November 24, 2010

How we don’t talk anymore


Jaimy Gordon in 1983

Jaimy Gordon in 1983

Reading (via, via) Gargoyle Magazine‘s 1983 interview with recent National Book Award-winner Jaimy Gordon (Lord of Misrule), I was struck with what a different literary world the young Gordon seemed to inhabit. For starters, most of the writers she speaks of as important literary figures have fallen into obscurity (as, of course, Gordon had herself before her surprise win of the NBA). Of the “best young writers” that the interviewer refers to (“Tom Ahern, Michael Brondoli, Ken Timmerman, Meg Wolitzer“) only Wolitzer’s name rang a bell. I could not find much trace of the others on the internet at all except for the metadata remnants of their out-of-print books. Likewise, the “maxamilist” writers “Christopher Middleton, Patrick Fetherston, and John Heath-Stubbs” were completely unknown to me. The interview is spattered with such names of authors, each surrounded by an aura of greatness, each offered up like currency that can no longer be redeemed. The obscurity of authors past should come as no great surprise, as there are surely many well-regarded contemporary authors of whom I am completely ignorant. Still, there’s a certain sense of expected recognition and glory in the way Gordon speaks of her contemporaries, that suggests she believed they would live forever:

Tom Ahern is the most truly avant garde, I am the most genuinely baroque in the stylistic and historical sense of the word, and Michael Brondoli is the most likely to write a great American novel as that artifact is traditionally understood–though it may be set in Turkey.

In hindsight such high hopes seem natural, idealistic, foolish, and endearing all at once. Was 1983 so very long ago? It seems it was. It was long enough ago that people spoke about “great American” novels in unironic terms, that there was such a thing as “traditional understanding.” It all brings home the point: Writers and writing are fragile things, and time is fast and hard.

But what seems more remarkable to me is that Gordon’s answers possess a certain stylistic quality that I don’t believe would ever appear in a contemporary interview. Thirty years isn’t long enough for the actual vocabulary to shift dramatically, but there’s something positively antiquated in Gordon’s speech. Here are a few of Gordon’s passages that struck me as old-fashioned as tongue sandwich or fried liver:

People who make too clever critics of their own work should be treated with distrust, since I’ve noticed that bad writers do this quite as glibly and cogently as good ones. But I will answer the question, because I’ve never been able to keep my mouth shut even when I knew full well I should. Now in hindsight, looking down on my own work from the lofty perch of a literary critic, I see the plain below me littered with charlatans of exactly this type, rhetorical adventurers who betray themselves at every turn. I seem particularly to enjoy attributing this self-advertising imposture to professionals, to doctors, professors, clergymen, politicians, so-called artists, orators, impresarios…

I am attracted to all the cranks but also to elegant and ornate prose traditions, and where these two, idiosyncrasy and tradition, intersect, that’s where I am. The tradition of English rhetorical style is actually idiosyncratic from Bacon on; with Bacon that was its point, to imitate what Morris Croll called “the athletic movements of the mind” in spontaneous passage from thought to thought in all their baroque complexity. This style was called base, as opposed to the sublime…

In the contemporary world I’m full of sympathy for the desire to find a bearable way of life.

These are lovely passages, but am I alone in thinking that no one talks that way anymore? Not even literary types being interviewed by literary magazines? What exactly is it about this language that seems so alien?

One possibility that occurred to me: There’s an extreme boldness in Gordon’s writing that has gone out of fashion, perhaps even out of consciousness. When she talks about “people” or “bad writers” or “the contemporary world” there’s deep confidence that these things are solid, knowable objects and the writer’s job is to skewer them with a fine point. I feel like young writers today, no matter how dazzling and successful, are more likely to feint with a topic than to kill it dead. (As evidence, I’d refer you to Zadie Smith‘s recent article about the nature of Facebook at The New York Review of Books–Smith makes many fascinating insights, but there’s a kind of anxious dexterity to her writing, a sense that the world must be teased and picked at rather than owned, that ideas are presented rather than pronounced.) Confidence is as popular as it ever was, but the grand direct statement has been eclipsed a bit by more tentative, clever, athwart ways of speaking. I daresay no young contemporary writer would being a sentence “The tradition of English rhetorical style is…” anymore.

Gordon’s 1983 prose has a quality of grandeur, lavishness, even pomposity that seems strange to our fractured, shifting, hybrid age. She writes as if language and literature are undoubtably important and powerful. She doesn’t seem to question that prose sits atop the cultural roost. That’s what feels so different to me; no one speaks with that doubtlessness anymore, certainly not about books.

When Gordon gave her short acceptance speech at the National Book Awards, she spoke in a typical 21st-century style full of feigned casualness and self-deprecating jokes. “This is really heavy. I am totally unprepared and I am totally surprised.” But when she gets to the heart of the speech–“A lot of friends of mine called me up and said ‘If you can get this finalist thing, it gives us hope.’ And this is as much for them as it is for me.”–you can imagine the friends and hope she refers to being the same ones from her Gargoyle interview, in a time not-so-long-ago, but oh-so-far-away.