14 February 2006

Readers wanted

Sam Lipsyte in conversation at the Loggernaut Reading Series:
LRS: What's strange to me is that fewer and fewer people read, and yet more and more want to write. Look at the proliferation of MFA programs, for example. Maybe it's a part of our self-obsessive culture. It's like the credo of The Subject Steve: "I am me." There's more concern with self-expression than there is in trying to connect with another person, than trying to hear someone else's words.

Lipsyte: I think that's absolutely true. There's a lot of interest in just "spiritual creativity "and "unlocking your inner narrative voice" and so on. People are interested in writing a journal and then turning that journal into a memoir. A Romanian philosopher wrote about how the Roman army really entered its decadent phase when everybody wanted to be in the cavalry. They had to outsource to get foot soldiers because all of the sons of Rome had their dads buy them nice horses so they could be these fine-looking cavalry officers. Everyone wants to be a writer, nobody wants to be a reader.


Anonymous said...

we want to be known. we want to leave our mark against futile mortality. we write our lives to express that our lives have mattered somehow. I see it as a hopefull sign that more people are potentially developing an inner life (which writing of any quality will foster in the writer - just the act of writing itself is a reflective activity born of the inner experience), perhaps a greater awareness of a spiritual life.

I'm curious how these two drew the conclusion or connection that those who are writing more are reading less? I don't see self-expression and a connection with another person as opposed. two sides to the same coin, which is relationship, or interaction.

amcorrea said...

There is nothing wrong with writing a lot and cultivating an inner life. The problem comes when people want to market themselves with absolutely no concern or interest in all of the thousands of years of work that went before them. I've experienced this phenomenon firsthand. Many "writers" do not care about literature. They want to be published. I could not believe all of the "writers" I met in college who did not care about reading! (There are also some scary statistics about the huge discrepancy between the number of submissions lit journals get and the number of subscriptions people buy.)

The other issue is the difference between self-expression and craft. The former is a diary, the latter is art. Writing is a craft. Yes there is personality to it, but literature is art. To write (truly write) is to fashion a work that can stand alone. Self-expression turns inward and very often becomes glorified navel gazing. Relationship (interaction) only happens when there is an exhange. Again, one must read and be aware of the existing dialogue before presuming to say something worthwhile.

As Annie Dillard says in The Writing Life, "The writer studies literature, not the world. [...] He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know. [...]

"The body of literature, with its limits and edges, exists outside some people and inside others. Only after the writer lets literature shape her can she perhaps shape literature."

Jana Swartwood said...

I see nothing wrong with people wanting to write for the purpose of self-reflection. It's a beneficial habit, even if the person is not a reader or is not writing anything of a remotely literary bent. It's therapeutic. It helps you see what's really going on inside. There's a lot of good there.

The problem occurs when these people decide that they should be published. I guess here's where you get into the argument of what constitutes art or literature. All people have feelings and experiences. Many people write about them. It doesn't mean the rest of the literate world should be subjected to them. If you cannot write well, or write something of value, then you should not be published.

In most cases (and I've always been a fan of the Annie Dillard quote you referenced), I agree that what you read will come out of you in some form. The more well read and well educated you are, the better chance there is that something truly good will come out in your writing.

But not always. There are occasions where someone's great ideas break through despite their lack of education. I think we have to leave room in our thinking for such possibilities.

For the writer (or potential writer), it all comes down to the question, "What are my audience and purpose (Tech Writing 101)?" If you are writing for yourself, for fun, then write away! If you are writing because you crave an audience, I think you are then obligated to (a) examine your motivations, (b) make your craft excellent, and (c) devote yourself to serious reflection on what to say, how best to say it, and why you're saying what you're saying.

amcorrea said...

Exactly. Although to clarify, I didn't mean to sound like I was advocating lots of "education" in order to be a writer--just sheer love for the written word...

More from The Writing Life:

"A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, 'Do you think I could be a writer?'

"'Well,' the writer said, 'I don't know....Do you like sentences?'

"The writer could see the student's amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am twenty years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, 'I liked the smell of paint.'"

Jana Swartwood said...

Although if you view "education" in its purest sense (as whole-hearted learning combined with experience), then it's really about the same. But you're right. It's all about the love.

I love sentences! I love long, run-on paragraphs even more. :)