The Joy of Having Not Read

The beauty of knowledge is it makes you aware of your own ignorance. The more you learn, broadly speaking, the more ignorant you feel.

This mechanism, called the Dunning-Kruger effect (although isn’t it a clinical re-statement of the ancient Delphic observation, that Socrates was the wisest man because he knew he knew nothing?) presents itself most elegantly in the pursuit of literacy. The more I read, the more aware I become of how much I still need to read.

When I was a teenager or even a young man, this manifested as anxiety. I didn’t like the feeling of having not read a novel or poem someone else was referencing. Although I wouldn’t want to give the impression that all of my literary adventures were motivated by antagonistic disquiet, some were. I remember reading Crime and Punishment specifically so that, if asked whether I had read it, I could arrogantly reply, “of course.”

I don’t know exactly why I thought like this. Maybe a fear of exclusion – I might have imagined one day discovering a club of fellow literature-lovers who would bar me entry for the crime of having never read Turgenev. Lots of young men feel they have something to prove, and even if it’s a declaration of intellectual rather than physical value it can cause this kind of idiocy. Perhaps on some level I wanted to be a prodigy, even though I wasn’t one by most reasonable measures. But it could also have been unconscious resistance to Dunning-Kruger, a confusion caused by feeling dumber, not cleverer, book by book.

I can’t remember when it was that I encountered Umberto Eco’s explanation that his library of near-Babelian dimensions consisted mainly of books he hadn’t read – certainly, I was already aware of it by the time I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “antilibrary” description in The Black Swan. But it provided a balm – if a great scholar like Eco was unconcerned living alongside all those unopened books, then why should I be? F. Scott Fitzgerald lets you know what he thinks of his titular character’s intellectual pretences when Nick notices most of the books in Jay Gatsby’s library have pristine spines. Eco, or Taleb, might deduce Gatsby realises a personal library is a research tool, whereas we conclude the opposite – Gatsby is vain and unsophisticated.

Now, I experience a genuine elation in having not read something – especially if the work in question is a recognised classic. Coming back to Dostoevsky, I recently realised I had never read The Idiot, so further pleasures from the novelist who thrilled me at 17 await me still. Likewise, I have all of Proust before me. Robert Coover has inexplicably escaped my attentions. Same with Hermann Broch, Heinrich Böll, William Gaddis, Robert Musil, Georges Bernanos, and most of Andre Gide. Bruno Schulz! Dion Buzzatti! Kafka’s Amerika!

Once upon a time, I would not have been able to admit to these omissions. Now, it’s simply an acknowledgement that there are probably* more great books than one can read in a lifetime – which, as absurdists know, doesn’t mean the attempt might not itself have value.

*Somewhere in my library, minuscule in comparison to Eco’s, I have a George Steiner essay in which he almost cheerfully lists the major writers he knows he will never read. For now, that’s a step too far for me.

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A Guide to Prose

Here are some notes I took from About Writing by Samuel R. Delany, which I could not recommend strongly enough for any budding authors or just people interested in the creative process of a novelist.

  1. Pick a microstructure e.g. sentence of observation, sentence of analysis, sentence of observation, sentence of analysis and stick to it until you forget about it. These are like stabilisers on a bike. These can also get you going when you’ve slowed down.
  2. Pick a megastructure and stick to it until it sinks in. E.g. a chapter about the protagonist, followed by one about two minor characters, followed by one about the villain, rinse wash repeat.
  3. Scrutinise your diegetic theatre. Are those curtains really ‘muslin’? Is it accurate to say they ‘caressed the sill,’ or did they simply sway free, untouched by anything but the gentle breeze passing by the window? “Fundamental accuracy is the sole morality of writing.” – Ezra Pound
  4. Don’t set out to describe a scene – simply mention objects in the room/corridor/street/field that are there, and might impinge upon the corners of your character’s perception. In this way, his/her subconscious is an emergent property of your observation.
  5. Avoid the “false flashback.” Tell your story linearly unless there is a compelling stylistic or structural reason for not doing so. Don’t muddy the waters or make things unclear for the sake of keeping a mystery or twist a secret.
  6. “Write as simply as you can for the smartest person you know.” – Blanche McCrary Boyd
  7. Distrust any writing that occurs to you in blocks. Write one word at a time, one clause at a time, one sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time. This helps avoid flabby thinking and cliché.
  8. Don’t write in the present tense. This is a pseudo-literary affectation that causes you to write sentences nobody would ever actually say, e.g. “Kevin walks to the fridge.” It does not make things more immediate or personal. It’s just pretentious and ineffective.
  9. Reveal your hero’s socio-economic status as early as possible. The vast majority of great novels wouldn’t work without this information imparted early (War and Peace, Sentimental Education, Great Expectations, Ulysses, Middlemarch, Pride & Prejudice, Les Miserables…) even if they aren’t consciously novels-of-class. IOW all novels are novels of class.
  10. Read as widely and as often as you can. When you do, imagine yourself in the position of the author, whether it’s Tolstoy or Mickey Spillane. Why did they make this or that choice? How would you have done things better?

Am I so out of touch? No. It’s the children who are wrong

I used to say that I’d spend 6 months of each year obsessed with music, and six months completely detached. Then that became more of a 3/9 split in favour of disinterestedness. Now, it’s amazing if I spend a solid week a year thinking about, researching, writing about or bloody listening to new music. And it takes almost nothing to get me all disillusioned again.

The last time I took my ball and went home was over The Life of Pablo. A bit of context: I felt like I’d been fighting a seven year battle (since the stupid Taylor Swift thing… I mean, the first stupid Taylor Swift thing) defending Kanye as an artist against people completely incapable of separating the person from the product, or people unwilling to see hip-hop or even pop as art in the first place. (I can’t believe we’re still having that argument 30 years after Paid In Full.)

Through all the Kardashian bullshit, the second Swift saga, the Glasonbury appearance, the Bill Cosby stupidity, the Wiz Khalifa feud, the seemingly endless stream of ageing white men – Billy Corgan, David Crosby, Brian McFadden, Liam Gallagher, Corey Taylor – being dragged out to hate on him, I stuck to my guns. This was a guy who had revolutionised a genre not once but twice, who had made at least four all time classic records, a voracious mind who absorbs the aesthetics of everything from Le Corbusier lamps to Chicago drill to Jodorowsky movies. (Fun story: West apparently went out of his way for a chance to meet Jodo, who… had no idea who he was, but read his tarot for him anyway.)

Then Life of Pablo dropped and… I didn’t get it. It wasn’t a triumph of abrasive minimalism like Yeezus or luxurious maximalism like MBDTF. It wasn’t a gospel- or string arrangement-fuelled game changer like The College Dropout. It had a lot of… stuff. Stuff that didn’t seem to gel or hang together all that well. The production was no longer meticulous – at times, it was downright messy. It also featured second-raters like Ty Dolla Sign, who would never have been on Kanye’s finely honed radar five years ago, but who West met at a Kylie Jenner party. (He’s since collaborated with the completely unremarkable Tyga, Jenner’s boyfriend – further evidence for the theory that being part of that family of worthless vampires is actively withering Kanye’s talents and judgement.)

He then committed the annoying act of recalling TLoP, tinkering with it further, and reissuing it, meaning there are at least two Life of Pablos (Lives of Pablo?) out there. That probably annoyed me more than it should have. One of the best samples on the record was of Arthur Russell, a man notorious for incessant revision of his music and leaving everything unfinished – it would be too easy to make the comparison with West himself, who claimed to have spent 5,000 hours on Power, a 1 minute 42 second track. I should give TLoP another chance – but I’m an old man (28) now, and I don’t understand Tidal.

I also don’t understand how it is that I still think of Untrue by Burial, the last contemporary artist I really proselytised for (back when anything labelled dub-step was automatically considered to be the work of Satan) as being cutting edge when it came out nearly ten years ago. I listened to it yesterday, and it… hasn’t dated that well. I think copycatting has a lot to do with it – I’m looking at you, Synkro.

But back in 2007, when I was reading about hauntology and futurist musicology and spectral ambient in the backpages of Dr Sleepless by Warren Ellis, this album was everything . Now it’s just the Millennial version of dad-rock.

Same with everything else we used to love, everything that was once fresh and new and bleeding edge. We grew up on Radiohead, the Marshall Mathers LP, Dre’s 2001, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Joanna Newsom, Iron & Wine, Devandra Banhart, Sigur Ros, LCD Soundsystem, Cat Power, Hot Chip, Portishead, Animal Collective, Wilco and Kanye. This was the stuff we used to hold up when the Boomers said “music today is shit.” Now, people are fucking nostalgic about the Arctic fucking Monkeys. People get all watery eyed about The Strokes – “remember when Is This It came out and everything was going to be OK?”

And the kids are listening to J Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Young Thug, Beach House, Adele, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Flying Lotus, Sun Kil Moon, Frank Ocean, and Tame Impala – not your post-rock, g-funk, freak-folk, hauntological crap, grandad. Get with the times.

Of life and other stuff

My uncle died this week. Or maybe it was two weeks ago; I don’t know. He was 49 years old, and although we hadn’t been on good terms for a few years, he was a big part of my childhood – indeed, aside from my parents, it’s difficult to think of another human being I’ve actually known who has had such a profound influence on my development as a person.

It wouldn’t be right to say he introduced me to comic books – that honour probably goes to the Batman animated series and the associated media. But he did introduce me to Chris Claremont’s X-Men run, which is a huge deal when you’re seven or eight years old. This was many many years before the Hugh Jackman movies and back when Marvel superheroes – if you can imagine such a time – were virtually unheard of in the UK, and even in the US were probably a niche cultural unit.

Perhaps more importantly, he was later responsible for exposing my impressionable mind to Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, and a further alt-cultural smorgasbord in my teens. It’s not every day the person who got you into Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft, Camille Paglia, Saki, Neil Gaiman, Iain Banks, Angela Carter, Oscar Wilde, the Marquis de Sade, 70s Tom Baker era Doctor Who, Quentin Tarantino, Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Ken Russell (especially The Devils), and V.I.M.’s sub-bass club classic Maggie’s Last Party passes away. I remember having to consciously fight against his influence in my early twenties to develop my own independent intellectual arena, but a lot of these writers and artists I still love and still view through the critical lens he lent me.

As I mentioned, we hadn’t patched things up when he died after a stupid argument a few years ago, and I don’t have any lessons to impart on that front. When I knew him best he was funny, witty, and was able to say very intelligent things that could genuinely shock you into a different way of thinking about a piece of low or high culture. The circumstances of his death are deeply saddening to me and I wish one of us had picked up the fucking phone years ago.

Well, there it is. The base goes on. Rave, rave, rave against the dying of the light.

I don’t know much about art but I know what I like… 

I hate to sound like a Top Gear-viewing father-of-two on a daytrip to the Tate Modern, but I realised today that I don’t understand contemporary poetry. 

I read a lot of it, too, because poetry is important to me and I want to keep up with what other people are doing. So I skim Ambit, The Rialto, Antiphon etc. I admit I also want to find out what is being published, because I always think I should submit more of my own work.

And I don’t get it. Any of it. They’re all just short stories about nothing, written in very short paragraphs. There’s no consistent stanza – everything is formatted like e e cummings with a broken TAB key. There’s definitely no metre. And Jesus Christ, if you think you’ve found a rhyme you must have imagined it. 

And I know poetry doesn’t have to rhyme. I know there is such a thing as free verse, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when did everything except non rhyming free verse disappear? 

When did every poem become about waking up in New York and checking your iPhone while musing on how disconnected you are from modern life? Or about reconciling your second generation immigrant status with the fact you’re middle class as fuck?

Oh God. I’ve done it. I’ve become the reactionary sophist prick I’ve always feared. 

I think the last Anglophone poet I could read and understand consistently was Auden. Fucking hell, that’s such a twatty thing to say, but it’s true. I could understand him because he was testing and trying to see where his skills and his experiences fit into the great tradition of verse extending back to Homer. He thought of his predecessors as colleagues. He wanted to have something to say to them.

Now, it’s like every poem is about how do I fit into the contemporary. How do I find my agency in a sea of Starbucks and Uber apps and Apple products? (The DeLilloification of verse?) Or, can I find the meaning of life in a quaint relationship I had with a mildly eccentric friend?

There’s probably an element of jealousy here. I feel like saying, I want to write about the universe, gods and demons, love and death, darkness and art, time’s impermanence. I stress over every bloody word I put down on paper. And you’re getting paid for prosing about drinking tea in a cafe in the afternoon. 

I’m going to stop there before I crystallise into an English professor at a dusty 19th century boarding school, the unseen villain of Dead Poets Society.