January 13, 2011

"Friends, known and unknown": The people we write for; the people we hurt when we write


"The Novel Reader" by Vincent Van Gogh

Over at The Millions Edan Lepucki (If You’re Not Like Me Yet) has written a thoughtful and thought-provoking essay on the relationship writers have between their various readers: spouses, critics, family, friends, and that fantastical creature known as the “ideal reader.” She writes:

[Kurt Vonnegut] said he wrote everything for his deceased sister. She was his intended audience whether or not she was alive to read his work.  I think this a beautiful and noble reason to return to one’s desk every morning, don’t you?

Lepucki’s essay touches lightly on several interesting questions. Is writing for individuals rather than for publication a form of cowardice? Why is “having thick skin” bad advice for those who have received a nasty review? How should one respond to the doggedly biographical and personal perspective family members take towards your fiction?

In response to this last question, Lepucki uses Victoria Patterson and Gina Frangello as examples of two writers who have both written about how their books led to bad blood and trouble with mothers, mothers-in-law, and husbands. Despite the acrimony, neither regrets her artistic decisions. As Frangello says in her essay “Risky Writing” at The Nervous Breakdown:

“Everything that matters burns. I believe that.  On the page and in life…It takes a hell of a lot more than risk to be a good and relevant writer…But I know from the inside out that risk is the basic, lowest-common-denominator prerequisite.  If you aren’t offending anybody, may I suggest you aren’t doing it right?”

This conversation reminded me of Lionel Shriver‘s hard and unflinching essay for The Guardian about the deep and lasting offense caused by her novel A Perfectly Good Family. She closed her article with the following defiant/bitter truth about the divide between artistic and social choices:

[M]y relationship with my parents has never fully recovered from this rift; a distrust has distanced us ever since. It hasn’t helped that I’ve never, exactly, apologised. But then, in any sincerity, I can’t. I like my fifth novel; I think it nails some sound if uncomfortable realities not just about my family, but about most families. So even cognisant of the consequences, I’d write that book again. That may make me a real writer. It doesn’t make me a nice person.

But to turn away, for a moment, from the angry and unhappy readers and back to the “ideal reader,” I’d like to quote from a Melville House author, Lars Iyer, a young British philosophy lecturer whose novel Spuriousa philosophical comedy about the absurd friendship between two bickering would-be intellectuals — comes out later this month. Lars was asked who the ideal reader for his delightfully odd little book might be. He wrote:

To quote from Spurious quoting Mascolo:

“One writes for the mal- or ‘disadjusted’, neither proletarian or bourgeois; that is to say, for one’s friends, and less for the friends one has than for the innumerable unknown people who have the same life as us, who roughly and crudely understand the same things, are able to accept or must refuse the same, and who are in the same state of powerlessness and official silence.”

I find these lines very moving, and think of that set of friends to which Mascolo belonged: Duras, Antelme, Blanchot and others, who gathered at Duras’s flat on the rue Saint-Benoit and there attempted to develop new forms of political intervention. Friendship: that word was very important to them. I think of Blanchot’s dedication of a piece he wrote on Mascolo’s death: ‘To all my friends, known and unknown, close and distant’.

Friendship is a word important to Béla Tarr, too. He considers as friends those members of his audience who are touched by what he calls ‘the beauty of the destitute’. And Godard has also used this word of the dwindling numbers of filmgoers who see his work at the cinema. There is a sense of shared rejection. Of what? Certain ideas of power, of sanity, of adjustment; the imperative to be happy. ‘It’s like we weren’t made for this world/ Though I wouldn’t want to meet someone who was.’ That’s Of Montreal.

Friendship of this kind is always under threat. Perhaps it is a sense of this precariousness that made me commemorate it in Spurious.