On Playing Dead

Will Wilkinson

Jan 01, 2013

In an address to the 2012 Whiting Award winners, later republished in The New Yorker, Jeffrey Eugenides takes as his theme a piece of advice Nadine Gordimer once offered Christopher Hitchens: "A serious person should try to write posthumously." Hitchens said, "I took her to mean that one should compose as if the usual constraints--of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and, perhaps especially, intellectual opinion--did not operate." Eugenides elaborates in affirmation:
Gordimer's advice...may inoculate you against the intellectual and artistic viruses that, as you're exposed to the literary world, will be eager to colonize your system. All of the constraints Hitchens mentions have one thing in common: they all represent a deformation of the self. To follow literary fashion, to write for money, to censor your true feelings and thoughts or adopt ideas because they're popular requires a writer to suppress the very promptings that got him or her writing in the first place. When you started writing, in high school or college, it wasn't out of a wish to be published, or to be successful, or even to win a lovely award like the one you're receiving tonight. It was in response to the wondrousness and humiliation of being alive. Remember?
I don't remember. Sorry. "A serious person should try to write posthumously" is much in the same vein as "Live every day like it's your last." It's a nice idea until you think about it. After you kill a man just to see what it feels like, then what? Who wants to spend every day on the phone with the same twelve people repeating "I just want you to know that I love you very much"? Nobody does. And shall one indeed endeavor to fashion one's prose in a manner wholly disregarding prevailing conventions of diction? Preposterous!
Seriously, if I could shuck off the "deforming" influences of literary fashion and economic necessity, I'd try to write more like Thomas De Quincey or Robert Louis Stevenson or Herman Melville and less like David Foster Wallace or Jeffrey Eugenides, who are, by comparison, boring, boring, boring tin-eared hacks. Alas we are all of us creatures of our time. We are not wolf-children or sociopaths, so we bow to fashion, aesthetic and moral. We are not content to bury our manuscripts. We worry about the spiritual disfigurement of "selling out" mainly when we lack the connections or chops to get decently paid. Maybe I'm pedantic. I know: to live each day like it's the last day of your life means ditching the semi-consciousness of crabbed, repetitive prudence for heedless ziplining, barebacking, and alcohol poisoning. No, I can't help it. I'm definitely pedantic. Still, there's a nice idea lurking in there. Somewhere. Similarly, Eugenides has hit on something in the vicinity of worthwhile advice. It's not that we should strive to write like Charles Lamb, though we totally should, or that we each might as well compose a personal intelligibility-be-damned Finnegans Wake and abide in the wondrousness, humiliation, and purity of our undeformed homeless malnourishment. It's just that we should try to be true to whatever it was that got us interested in writing in the first place, as long as it's not status or money. It's a pretty captivating thought, isn't it, when you put it that way? I'm going to risk honesty (is honesty in fashion?) and say that the first "serious" story I remember having written, as best as I can remember, was motivated by the desire to impress my high-school creative writing teacher, whom I greatly admired, as well as by my love of books, comics, TV, and movies. Could I reverse-engineer and achieve some of the emotional/aesthetic effects of stories that had astonished me? I wanted to try. In any case, my experience of life then was more marked by mundane curiosity than wonder, more by blithe self-satisfaction than humiliation. I had been, to use Eugenides' own example, in the snow in my sneakers; I had seen the brilliance of the winter sun in the twigs encased in ice. It was nothing worth writing about. The Kwisatz Haderach? That was interesting. Most of the feelings I wanted to channel into language I got secondhand from stuff probably written for money. In a passage about the wisdom of the athlete's injunction to "stay within yourself," Eugenides writes:
Society at large may not recognize it, but every morning when you go to your writing desks you're up against not the Yankees but the literary tradition, two thousand years of great works to admire, learn from, compete against, and, hopefully, expand. It's no small task you've set yourself. Don't let anybody tell you different.
Trying to write posthumously, "up against...two thousand years of great works to admire, learn from, compete against, and hopefully expand," strikes me as a recipe for overawed paralysis. David Hume, in "Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences," agrees:
A man's genius is always, in the beginning of life, as much unknown to himself as to others; and it is only after frequent trials, attended with success, that he dares think himself equal to those undertakings, in which those, who have succeeded, have fixed the admiration of mankind. If his own nation be already possessed of many models of eloquence, he naturally compares his own juvenile exercises with these; and being sensible of the great disproportion, is discouraged from any farther attempts, and never aims at a rivalship with those authors, whom he so much admires. A noble emulation is the source of every excellence. Admiration and modesty naturally extinguish this emulation. And no one is so liable to an excess of admiration and modesty, as a truly great genius.
The sense of "emulation" at work in Hume is now largely defunct. It signifies not so much imitation as the ambition to match or overtake the achievements of one's imagined competitors. We are, in fact, motivated in no small measure by competitive drive. But, as Hume suggests, only the extraordinarily vain will be able muster and sustain the will to produce when "up against" the whole eternal pantheon of letters. The petty contest for merely local glory gets the scale of useful emulation about right. It's probably better for literature if we don't try to play dead. "Next to emulation," Hume goes on to say, "the greatest encourager of the noble arts is praise and glory. A writer is animated with new force, when he hears the applauses of the world for his former productions; and, being roused by such a motive, he often reaches a pitch of perfection, which is equally surprizing to himself and to his readers." Right. So what are the Whiting Writing Awards for, anyway? What's the point of Eugenides' Pulitzer Prize in Literature? Glory! Fame! Progress in the arts! In other words, to goad participation in a positional game in which status is distributed according to an (inevitably slightly conservative) ideal of literary merit, lest our culture's already friable sense of the distinction between earnings and worth collapse altogether, leaving the 20 under 40 vying on the fields of paranormal teen romance for the glory of stupendous sales. And then there's nookie. In his biography of David Foster Wallace, D.T. Max writes, "Infinite Jest had been driven by his dysfunctional yearning for Mary Karr." In an interview, Max explains:
What I meant by that was that he was trying to impress her. He really wants her to think he's doing wonderful work, and I think when she, at various times, breaks up with him, he's thrown into those negative spirals that can also be enormously productive for a person, a creative spiral of anger. Almost like something out of a Hollywood movie. There's a note in one of my files where he says something like, "Infinite Jest was just a means to Mary Karr's end, as it were." A sexual pun.
Whatever else Mary Karr's end may be, it is not the solitary self vibrating to the wonder and humiliation of life. Say what you will about self-deforming extrinsic motivation, but it's not obviously inimical to great literature. Others who have complained about Eugenides' homily have noted that this is a man who just happens to have got quite rich and famous off much-praised fiction. Do I think Eugenides has tried to write bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novels? That because he's flush and fairly fashionable, he must have had money and fashion in mind all along, and is therefore self-deceived or false? No. But neither do I think he landed in the overlap between commercial and critical success through miraculous serendipity. He has, for one reason or another, developed a sensibility that makes his authentic best effort at true literary art not inconsistent with moving units and winning prizes. One can, after all, admire difficult or experimental forms of writing, while also sincerely sharing the belief of awards committees that literature best achieves its high aims when it makes experiment safe for democracy. Commodifiable literary achievement is a great trick, but you can't bring it off playing dead.