This quotation came to me in a Daily Rumpus email this morning, from my friend Stephen Elliott. I thought I'd share it with you here -- food for thought. Last week I was invited to attend a women's book group session, here in Keystone, Colorado. The women (there were about 7 of them) ranged in age from 50-80 and the book they'd read was The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Not a great book, but one that is interesting, at least, in its structure -- 2 first person narrators, one, a 12 yr old girl, who seems to be writing her narrative, the other, an older woman, who is telling it somehow in the present tense -- a disembodied voice. These women LOVED this book. One started the discussion by noting a blurb on the cover that said the books was "easy to read and uplifting at the end." (or something like that) There was great value placed on this, by these readers. (They are all, by the way, well-educated and accomplished women in their own right, married to men who are successful businessmen, mostly -- no artists in the bunch -- all of them wealthy enough that they have retired to a ski resort, where they live in fancy houses worth a lot of money, and healthy enough, too, that they are able to thrive, actively, at 10,000 feet.) Their discussion was mostly about how much they liked the characters, at first, then it veered off to speculations about whether class distinctions are more prevalent in France than in the US (they agreed that they must be and were smug to believe that in the US such class distinctions don't really exist...) and then wandered away into personal recollections of trips to Europe...
When we got back to the book again, I asked them what they thought of the narrators. The older character is a first person present tense narrator who dies at the end of the book, by saying: "I die." I asked them if this bothered them, was it credible, did they wonder how that worked? They had no idea what I was talking about. They read for content, not for form -- for story, not for style. No mention was made -- ever -- of any particular passage or sentence or description that particularly moved any of them.
So... it kind of makes you (me) wonder... does it matter, really? All this struggle to say it just right?
Anyway - here's Stephen in his Rumpus newsletter, asking the same question, in the context of Jonathans Franzen and Ames...
Stephen Elliott to the-daily-rump:
"Yesterday was the book club discussion with Jonathan Franzen. He said he was more concerned with the story than he used to be, he spent less time rewriting sentences. I wanted to know what he meant by story. I had an idea, but I wasn't sure. To realize that your readers don't care much about sentences is a slippery slope. I asked if he knew what he was going to write when he started and he said he had some idea. It's similar to what Jonathan Ames said about going from wanting to be a great writer to wanting to tell stories. James Paterson said a similar thing in his Times profile. Now Paterson just writes outlines and lets someone else fill them in. The writing, for Paterson, is just labor. Paterson is a capitalist. Now he writes 19 books a year. James Frey is going in a similar direction. Why bother trying to be an artist if you're not going to be recognized as one? Why write for hundreds when you can write for thousands, etc. In other words, why spend so much time on the trim if your customers just want a big house?"
"Ames is an artist fortunate enough to find a larger canvas. Franzen does the labor, of course, and is truly a great writer, but he might be moving in another direction with the work. Freedom, I think, is a transitional book for him. He is getting out from under the weight. The weight Roth wrote about in The Ghost Writer and Bolano made a career out of. Didion took assignments and learned the difference between silver and gold. But it made me kind of sad when Franzen said that. When he said it I thought of the Indian in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, lifting the sink and throwing it through the wall, all of the patients in their long white gowns, terrified, paralyzed by rituals that don't make any sense, as the Indian ran off into the world. Freedom is perhaps the moment the Indian's foot touches the ground outside. But most of my favorite writers are inmates."
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