Sunday, May 29, 2016

`That So Much Labour Should Be Fruitless'

“Our juvenile compositions please us, because they bring to our minds the remembrance of youth . . .” So writes Samuel Johnson on this date, May 29, in 1750, in The Rambler#21, and for once I disagree with his conclusion. I have just found the review of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow that I published in an “underground” magazine in 1973. Circulation was small, almost nonexistent, for which I’m grateful. My enthusiasm for the novel embarrasses me, as does the quality of the writing, which I might charitably describe as bombastic. Perhaps I was aping Pynchon’s bloat. What I see is a young writer compensating for having little of interest to say by saying it at great length. I will offer no clues as to the review’s provenance, to spare me additional embarrassment. Flagellation is best conducted at home.

Johnson, of course, has a bigger point to make. Rationalization is vanity’s readiest tool. Pride is resourceful.  We can flatter ourselves with the flimsiest evidence. In the passage cited above, we transform ineptitude into youthful charm and prodigality. Johnson spells out alternative strategies:

. . . our later performances we are ready to esteem, because we are unwilling to think that we have made no improvement; what flows easily from the pen charms us, because we read with pleasure that which flatters our opinion of our own powers; what was composed with great struggles of the mind we are unwilling to reject, because we cannot bear that so much labour should be fruitless. But the reader has none of these prepossessions, and wonders that the author is so unlike himself, without considering that the same soil will, with different culture, afford different products.”

Readers and critics are ruthless. That is their job. Our job as writers is to be equally ruthless, or more so, well before the reader.

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