Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Return of More Interesting than it Seems: William Faulkner on Books, Blogs, and Tweets

How's that for a long blog post title?

There's a William Faulkner quotation that I want to lead off this post with.  It goes like this: "I'm a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can't and then tries the short story which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing."

Something tells me that Dan Brown, for example, isn't really a failed poet.  Or maybe he is, but he took up writing (bad) novels for an entirely different reason than Faulkner did.  There's really not very much money in poetry these days, while there's still plenty in trashy suspense stories that can be made into movies starring Tom Hanks.  There's little question in my mind that Carson Cistulli is a more talented artist - and probably far more sarcastic - than Dan Brown.  Hell, the title of his book of poetry, Some Common Weaknesses Illustrated, is way better than the uninspired dribble that most modern novels are adorned with.  Of course, it's unfair to call modern novels "novels" in any real sense.  They're more like extended sound-bytes, pre-fabricated and totally predictable explorations of human action tailored to what sells, and not what is interesting or revealing of human nature or profound.

Now that I've demonstrated my snobbishness, I want to consider the place of books - novels in particular - in the modern literary world.  Despite my cynicism, there are still authors who write real books, novels like The Alchemist or the Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay* which count as real novels written for artistic reasons, and not merely to sell.  Of course, they may do both, and any publisher worth his or her salt will not take a book written without the potential to sell (which is why Dune, for example, was turned down by so many publishers; ditto Stranger in a Strange Land).  But some books retain artistic merit, are built around fundamental questions about human existence and experience, and, perhaps above all, actually make the reader think.

* I must shamefully admit that I haven't read either of these books yet.  They are, however, on my ever-ballooning reading list, and I'll get to them just as soon as I finish the other bazillion books I also intend to read.

Books, however, are a dying media.  Oh, there are still more than plenty of books being written - indeed, probably more now than ever - but a smaller and smaller portion of the daily reading of even the staunchest book defender (like myself) is happening on the page.  To be clear, I'm not talking about eReaders, which perform the same function as a book.  I'm talking about blogs, tweets, forums, and, perhaps most important and most overlooked of all, comments.

The blog is an obvious stand-in for the newspaper, and likely owes to the slow death of papers around the country.  Why pay to have a honking, advertisement-ridden jumble of information about topics ranging from who died to who won the hockey game to who murdered who when all you care about is the political editorials?  Why recycle 50 pages of unread paper every day when all you want is that fold-out photojournalism special?  The blog world provides an opportunity to read just that one section - and probably in more depth, detail, and sophistication thanks to the specialization of most blogs - without having to wade through the rest, without having to pay, without having to recycle, and so on.

The danger here, of course, is self-selection.  If all you read are blogs written by fervent Democrats or Republicans, you're liable to take an already biased perspective and subtly tweak it further and further until you can't even recognize the potential for reason in any perspective that differs from your own.  Whereas the newspaper may have had subtle biases, but largely strove to be objective, or are not likely to present the facts of a story without adjusting them to fit their politic desires.  Indeed, they're not likely to present the same stories at all.

Which only means that there's more onus on the reader to be objective and critical, to know when there is a real debate going on, to know when to take the other side seriously, and to know when red herrings are being served to each other's straw men.  Unfortunately, most readers seem incapable of doing this - or, worse, are unwilling to try - and so most of our blogly conversations are like attracting like.  The conversational power of the Internet turns, not to an integrating or dialogic force, but rather a divisive one.

Which brings me back to Mr. Faulkner, who wrote charged books that are extremely difficult for even a well-read, intelligent person to understand.  He intentionally confuses, complicates, draws complex images and connections, and uses symbolism that is self-developed (rather than cultural stock).  He is, indeed, a kind of poet writing novels.  Or, as he has it, a failed poet.  His quotation - with which this post began - is fascinating to me not just because Faulkner is regarded as one of the finest novelists in American history, but because of all novelists his novels are some of the most poetic.

If we draw Faulkner's line from poem to story to novel, I wonder where we put our modern forms of composition.  Where does the email go?  Where the blog post?  Where the tweet?  Perhaps Faulkner's continuum has nothing to do with what we're writing these days, because so much of our writing and so much of our reading have become communicative instead of artistic.  Are people on Twitter trying to say something about anything other than themselves?  Then again, are writers of novels and poems any different, except in that they take more time to do it?  Good writing is both impersonal - applicable and interesting to a wide audience - and intensely personal.  Without the latter, there's no impulse, no passion for the subject matter.  Without passion, there's no writing at all.

It seems to me that there is passion in the blog world.  After all, no one pays the vast majority of bloggers to write their missives, and while a great many of those posts are not particularly interesting, a great many - more than any one person can read, in fact - are extremely well-written, engaging, and often profound.  The same could be said, I suspect, of Twitter.  Most tweets may be little more than glorified status updates or text messages, but the occasional 160 character (or whatever) salvo might be just as profound as a well-written haiku.  Indeed, I understand there's a whole set of people devoted to writing Twitter haikus.

What separates Faulkner, then, is not the medium, like you might suppose, but rather his self-awareness.  It seems to me that the map of Faulkner's continuum need not be overly complicated: tweets are - or can be - poems, blog posts can be short stories, emails can be either - and, occasionally, novels in their own right.  It's just that, most of the time, they aren't, and have no desire to be.  There are, however, those who do desire to write well, to even be great writers in one sense or another, but what we lack in our myopic times are not avenues to be great, but an audience that recognizes the difference between great, good, ok, and boring.  Most of all, what we lack is the self-awareness that says "I am a failed poet," and uses that to become a great novelist.  Instead we all keep hammering out at the poetry, reading and writing and digesting a sentence at a time, forgetting that sometimes it is easier and better to try to express or understand the soul of another human being in sentences, paragraphs, and chapters.

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