Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Authenticity, Authenticity


There's been some loose talk in the LROD comments about authenticity and contemporary literary fiction (as if we didn't live in a world where "reality" is cheap romance and weight loss that's scripted on TV to seem unscripted).  I found a bit of advice on the matter from my beloved Flannery O'Connor, who got away with the most unreal plots because she knew how to inhabit a character with intense genuine feeling.  

Here's what she wrote to her friend Elizabeth Hester: "You would probably do just as well to get that plot business out of your head and start simply with a character or anything that you can make come alive...Wouldn't it be better for you to discover a meaning in what you write rather than to impose one? Nothing you write will lack meaning because the meaning is in you."

Ah, meaning...remember meaning?  What contemporary writers are authentic?  Can we come up with a list?  Are there any?  Surely, there must be.

20 comments:

Elizabeth said...

Banana Yoshimoto! Her "plots" nearly always nudge magical realism, but the difference is that it's clear the "magic" resides in the characters' thoughts and feelings. So, you just go with it; it's easy because it's authentic.

One further point: one of the most typical/tiresome exchanges in writers' groups and workshops is the one that goes like this:

Reader 1: "I don't buy it. No soccer mom would be growing pot in her basement. Doesn't happen."

Writer: "But that part is true! It really happened!"

Reader 2: "I read about a grandmother who got busted for growing weed right in her backyard garden. So, it can happen."

Reader 1: "Well, it's rare."

So, instead of counseling the writer, as Flannery would, to instill the characters with internal emotional logic the reader can follow, the advice turns into, "If it's not within the norm, don't try it." Putrid advice for sure, which the writer (rightfully) ignores. Instead, the writer thinks that Reader 1 is just a literal-minded idiot who doesn't "get" the story.

By the way, I had a roommate well after college who was an analyst for a major bank. Even with his giant income, he felt the need to "freelance." He ran up our power bill with his grow lights in the basement. He was not psychotic. Stupid, but not psychotic.

heynonnynonymous said...

Yeah, or the TV show "Weeds," that's real, right?
Television real.

John said...

The word I used was "psychopath", not "psychotic".

But let's proceed with Flannery O'Connor. The sorts of characters that immediately come to mind are overeducated people who've gone to Ivy League schools and come back utterly unequipped to live any kind of decent life. That, I assume, is the emotional truth O'Connor is conveying. It seems utterly believable to me, and in fact I don't think there are any details in many of her stories that are at all far-fetched. I think of one where a neglected child sneaks out to an evangelical baptism and eventually drowns himself. An extreme case, but then, literature is often going to deal with extreme cases. A pimply, tightly-wound Wellesley (I think) student goes berserk in a doctor's office and attacks a less sophisticated woman. Again, extreme. But not something you couldn't see in the papers. This is part of Darin Strauss's point, I think.

I would think, in fact, that O'Connor would be among the first to deride someone who works in New York publishing, has advanced degrees, and writes about thwarted soccer moms. You may not agree.

Anonymous said...

Flannery went to the Iowa Writers Workshop. From there, New York. She made big time contacts, especially with fellow-Catholics.
Of course, she was a major talent, someone who deserved her acclaim. She wrote out of an inner conviction (an aberrant one), so her work almost always succeeds. On its terms!
But it's very odd stuff (consider Wise Blood), and I wonder...
What if it's the present, and Flannery had not gone to Iowa, had just stayed in Milledgeville, Georgia and sent out her unsolicited manuscript of Wise Blood. Would it ever be published? Are the agents and editors of today perceptive enough to see its merits?
To answer your question, w,r. the last character in American fiction that walked off the page for me was Rabbit Angstrom of the last two Rabbit books (Is Rich and At Rest). I'm no big fan of Updike, but he got that guy right. And, strangely, Rabbit is outwardly so dissimilar to the public persona Updike displays. But the inner Updike?

Anonymous said...

George Saunders. Successful humor tends to be rooted in truth.

John said...

I think even in the 1940s, O'Connor needed to go to Iowa and make big-time contacts. I think she fully understood this. And she published in the little mags, likely with the back-channel help of her contacts. I doubt if things would be different now. Consider the deep suspicion in which the publishing world always held Steinbeck, for that matter. In my view, Steinbeck is slowly shaking out as the best 20th century American novelist.

O'Connor didn't stay in New York very long, and in her writing she clearly doesn't have much regard for the place.

Which brings us to an interesting question: how many good novels are set in New York? The Great Gatsby, The Catcher In The Rye, Washington Square. Others? But how many talents petered out there? Melville, Thomas Wolfe, Steinbeck, Dashiell Hammett, Mailer. . .

Writer Not Reading said...
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Writer, Rejected said...

If you were an old time on this blog, you'd know that we often have great quotes by great writers, have had interviews since shortly after the blog started, and sometimes run rejected stories to figure out why they are rejected. But don't worry, whining is a regular feature. We prefer not to be let out of your time-out box. It's where we belong, even though LROD has had positive features all along.

Anonymous said...

She actually does have a Whiner's corner, w,r. Says a lot about her.
If she thinks Flannery O'Connor is so great, why can't she spell her name correctly?

Joey said...

WnR, the only thing lamer than a Whiner's Corner is trying to use it as a means to draw people to your blog.

With regard to the topic, I found Pastoralia (Saunders) incredibly dull, and have no plans to read anything else by him. He (by which I mean his work) comes across as gimmicky, and the more the intelligentsia hail him as the new Vonnegut, the farther the metaphorical finger reaches down my throat. I'll pass.

Banana Yoshimoto = Chicken Soup for the Dead. I've read at least two (three?) of her books, and AFAIK, she's in chick-lit land. There's nothing wrong with that, but attempting to pawn her off as a "Literary Writer" isn't any different from the people who try to have Stephen King and Tom Clancy passed off as Literary Fictioneers. Once again, I'll pass.

One of the few I'd really consider interesting (not bothering to define authentic) these days is a fellow named Haruki Murakami. Say what you will about his plots, but there's a Nobel in his future. Regardless of how often the favorite sons and daughters of contemporary American MFA programs and literary magazines clutter the bestseller lists, thirty years from now, 99% of them will have vanished into oblivion, replaced by the latest annointed glee-club of Great American Writers. The people who will be remembered will be few and far between.

Writer, Rejected said...

Joey: Murakami's Kafka on the Shore was amazing. The feline p.o.v. blew me away. Interesting magical realism and Japanese folk-lore. Loved it. His latest one, not so much. It feels light: I'm trying to get through it now.

Joey said...

With regard to the O'Connor discussion, I doubt she'd have fared well in today's climate without A.) establishing contacts, or B.) rewriting her stories. Yes, there is a fetish for caricatures of the south (affectionately known as "Southern Gothic") these days, but her kind of weirdness would likely have been rejected (though perhaps with personalized letters). Not nearly enough sex, not nearly enough guns (AGMIHTF being an obvious exception). No, she'd have been shunned in the LitFic domain, and perhaps turned to teaching or embracing the Apocalypic Christian Lit genre, as so many tele/writervangelists have done.

Remember, it's far easier to publish your rejected novel in its closest genre than it is to keep distorting it in vain attempt to fit it to the Procrustean bed of Literary Fiction. But then again, you'd have to fight like hell to be taken seriously...if that mattered to you. Just look at various genre giants who keep trying to have laypeople and snobs take them as Serious Writers.

Joey said...

writer rejected: Yes, After Dark is awful. His earlier work is far better--Norwegian Wood is the most meaningful college-set novel I've come across, and the Wind Up Bird Chronicle is just epic. Some folks think he was experimenting with a new style with AD; hopefully the new novel he's working on is up to his usual level.

Writer Not Reading said...
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Writer Not Reading said...
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Writer, Rejected said...

Ooooh! It's true. I didn't recognize you (Writer, Reading and TIV), blogger of many identities. You can call me a whiner any day of the week! You are the oldest of old timers, here practically from the beginning. As I see it, we go through negativo phases around here...sometimes unbearably nasty and sometimes light and airy. But, whiners? Well, always. Happy to be in your box.

Writer Not Reading said...

Well, LROD. I actually wrote your blog off my blog, literally, after feeling attacked by the comment-sharks and deleted all my comments here. But now that you recognize an old disguised friend, I will just say that I shouldn't have to defend myself doing something I just do for fun. It makes it tedious and not worth doing.

Two other points: I haven't referred to my blog to generate "traffic" here, because in fact, most of your commentators are not welcome at my blog as I block all anonymous comments and delete the ones with fake names that lead to blank walls. Also, visitors to my blog are really nice to each other. Most of your readers couldn't stomach that. So this is the last blog I'd come to to generate "traffic." Which isn't to say I don't love you. Let's just say that you run with a tough biker crowd and I often need to take breaks in Disney World. But it's your dangerousness that makes you appealing to a Cinderella like me.

Secondly, although I was mocked for putting your blog in Whiners' Time Out, which I thought you would find funnier than my deleting your blog altogether, I am sorry to say that now reinstalling your link, I have placed you in the Dark and Dreary Basement: Enter At Your Own Risk. I also listed LROD as "infested with anonymouse commenters who aren't always very nice." This warning is necessary because I now posted a niceness policy at the top of my blog after this unpleasant incident. Just know that if things here improve, I might move you up as high as the Guest Bedroom, or even the roof.

So I'm still here but cautious. Commenters should be nice to other commenters, not personally attack or mock. Not REJECT in that sense. This blog's strength is that it's fun and funny and it should stay that way.

My mother warned me about the fast crowd, but it's an addiction. It's just that adrenalin rush.

Elizabeth said...

Joey, I'm not trying to "pawn off" Yoshimoto as anything. The discussion is about authenticity in contemporary writing. She's contemporary, and I find her characters authentic.

God, you people are cranky.

Writer, Rejected said...

WNR: I'm always glad when you come around and I appreciate your comments and will be grateful for any placement on your blog: dog house, guest bedroom, or front porch. I'm happy to be included and don't mind if you shuffle me according to the weather over here.

ELIZ: You go, grrl. Give it right back to the cranksters. Your comments are always thoughtful and welcome.

joey said...

elizabeth: that wasn't an attack on you (or on Yoshimoto). To be honest, the only part of my post that had to do with yours was the fact that we both wrote about the same author. Naturally, we're free to have differing opinions on her work; I'm not here to declare anyone's thoughts less valid than mine on the matter.