The editors of this lovely literary publication thought it would be important to publish their notions of proper writing. Here are their musings. Enjoy!
Roots of the Radical
Nathan Ihara, writing for book blog MobyLives, recently posted an item about Tom McCarthy’s rep as a literary avant-gardist (read it here at http://mhpbooks.com/mobylives/?p=17877). While Ihara first makes a case against McCarthy as radical, he gets a little more general at the piece’s end, with this inspiring slice of manifesto: “Radical writing is always exciting, but it is surprisingly subtle. It occurs in unexpected sentences, uncategorizable books, and athwart observations. The radical can appear in many places, sometime where you least expect it, but it does not come announced, and it is never anointed.”
But is this true? It’s an important question to me as a writer. I certainly want to be original and exciting, the traits I normally associate with the term ‘radical,’ but I’m starting to doubt the validity of the term as an independent, observable trait. Granted, this is probably just as a way for me to wiggle out of high expectations of my own writing, but bear with me.
Ihara assumes that radical is something that can be objectively discerned and agreed upon, that is, even if it goes unannounced, it is still “radical.” If so, how can we define what radical is? Exciting’s too subjective, so perhaps radical as a synonym of new is better, as writing that’s different from what came before it. Yet every writer has influences, so this definition seems dicey. No one could be construed as truly radical.
Better, I think, is influence, which means taking into account the whole culture that might announce or later anoint a writer. If Virginia Woolf didn’t exist in 1910, then the writing of 2010 would be different because it would lack her innovations. That is radical writing, distinct and critical innovation. And the only way to quantify it is to look at the context and the aftermath. Think about it like this: to find the revolutionaries, start with the revolutions.
So Very Ordinary
What makes a piece of writing good? Well, my feelings on that are a bit strange. You see, I’m tired of modern writing. It works with the assumption that a deep character, poem, or idea is defined by how mind-numbingly boring or messed up it can be. It’s easy to look at the world around you and say “Yep, the world is screwed up,” so are we really going to pat those authors on the back for their “insight?” I don’t buy into that interpretation of “realism” – if they think life is dirty and boring, they must have very few problems in their lives.
I tend to believe what G.K. Chesterton said about modern literature: “The problem of the fairy tale is what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is what will a madman do with a dull world?…These wise old tales made the hero ordinary and the tale extraordinary. But you have made the hero extraordinary and the tale ordinary–so ordinary–oh so very ordinary.”
I’m uninterested in a modern man wrestling with the “complex” issues of suburban life (you know, cause that’s just sooo deep). What will he do in the cul-de-sac today? I’m on the edge of my seat. This is why I gravitate towards comic books and medieval literature. I want to see what men and women can aspire to be, what they should be, and how they wrestle with the lofty goals they set for themselves. It’s simple to write the world as it is, but it’s stunning to write the world as it could be; as it should be. My literary heroes may wear spandex and capes, or talk with English accents, but they wrestle with what it means to be great.