So far this year I have read two prize-winning ‘novels’ – The Sell Out by Paul Beatty (Man Booker) and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Pulitzer).
Both have been widely praised for their craft and cleverness. Both left me wondering what happened to good old-fashioned storytelling. These are driven by themes rather than plots, each with an unnamed narrator respectively reflecting upon racism in America and perceptions of the Vietnam war.
The weightiness and worthiness of the topics is beyond doubt but masked by a knowing irony; neither author has any interest in a conventional narrative with a start-middle & end.
Far be it from me to knock the post-modernist slant of these works. As a worshipper of David Foster Wallace, I am fully aware that modern truths cannot always be told in a linear style but at the same time I find myself increasingly missing characters and plots.
I have come to realize just how many classics of English literature I know but have never read; for example Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe. While re-reading Infinite Jest I now intend to plug these gaps. Pre-modernism here I come.
I read this passage today and, although it is from a book published in 1996, I was immediately struck by how topical it is. What do you think?:
“Always with you this freedom! For your walled-up country to shout ‘Freedom! Freedom!’ as if it were obvious to all people what it wants to mean, this word. But look: it’s not as simple as that. Your freedom is the freedom – from; no one tells your precious individual USA selves what they must do.[……..] What of freedom – to. How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose? How is there freedom to choose if one does not know how to choose?”
pg 32o - Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
THE GREENLANDERS by Jane Smiley (Anchor Books, 2005)
Is life too short for big books?
When it comes to novels like Infinite Jest or Middlemarch, I’d say not.
David Foster Wallace was so overflowing with ideas that he needed the space to expand his thoughts while George Eliot used a larger palette to create a world with a world.
Yet, there seems to be a trend (or requirement) for writing 500 or more pages as a demonstration of a writer’s prowess.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s sprawling ‘Here I Am’ is one recent example of a novel that would have greatly benefited from trimming by at least 200 pages.
Jane Smiley’s epic Norse saga is another. Continue reading
In 2005, the late lamented David Foster Wallace made a memorable speech to graduating students of Kenyon College which was posthumously published under the title This Is Water.
A few years back, inspired by this, I decided to make my own humble address at the end of an advanced English language course in Italy which I called my ‘Where do we go from here?’ lesson.
Today, I found my notes and decided to post it here (complete with DFW style asides in italics).
It comes over as much more pretentious and self-conscious I think but I delivered it with the best of intentions, hoping to end the course on a thoughtful note rather than a lame ‘goodbye and good luck’ message.
Anyway, here it is warts and all (comments welcome):
Nowadays, it’s common to hear people talking about life-long learning.
[I ask who has heard of the phrase ‘lifelong learning’ – nobody has!]
One time, there was the mistaken idea that when you finished school or university, your official period of learning was finished – your next goal was to find work and earn a good salary. But learning is not a finite thing. In a very real sense it never ends. Continue reading
I am thankful to a blog about David Foster Wallace’s ‘Octet’ for introducing me to the works of Anne Lamott. She’s a writer I definitely need to get to know better.
So far, I have only read a PDF copy of one chapter from Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life’ but already I feel myself getting hooked.
One of her numerous pearls of wisdom is as follows:
“Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong”. Continue reading