For much of the last decade I have been in denial about literature. I have elided almost all aspects of my history and education that might make clear I’m an English major. And there! I’ve said it.
The denial of literature has taken a number of forms, mostly I’ve avoided that part of the library and that part of the bookstore. But I’ve also read a lot of history and fancied myself an historian at times. Slyly I have denied myself any exploratory thoughts about literature.
I haven’t managed to block it all out. The ongoing conversations with myself have required some reading and so despite my self injunctions I have read the new work of authors I had already connected with: Bret Easton Ellis, Will Self, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Andrew McGahan and so on. I read and enjoyed these in a certain kind of vacuum, steadfastly outside context and contemporaneity.
I think the reason I kept participating in those conversations with myself and buying those books was that I couldn’t believe I liked these books so much and yet had such hard feelings about the great mass of fiction and literature on the shelves.
The answer has been a long time coming and, perhaps as I had hoped, it came through one of the windows I left open: David Foster Wallace. There stuck in an essay about Dostoevsky is this fantastic quote:
The good old modernists, among their other accomplishments, elevated aesthetics to the level of ethics -maybe even metaphysics- and Serious Novels after Joyce tend to be valued and studied mainly for their formal ingenuity. Such is the modernist legacy that we now presume as a matter of course that “serious” literature will be aesthetically distanced from real lived life. Add to this the requirement of textual self-consciousness imposed by postmodernism and literary theory…
And that is why I went right off literature. Too much form and not enough ethics.
I’ve seen grace and poise and cleverness too many times before to invest a whole lot of time reading about people who don’t exist and about things that didn’t happen unless it really does something with grace and poise and cleverness. Something more than just big noting itself and its readers.
That said, I’m more open to that possibility today than I have been for some years.