The cruel roots of writing and society´s unwillingness to be tortured – or something like that

I´ve just had a perfect inner monologue going, but it seems impossible to write it down systematically as it involves too many great questions and answers which all seem to be entangled with each other. And yet I feel obliged to try. I´ll just start somewhere, then.

I´m being torn apart between resigning myself to being a cynic or going on looking for some deep, authentic sincerity inside of me. I understand this needs explaining. Take this example: Some people believe there is such a thing as a dream job, and the dream job is not just a great or prestigious job, but something that helps you fulfill your mission in this world. Which requires that you have some kind of mission. That there is something you were born to do. And then there are others who think that most people who got great jobs got them by accident and grew into who they became. They weren´t meant to be – whatever, a successful start-up founder – it just so happened that they became successful founders. It´s not like their path had been laid out in front of them through divine revelation (or tons of soul-searching) some time in their early twenties. It was made by walking, and they never knew what would be around the next corner. In fact, they created it, and they could have done something entirely different. It´s not like they found their true mission in life and everything else would have been false and misguided. They might just as easily have become artists, and that would have been just as right.

As much as I rationally favor this second, “cynical” opinion, I cannot seem to stop searching. Emotionally, I need the belief that there is one true way for me and that I can find it. In a way, this is nothing but trying to get around making decisions. If only one way is right, and if this is absolutely clear and obvious, then there is no reason to choose a different path. If there is more than one way, and they are all equally worthwhile, making a decision feels like cutting myself off from life. Not even because it might be the wrong decision in the sense that my life could go awry. Or well, maybe in some way. But it´s not the only problem. It just feels as if I´m deciding on what not to use my abilities, and I can´t help wonder if I´m wasting them. Should I write when I could be a scientist? Should I write when I could be an entrepreneur?

It is interesting, and I´m only realizing this now, that I always seem to be thinking of “more worthwhile” stuff I ought to do instead of writing. “But…I´m fairly smart, why don´t I try to cure AIDS instead? Everybody can tell a bloody story, and even if they can´t, it´s not such a great loss!” It makes me uneasy how self-important this sounds, and often I think that it would solve all my problems if I was a self-conscious little girl who is humbled by every tiny bit of success because she always expected to fail. But I´m also sick and tired of being modest when it means that I cannot even admit to myself what my problem is. If I´m really that arrogant then the world ought to see it so at least they don´t mistakenly like me for something I´m not.

So, yeah. My problem with finding a life mission is that I think I can do nearly everything, and I don´t know which problem is worthy of my skills. I´m just fairly convinced that writing is not. I could never feel that awe and respect for literature some people seem to feel. For single works, yes, but not for LITERATURE as a whole. So it doesn´t seem okay to see writing as my whole life mission. It is something I want/need to do while I do something else, but not as my main occupation. I wouldn´t respect myself if I was only a writer, and this is coming from someone who hasn´t even finished a single novel. Quite rich.

Maybe this is not so much of an attitude problem on my part, but on society´s part. Maybe society just doesn´t respect writing a whole lot. Sentences like: “Yeah, everyone can do that!” are not coming out of nowhere. Writers are some kind of luxury, they are there for entertainment. If we lived in a world that fears their writers…

To be honest, I don´t know exactly where that came from, but it captures something important. If books could scare people, if people were frightened to get caught up in a book because they don´t know what it might do to them, if they were scared of what a book might tell them about themselves, if institutions lived in fear of how they are judged in the latest novels…if a book could be a public event of the magnitude of 9/11…

I´m not a nice writer, in fact, I´m a highly sadistic one. I read that´s okay, you have to be mean to your characters to write gripping stories, but for me, characters are just a means to an end. It´s the reader I want to get at. It´s him I want to play god with. And I use myself as a human guinea pig to test my ideas. If I shudder and wince and wish it wouldn´t happen, it´s probably good. Writing is the sublimest display of my ugliest face.

I´m hardly the only writer who´s like this. I guess many others would say the same thing, and sure there are some who would merely use nicer words. They might say they want to move the reader. But moving the reader does seem to imply drawing him in, getting him attached to some character and then cutting him a wound, even though you might stitch it back up in the end and bandage it with a big, fat happy ending.

I have a feeling, though, that readers are not really willing to be toyed with. Maybe they once were, but they aren´t really, today. They want to be smart, stoical, blasé. They don´t like to be moved. They´d rather look like cynics. Sometimes I feel like authors are waging a silent war against readers who think they have seen it all.  Maybe not all readers, no. I think what I´m having in mind here, though quite implicitly, is a sophisticated audience. Intellectual readers. It would be such a compliment to inspire them to awe or stunned silence, but it is in their nature to talk. They always want to outsmart you and then condescendingly praise you for how well or skilled your novel is constructed. You could write in your own blood and you would´t get an honest, emotional reply from them. I think it´s this, the public way literature is dealt with which discourages me so much. It´s what makes me feel that, as a writer, I´m a lesser being. The intellectual public simply refuses to let books move them. The single individuals, privately, might be moved, but in public they´ll always try to say something “smart” that reduces your writings to a footnote in literary history. They deny you the effect you have been searching for, and that is demoralizing. It feels like they´re playing with unfair means, because they wouldn´t admit they´re moved if they were choking down tears. It has nothing to do with literary quality.

With a public like this, writing is almost inevitably ineffectual. How are you ever going to feel like you´ve made an impact on the world? Feeling like you have no impact on the world is nothing “personal success” (fame, talk show invitations, fans and followers) can ever make up for.




8 Responses to “The cruel roots of writing and society´s unwillingness to be tortured – or something like that”

  1. I don’t know… I have a lot of very smart friends that can talk and deconstruct and criticize with the best of them (all english majors, what did you expect?), but we are all so willing to be moved and broken by a novel. I think the criticism of intellectuals comes from disappointment, because when we read a book we want to be hurt and strung across the coals and made to feel and cry and love. When we don’t get that from a book, when a book fails to engage us the way literature should, the way the books we read as children did, we seek to explain why and how and what the author could have done better. We seek to understand what has moved us before and how it can be achieved again, so that we can find it in other books and maybe create it in our own. That’s the way I see it, anyway, but I’m an optimist. I’m also writing more for teenagers, and especially the teenage girl that I was, than for any intellectual elite.
    Thanks for sharing your honest thoughts; I enjoyed reading them.

    • Thank you for your comment, and I´m glad you liked my post! 🙂

      I´m not against criticizing literature in general. What I was getting at is a certain style of critique I often find in newspapers where I feel the critic is showing off his knowledge of literary traditions and intertextuality more than talking about the emotions the book evokes (and maybe fails to evoke). I feel like this is robbing less literarily sophisticated (though not necessarily less smart) readers of a public voice that talks about the experience a book provides (and different critics might describe quite different experiences). I rarely find reviews in which the critic openly talks about his experience and emotions while reading the book, but this is exactly the kind of resonance I´d be interested in as an author.

      Maybe what I´m criticizing is a particularly German phenomenon. My father, who used to work for a publisher´s house, often said that the German distinction between “serious literature” and “entertainment” does not exist in other countries, or at least not to this extent. It is possible that such a distinction itself makes critics prone to a certain snobism.

      • I think I know what you mean. We had an author come to our campus during my last year of school and everyone said that his book was beautifully written, that the prose was stunning, but no one could say much else about it because it was so damn literary that it neglected to engage on an emotional level. The book itself had very little interest to the public (and to the “not necessarily less smart” readers you mention), but it was very lauded by the literary critics.

        I think the serious literature/entertainment line exists in the US as well, and it’s one of my frustrations with the career I’m trying to create for myself. I want to write YA fantasy/sci-fi novels, and so their primary purpose will be entertainment—but I’m smart, and I’m a good writer, and I think that books written for entertainment should also be capable of (and expected to posses) the sophistication of voice and style and plot that is reserved for serious literature. Also, in my mind, serious literature should be entertainment first, because all the literary devices don’t mean anything if the emotions of the reader are not involved.

  2. I agree with some of what you lay out here. I just picked up an advance copy of a book one of the big 6 (Soon to be 5 ) publishers is heavily promoting… and had to refrain from flinging the book across the room. It is awful, just poorly conceived and written. But someone decided it would make Tor money.

    But the fact is, this book might make a splash (I hope not), but it’s more likely it will disappear.

    The stories that linger are those that push the nasty, uncomfortable buttons. Sad news, you might be dead before people understand the weight of your words. So, as a writer seeking ears? You’re kind of fucked. The best you can do is speak your truth loud and clear. Live in your honesty.

    People will hear. Maybe not whoen or how you want them to. But the listeners will probably surprise you too.

    Don’t give up.

  3. The first thing that came to my mind when reading this was: “You want to be identified as a megalomaniac?”

    What I’m going to say next is gong to sound a little mean. I hope you can give me a little wiggle room since I think you know where I’m coming from…

    You are better than this narcissistic grandstanding. You are bright and original but burdened by superficial accolades that are never ever going to feed you what you need.

    This post read as a manifesto of a person who hasn’t been heard. I think you were thrust into that role.

    But you can transcend it. I believe you have it in you.

    And feel free to yell back at me. 🙂

    • You were right to assume your comment might upset me, but what I find offensive about it is not even so much that you dismiss my wishes as “narcissistic grandstanding”. I´ve never claimed, after all, my wishes are not narcissistic. This is, in fact, exactly why I called myself a megalomaniac in the title: To acknowledge that my wishes are not very shy, not very modest and not very likely to come true. It was a good old-fashioned bit of self-deprecating humor.

      What I do find offensive is that you claim I´m better than having such wishes. I am not. They are mine, I own them, and I am not intending to reject or condemn them. Maybe you thought you were doing me a favor by saying this, but that presupposes that I think these wishes are terrible, shameful, ridiculous and inappropriate. I don´t. If anything, this judgment is yours.

      What offends me further is that you seem to be setting a goal for me that isn´t mine. You are portraying my current wishes as misguided, if not neurotic, and praise me by telling me that I can overcome them, but your ideals aren´t mine and, more than anything, I feel like I´m being wrongfully appropriated. I can live with you criticizing my goals, but only as long as you accept that I´m the one defining them and that they might actually turn out to be right for me.

      You said your comment was going to sound a little mean. My reply probably isn´t overly nice, either, but I guess conflict cannot always be avoided. Let me say, though, that despite these differences I appreciate it that you think about me and care to comment.

  4. Thank you. I´m really relieved we got this sorted.

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