up another than I discovered myself gasping for air a second time. The new essay was written by Will Self, an author touted as having a book shortlisted for the Man Booker award. To my shame, I’d never read anything by him. Nonetheless, his essay “The Printed Word in Peril,” drew my interest. Ironing the page flat with one hand, I rested the other at the back of my head and stretched out to read.
The piece began with a swipe at Norman Mailer, one of the “boys,” for whom I have little use. According to Self, Mailer’s literary reputation is dying as fast as the time it took to lower him into his grave. In the #MeToo era, Mailer’s brand of “male existentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous” to the fourth wave of feminism. (Harper’s, October 2018, pg. 21.)
I dropped the magazine to applaud his analysis. My mistake was to pick it up again. After 20 minutes, I’d barely digested the first page. I believe he was expressing concern about the direction of the novel in the age of technology. The latter, he complained, tended to shorten our attention spans which, in turn, eroded the art form. I wouldn’t swear that my interpretation is correct. Self stuffed his sentences with so much erudition, they created a jumble — akin to the way a traveler might pack for a three-month journey if he had a single tote bag for luggage. Here’s an example:
Instead of making the entry to literary production and consumption more difficult, embattled writers and readers, threatened by the new means of literary production, are committing strange acts of professional foreclosure: holding fire sales of whatever remains of their unique and nontransferable skills — as vessels of taste (and, therefore, the canon) and, most notably, as transmitters and receivers of truths that in many instances have endured the centuries.
If Self meant artists were conforming rather than resisting technology to the detriment of literature, why on earth didn’t he say so? I might have agreed with him. But first, I needed to understand. As for the fate of the canon, my previous blogs will testify I shed no tears for its hallowed norm.
What I require of a writer is language without artifice. No acrobatic sentence structures, please. The highest form of expression is to write so clearly the author is not only understood but also not misunderstood. That high bar serves well enough as canon.
(Originally published 10/12/18)