Author as Symptom
Last night I attended a reading by a noted author whose work I generally enjoy. He chose a story that turned out to be something I had seen several years ago in a magazine, and as he read it occured to me that the trappings of realism were not doing any work in the storythey were tastefully fluted false pillars designed to look like load-bearing structures. The closing revelation was executed correctly, throwing appropriate new light onto the preceding passages, but the mechanism was so obvious that I felt as if I had been watching a series of cogs turning, as if I had been listening to a description of the thing rather than the thing itself. The scene-setting of fiction was simply unnecessary; the ending could have been reworked as a twenty-line poem, the kind of anecdotal poem that appears in the New Yorker, to equal or better effect.
Flaubert and the early Joyce turned the ultraviolet light of their prose onto the real, and made it absolutely transparent and absolutely strange. The strangeness of the ordinary is the highest use of realism, not the familiar anecdote. This lesson is hard to remember and harder to apply.
In the question-and-answer session following the reading, the author discussed the personal tragedy that had inspired the story. He spoke of it honestly and without self-pity, which I admired, but I shrank from the confessional nature of the exchange. The memoir industry has accustomed us to the transaction of selling one’s experiences, but it is so disheartening that the practice of appreciating fiction has also come to rest on the criterion of personal experience rather than the qualities of one’s vision. After all, everything outside experience is merely a question of technique; and surely that’s the job of the editor.