Slouching towards Grubnet: the author in the Age of Publicity.
- Marian Yule in New Grub Street
"There's no question of the divine afflatus; that belongs to another sphere of life. We talk of literature as a trade, not of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare . . . I mean, what on earth is there in typography to make everything it deals with sacred?"
- Jasper Milvain in New Grub Street
I was in the middle of reading literally my seventeenth article on Martin Amis's The Information and all the chattering class controversy surrounding its publication, quite a good one in New York magazine by James Kaplan, well in the upper tier of such articles (and by then I had become a connoisseur), with, amazingly, a new spin on its subject (Kaplan plays tennis with Amis as a journalistic device to explore envy and competitiveness between writers, The Information's big preoccupation), when I turned the page and confronted the picture, or, as I have come to think of it, The Picture. The photographer at the New York publication party for The Information - a major league see-and-be-seen event for the buzzoisie, you can be sure - had captured four scribbling bad boys, American literary outrage Bret Easton Ellis, British literary outrage Will Self, transatlantic literary neo-Gothicist Patrick McGrath, and the man of the hour himself, Martin Amis, each at precisely the moment when the party mask slips to reveal the soul beneath the skin. On the left was Ellis, his nascent jowls reminiscent of Richard Nixon during his Checkers period, his eyes showing alarming areas of white in the manner of Tor Johnson, the wrestler/actor of Ed Wood's stock company. On the right were Self, tall, pin-striped, cigarette in hand and profile both thrust aggressively forward, his forehead marred as if allegorically by a boil, and McGrath, smug expression and comfortable bay window proclaiming the pleasant fruits of his skillfully creepy fiction. In the center, fatuously shorter than the others, was Amis himself, with his drink and hand-rolled fag, his often handsome face seemingly caught in mid-morph into some sort of reptilian visage. The snapshot spoke of near-toxic levels of ambition and self-regard, constant crosschecking for position in the full glare of the media spotlight - the Wildean ravages, perhaps, of having one's name set in boldface too often. Success - and by local community standards these men were very successful indeed - in the literary purlieus of the nineties clearly did not convey grace and spiritual health. The photo's miasmic air proclaimed, in its own sly way, that being a novelist, even one whose name was on the lips of every literary saloniste and cocktail party-goer, was no ticket to dignity and no anodyne to status anxiety. It said clearly, at least to me: Mother, don't let your son grow up to be a novelist. It begged the question, at least of me: Would I trust these people with any portion of my inner life?
Which were, of course, the clearest message and biggest question any dispassionate reader might take away from The Information itself. Amis's novel might be described as a demonstration of the proposition that hatred of one's peers is so powerful a force in the literary world that they can cause writers to behave approximately like Tonya Harding. A brilliantly knowing and occasionally hilarious tour d'horizon of the postliterate literary landscape, from the badly appointed low-rent districts to the gaudy, gilded precincts of bestsellerdom, The Information paints a largely accurate picture of that world - if you discount the possibility of art and transcendence and any sense of what these qualities might mean, how they might manifest themselves.
The Information itself may or may not be art, but it was certainly a prime postmodern instance in the dizzying circularity with which the book's whole publication saga mirrored its themes of venality and inauthenticity. In as abbreviated a form as possible, and with apologies to readers who have heard all this before: Having written a novel hinging on a failing writer's midlife crisis, Amis, himself in midlife (though hardly failing), proceeded to act out his own. He left his wife and children for an American heiress (nice touch, that) and subsequently presented his longtime publisher Jonathan Cape with a stunning demand for [pounds]482,000 for his new book. Some claimed that the money was needed to pay for an extensive and expensive new set of teeth from an American dentist (nice touch, that). Then certain of Cape's authors, demonstrating the effect of financial envy, cried foul in the public prints, precipitating a tabloid frenzy. At some point in the protracted negotiations Amis ditched his longtime literary agent for a notoriously rapacious American one nicknamed "The Jackal" by the British press (nice touch, that). As it happens, Amis's old agent is married to his oldest and closest literary mate (and tennis partner), Julian Barnes; the friendship did not survive the business rupture and the gossip that the best-selling hack who is the butt of most of the novel's jokes was modeled on Barnes himself. In any event, Amis ended up selling his book to HarperCollins for just about the same sum as Cape had offered, leaving behind him the scorched earth of romantic, literary, business, and fraternal associations. As his former agent, sibyl-like, observed, "The ironies of this outcome will be lost on none of the participants."
This whole farrago stopped the British literary-industrial complex in its tracks for weeks and became a national obsession of O.J. Simpson-like proportions. Similar to that murder and its aftermath, it involved a dizzying loss of perspective in which foreground and background, subject and object, became hopelessly confused - a Mongolian cluster-fuck of reality and fiction, art (or "art") and life. So inescapable was the ubiquitous information about The Information that one wag, when asked at a dinner party whether he'd read the book yet, replied, "Well, yes - but not personally." The Information the book and The Information the pseudo-event both provide rich texts in which we may descry the strange warpings of character, the necessary mutations in the figure of the author in a world in which, cf. Colin Powell and Newt Gingrich, a book tour can become a proxy for a presidential campaign or a national political debate.
I myself have read The Information personally, and in my view Martin Amis's powers of provocation exceed his powers of literary invention; nothing in the novel quite reaches the deliciously ironic peaks of its path to publication. Still, it is a sharply observed, consistently amusing, and sourly well-informed insider's view of the authorial experience in an age when a book is as often as not the pretext for everything except reading. Its hapless antihero Richard Tull personifies every flavor of literary futility. A "marooned modernist," his novelistic career has ground to a shuddering halt. His latest work, Untitled, "with its octuple time schemes and rotating crew of sixteen unreliable narrators," is so unreadable as to induce migraine headaches in all who attempt it. He ekes out a precarious living as an editor at a vanity press, a man of all work at the impecunious Little Magazine ("it really did stand for something in this briskly materialistic age. It stood for not paying people"), and a second- to third-tier reviewer of second- to third-rate literary biographies like The Soul's Dark Cottage: A Life of Edmund Waller and AntiLatitudinarian: The Heretical Career of Francis Atterbury. He is impotent with his attractive wife and his unattractive mistress, and he spends his days grinding his teeth over the unaccountable success of his quondam best friend, novelist Gwyn Barry, and plotting increasingly baroque and ineffectual forms of revenge.
As Richard Tull's career describes a relentlessly declining arc, Gwyn Barry's follows an infinitely and perplexingly ascending trajectory towards an empyrean of extraliterary fame, smug fatuity, and swollen royalty checks. His painfully sincere and modishly multicultural utopian fantasies Amelior and Amelior Regained have enjoyed a stupefyingly inexplicable success similar to that of Robert Waller's The Bridges of Madison County. (Tull muses bitterly, "Amelior would only be remarkable if Gwyn had written it with his foot. Why was Amelior so popular? Gwyn didn't do it. The world did it.") As a result Barry enjoys all the trophies of the blockbuster brand-name author: the sexy upper-class wife, the lavish household, the constant barrage of attention from every medium, the shortlisting for lavishly remunerative literary prizes with names like the Profundity Requital, the triumphal book tours planned with the precision and the similar intent of amphibious landings. Richard Tull accompanies Barry on one of these tours across America to promote Amelior Regained, assigned to write a personality feature on his friend that will "examine the pressures facing the successful novelist in the late 1990s." The forced march through the talk-show archipelago that America has become sparks anti-epiphanies like this for Tull:
The contemporary idea seemed to be that the first thing you did, as a communicator, was come up with some kind of slogan, and either you put it on a coffee mug or a T-shirt or a bumper sticker - or else you wrote a novel about it. . . . And now that writers spent as much time telling everyone what they were doing as they spent actually doing it, then they would start doing it that way round too, eventually.
Everywhere he travels with Barry Tull observes "the excitement of increase, of reputable profit, the kind you get when commerce meets art and finds it good."
Something of that same excitement surrounded The Information itself. Amis clearly intended it as his Big Statement on the darkening cast of life at the end of the millennium and the ineffectuality of literature in the face of these developments. The book suffers from its ambitions: too many passages show the rhetorical strain of overreaching for the cosmic; the thugs Tull enlists in his revenge schemes are entirely too literary in conception to be remotely convincing; and similarly Tull and Barry are too extreme in their haplessness and self-satisfied cluelessness respectively to move beyond the scope of skillful cartoons into the autonomy of fictional characters. And there is something, well, unpleasant and creepy about Amis's worldview. Famously precocious as a young literary editor and novelist, his is the nasty, practiced cynicism of the smartest kid in the class, and his corrosive view of the literary life is served up with a smirk that implicitly excludes himself from any taint of Tulldom or Barryness.
I spoke to a young writer of my acquaintance about The Information, someone just launched on his own career. I was curious how he might weather this putative portrait of the life that awaits him. Not well, as it happens. He complained of the book's "weird conflation of vileness and success" and said that reading it made him feel "like I'd received a blood transfusion from a lizard." He said that "writers put enormous effort into sandbagging their internal levees against a rising internal tide of bitterness and recrimination" and the book felt like a flood of such feelings overflowing their banks. When I asked him whether he agreed that envy was as powerful a force in writers' lives as the novel maintains, he said that in their heart of hearts writers were as envious and competitive, but in their soul of souls they were warm, generous, helpful, and giving. In this regard The Information has a cold heart - and no soul at all.
Still, before we dismiss The Information as the product of both a notoriously catty and insular literary culture and a notoriously cynical literary intelligence, we need to look more closely at the literature of contemporary authorship in America. Here, too, reassurance for writers and readers is hard to find, offering as it does conspicuous examples of an emerging literature of disgust.
Consider Wonder Boys by the much-heralded young writer Michael Chabon, published at about the same time as The Information and as ethno-graphically accurate a portrayal of the campus-centered American literary scene. Its narrator and Richard Tull equivalent is Grady Tripp, a novelist similarly mired in dismal midlife and midcareer. A college writing teacher, divorce and morose pot enthusiast, Tripp is tethered to a dying novel called Wonder Boys, a vast family saga that, on the morning that he is driving to the airport to pick up his impatient book editor for WordFest - one of those alarmingly overproliferated literary festivals - stands at 2,611 pages. (Cf. Richard Tull: "One of the many troubles with his novels was that they didn't really get finished. They just stopped.") Belying its jaunty tone and skillfully farcical plot, Wonder Boys is littered with casualties of the literary life. Contemplating them (and himself), Tripp muses:
I . . . began to wonder if people who wrote fiction were not suffering from some kind of disorder - from what I've come to think of . . . as the midnight disease. The midnight disease is a kind of emotional insomnia; at every conscious moment its victim - even if he or she writes at dawn, or in the middle of the afternoon - feels like a person lying in a sweltering bedroom, with the window thrown open, looking up at a sky filled with stars and airplanes, listening to the narrative of a rattling blind, an ambulance, a fly trapped in a Coke bottle, while all around him the neighbors soundly sleep.
Were this to get out, Breadloaf and numerous other literary sleepaways would become ghost camps. Predictably, Tripp's editor Terry Crabtree, a man with his own set of problems ("I'm hanging by, like, three molecules of thread at Bartizan"), finds Wonder Boys too burdensome to take on. "I need something fresh. Something snappy and fast. Something pretty and perverted at the same time." Chilling words that will resonate alarmingly with fourth novelists everywhere.
The prodigiously talented novelist Richard Powers betrays much the same dismay at the internal costs of his vocation in startlingly intimate terms in his latest book, Galatea 2.2. Running parallel to a Shavian plot involving the literary and sentimental education of a post-HAL computer entity named Helen is a comprehensive account of Powers's own publishing history, complete with actual review excerpts - a grim testament of pained composition, gnawing dissatisfaction, critical misapprehension, and creative exhaustion. He dismisses his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, as "no more than a structured pastiche of every report I'd ever heard from C. [Powers's lover] or abroad," and his fourth, Operation Wandering Soul, as "an ornate, suffocating allegory about dying pedes at the end of the century." Granted a year's residence at a Midwestern university, Powers shuttles between the computer techies, who promise (or threaten) to create intelligences and even sensibilities equal to any mere novelist's in scope and penetration, and the English department, whose reigning orthodoxies proclaim the death of the author, the illicit privileges of the text, the infinite variability of meaning. His immersion in cognitive neuroscience, the actual mechanics of the brain's workings, provokes less wonder than paralyzing self-consciousness. Not surprisingly, writer's block lurks: "nothing waited for me on the far side of story's gaping mountain. Nothing but irremediable Things As They Are." Powers's "my fair software" adventures with Helen are wonderfully well-handled and provide a fictional escape hatch for his literary alter ego, but his excursions into the recesses of the novelist's inner workroom provoke dismay at the airlessness of the working conditions and the joylessness of literary creation at even his rarefied level.
Don DeLillo typically provides the exhilarating nadir of literary joylessness in the figure of Bill Gray, the reclusive writer at the center of his last novel, Mao II. Combining the mania for privacy and the literary fastidiousness of J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, Bill Gray lives in solitude somewhere in upstate New York; his long recusancy from the scene has, naturally, made him a celebrity and the longer he lays low the more famous he becomes. "When a writer doesn't show his face he becomes a local symptom of God's famous reluctance to appear," he explains to a photographer who has come to take the first photographs of him in thirty years. Gray's literary anhedonia and obsessive reworking of his long-awaited novel make Powers's plaints read like "The Ode to Joy":
He looked at the sentence, six disconsolate words, and saw the entire book as it took occasional shape in his mind, a neutered near-human dragging through the house, humpbacked, hydrocephalic, with puckered lips and soft skin, dribbling brain fluid from its mouth. Took him all these years to realize this book was his hated adversary. Locked together in the forbidden room, had him in a chokehold.
However, DeLillo also manages to lend a public dimension to the writer's private paralysis and sense of ineffectuality. As Bill Gray muses to the photographer:
"There is a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists. In the West we become famous effigies as our books lose the power to shape and influence. . .Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated."
The novel demonstrates this insight graphically in Bill Gray's quixotic and ultimately fatal foray into public life, a desperate attempt to harness his peculiar fame to the task of freeing a hostage in Beirut. The future, Gray and his creator intuit, belongs to crowds and those who can harness their angry energies - certainly not to the isolated and autonomous creative intelligence, which, for all the celebrity it may be proffered, remains powerless to alter the fundamental terms of the culture.
What is going on here? Why, at this particular juncture of our cultural history, have some of our most sophisticated novelists chosen to demystify their vocation and disillusion their audience? If you live to read and read to live, a literal apprehension of the literary portraits in these four novels will make you wonder whether art could ever really be worth such internal devastation - and whether such damaged souls should be trusted as guides to right thought and action.
Behind such questions lie a whole host of conundrums concerning tellers and tales, and the literary pathography industry hums along inexorably, manufacturing such conundrums for public consumption at an alarming rate. Still, what a startling shift in emphasis in the mythology of authorship from my own book-soaked sixties adolescence. In that era writer figures strutted through novels cockily, priapically (they were all males, of course), rebelliously. Samson Shillitoe, the poet-hero of Elliott Baker's 1964 novel A Fine Madness, can stand in for a whole corps of literary poster boys - a rugged epic poet in rampant revolt, laying intellectual waste to the psychiatrists' timid theories of adjustment and creativity and sexual waste to their wives. (Played in the film version, naturally, by Sean Connery.) In fact, a whole mystique of sexual potency gathered about the novelist, cultivated by writers from Henry Miller to Norman Mailer; penmanship and cocksman-ship clearly went hand in hand. On the public stage as well, novelists cut impressive figures: here was Norman Mailer again (and again. . .), marching on the Pentagon, running for public office, sparring with Jose Torres (well, stabbing his wife too) - an avatar of an overreaching age. And here was Ken Kesey, a true cultural superhero, who wrote two of the finest novels of his generation only to move beyond the printed page to blaze a Day-Glo trail into the zeitgeist with his druggy Magic Bus odyssey. No flop sweat here, nor on more private figures like Richard Farina, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, and Tom Robbins, whose antic novels communicated not just words but comprehensive attitudes to my generation. Writers mattered.
I speak of a time, of course, in a great swivet over conformity, inauthenticity, and sterility, for which the elixirs of literary creation were thought to be antidotes. Today writers are more commonly seen as providers of "content" for the multimedia assembly lines of the contemporary Grubway. But writers' confident assertions of cultural authority drew on a reservoir of trust built up over many, many decades, even centuries. The giants of modern American literature - Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, Eliot, Wharton, et al. - were living memories and their work had literally helped to define our national identity. These writers projected a mystique so powerful that people used it as template for their own self-definition. And many of the giants of European literature still trod the earth - and in some cases could be encountered personally. Susan Sontag wrote a while back in the New Yorker of being a book-drunk teenaged intellectual in Los Angeles and getting up the courage to make a cold call with a friend on Thomas Mann in Pacific Palisades. The heir to Goethe and the German humanistic tradition received these awestruck kids politely, if remotely, gave them a cup of tea, chatted with them, and sent them on their way. It felt like magic to Sontag and it feels like magic still. What figure might serve as a Thomas Mann equivalent today - assuming you could find a young Susan Sontag equivalent?
Before we succumb to the temptation, though, to unreel an invidious procession of mighty literary figures parading across the centuries, a look backward at the actual difficult circumstances of literary production in eras past would be salutary. No better corrective may be found than George Gissing's New Grub Street, the The Information of its day (Amis had to have had it in mind) and still a startlingly pertinent picture of the literary life. Precisely because of Gissing's mildly pedestrian Victorian realism, the absence of a Dickensian genius to transform character into archetype, the book has the air of complete veracity about writing and publishing circa 1882.
In outline and conception New Grub Street reads like a geometric proof of the axiom that in the literary world the innocent, the idealist, and the artist are fated to fall while the sharper, the opportunist, and the poseur will rise. Conspicuous in the first category is the book's hero-victim Edward Reardon, a novelist of high intent and meager income, whose gifts of invention, while real, are utterly unsuited to the incident-heavy manufacture of the three-decker novels required by the circulating libraries of the day ("he was trying to devise a 'plot,' the kind of literary Jack-in-the-box which might excite interest in the mass of readers, and this was alien to the natural working of his imagination"). Saddled with an unforgiving wife who demands he provide them with an adequate social position, poor Reardon cudgels his brain daily at his desk to the twin chiming of the bells of the Marylebone parish church and the adjoining workhouse - destinations all too plausible to him. Even more poignant, perhaps, is his novelist friend Biffen, who labors long in Flaubertian style ("Each sentence was as good as he could make it, harmonious to the ear") and grim poverty on his domestic epic of the everyday, Mr. Bailey, Grocer ("Shall I hint that it deals with the ignobly decent?"). Biffen's reward for his monklike integrity is predictable: devastatingly condescending reviews with lectures that "the first duty of a novelist is to tell a story," privation that leads to near-starvation, and finally a loneliness whose end is suicide.
Meanwhile, the path to the sunny uplands of well-padded prosperity is open to such as Jasper Milvain, the book's arch-literary operative and consummate trimmer. Given to such smug pronouncements as "Literature today is a trade . . . your successful man of letters is your skillful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets" and "Many a fellow could write more in quantity, but they couldn't command my market. It's rubbish, but rubbish of a special quality," Jasper has all the angles figured and is completely without shame. So naturally he ends up marrying Reardon's widow and winning a coveted editorship. Then there is the cheerfully empty-headed Whelpdale, who enters the book as a proto-literary agent offering advice to aspirants for a fee and "recommending" their work to publishers. "Now that's one of the finest jokes I ever heard. A man who can't get anyone to publish his own books makes a living by telling other people how to write!" Milvain exclaims, anticipating by a century the creative writing industry. By book's end Whelpdale is prosperously editing Chit-Chat, a paper not unlike USA Today, addressing itself to the vast emerging audience of "the quarter educated" with articles no longer than two inches and full of "the lightest and frothiest of chit-chatty information," designed for swift digestion on trains and trams.
Enter the mass media, stage left. New Grub Street was conceived in a time not unlike our own when an explosion of mass communications had fundamentally altered the literary equation. On New Grub Street the hazards facing those unwilling to adapt were relatively straightforward: poverty, starvation, death. On Neo-Grub Street or the Grubway, as we have seen, baroque forms of demoralization or grotesque forms of adaptation seem to be the choices offered. No wonder some of our best novelists are blowing the lid off the postmodern literary dodge. And editors too: Michael Korda's amusingly chilling memoir of his time served as Jacqueline Susann's editor contains this tidbit: "When we had expressed anxiety about the unwritten manuscript, Irving [Mansfield, her husband and agent] told us it was Jackie (and the example of Valley of the Dolls, then approaching ten million copies sold) that he was selling and not as he put it indignantly, 'a goddamn pile of paper.'" Some would say we live in a post-Jacqueline Susann universe.
Authors share with presidents today the impossible conditions of office: it is hellishly difficult to inspire and lead either politically or spiritually when you are required to expose yourself utterly, to make your life, no pun intended, an open book. Leadership and pseudo-intimacy are in fundamental conflict. And the roles of president and novelist also have this in common: declining sway and public respect.
Of course, my search for spiritual guidance in the field of literature is a quaint anachronism. There is no shortage of claimants to the big job of resolving the spiritual confusions of the age in your local superstore - they just aren't found in the literature section anymore. Sub-Gwyn Barry productions like The Celestine Prophecy, Mutant Message Down Under, and Embraced by the Light, mega-sellers all, purport to bring their credulous readers succor and solace - news that there is a way and these pilgrim scribes have found it. These books tend to be self-published at first, and indeed their grandiose semiliteracy will be familiar to anyone who has done time in a publisher's slushpile. Amis has their number: "It wasn't bad literature. It was anti-literature. Propaganda aimed at the sell. . . . They were like tragic babies; they were like pornography. They shouldn't be looked at. They really shouldn't be looked at." Well, they are looked at, by the millions, and publishers are rushing to fill the newly discovered meaning gap with a barrage of titles about finding God or something like Him or Her while riding a Harley or snowboarding the Himalayas. As one publisher put it in the New York Times, "We're living in a spiritual age, aren't we?"
All of which only further fuels the despair of the serious novelist, whose task it is not to dumb down the reader's sense of life and fate into a set of slogans and self-help propositions, but to deepen and complicate it. In a fine critique of minimalist fiction a few years back, the novelist Madison Smartt Bell made the lovely assertion that "If our lives do in fact lack variety and meaning, then maybe we had better make haste to invent some." But today's novelists know that the meanings they might discover or invent for our fragmented, improvisatory lives are tentative, less than universal, subject to revision at the turn of the cultural wheel - and almost certain to be drowned out by the ersatz "wisdom" in plentiful and profitable supply. Hence the comic despair with which some writers preemptively eviscerate the mystique of their calling. Hence the cold-eyed Milvainian calculation with which others play the career game.
In If on a winter's night a traveler Italo Calvino beautifully captures the mysterious way a mere book can hold sway over our imagination, compel our allegiance and faith. His book editor alter ego Cavedagna is intimate with all the mechanics of bookmaking, all the crotchets of authors. Knowing all he knows,
the true hooks for him remain others, those of the time when for him they were like messages from other worlds . . . and yet the true authors remain those who for him were only a name on a jacket, a word that was part of the title, authors who had the same reality as their characters, as the places mentioned in the books, who existed and didn't exist at the same time, like those characters and those countries. The author was an invisible point from which the books came, a void traveled by ghosts, an underground tunnel that put other worlds in communication with the chicken coop of his boyhood. . . .
As we slouch towards the Grubnet, a digital cyberspace in which books and authors alike will become dematerialized, available on demand twenty-four hours a day, that otherworldly innocence and mysterious remoteness that gave books their authority and that Cavedagna mourns become impossible to recapture - as distant and hard to imagine a state of mind as trusting a politician. We are all of us, readers and writers alike, exiles from the garden of innocent reading. Who knows what beasts await us in the new cultural wilderness?
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|Title Annotation:||The Future of Fiction: A Forum|
|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1996|
|Previous Article:||Bad times.|
|Next Article:||Rupture, verge, and precipice: precipice, verge, and hurt not.|