Wednesday, May 17, 2017

`A Writer and Nothing Else'

I don’t know who Jason Guriel is but I like the way he thinks, at least in “What Happens When Authors Are Afraid to Stand Alone”:

“Writers like [Canadian poet Bruce] Taylor know that they can extract very nearly all of the society they require from literature. They are adult enough to recognize that writing is a selfish, solitary activity, and that it’s the quality of their work, not their capacity for kibitzing, that ultimately secures a meaningful, long-term readership.”

Scratch the part about a “meaningful, long-term relationship,” but the rest stands. Guriel’s subject is the clannishness, groupthink and compulsive geniality of contemporary writers and their camp-followers. Because of them, one can no longer use the word “community” with a straight face. Speaking of words, the phenomenon Guriel diagnoses started several decades ago, around the time “lifestyle” gained currency. Today, if one wishes to try on the writer’s lifestyle, one need not write a word. Look soulful or haughty, wear the right clothes and read the right books (or at least carry them around). The late Edgar Bowers used to say that he stopped being a poet when he wasn’t writing poems – a nice rebuke to two centuries of Romantic posturing. Guriel continues the passage above:

“They [dedicated writers] might have a few literary friends or a social media account; they might not. But if writing well is their aim, they will tend to resent claims on their time. And they will tend to prize a commodity more precious than community: privacy.”

To put it more bluntly, writers have one job: writing well. The rest is dress-up night at the coffee shop. Montaigne, the writer who made literature safe for the “I,” puts it like this in “On Solitude”: “It is not enough to have gotten away from the crowd, it is not enough to move: we must get away from the gregarious instincts that are within us, we must sequester ourselves and repossess ourselves.” Of course, the other side of all this egregious collegiality is the viciousness and undying envy of most writers. A room crowded with writers is a snake pit, not a community. Consider John Berryman’s one-sentence distillation of Stephen Crane:

“Crane was a writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right.”

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