WHEN DID WRITING STOP HAVING TO DO WITH WRITING?
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
When did writing stop having to do with writing? Of the many attempts to communalize literature, none is more dangerous than the sway of the current ideology: the consensus, and consciousness, that writing has nothing to do with writing. You will hear readers talk about “plot” (in other words, life). You will hear them talk about the “author.” But writing? Writing has nothing to do with writing. No one cares whether a book is well-written anymore.
* * * * *
Mark Z. Danielewski is not very much interested in language. He cares more about graphics than he does about glyphs. No words live in his House of Leaves. It is a house of pictures, not of words. It is a house in which words only exist as blocks of physical imagery.
Allow me to cite a few not unrepresentative sentences/fragments from House of Leaves:
1.) “A hooker in silver slippers quickened by me” . Danielewski, scholar, thinks that “to quicken” means “to move quickly.”
2.) “Regrettably, Tom fails to stop at a sip” . I convulse in agony as I read this sentence.
3.) “Pretentious,” too often, is American for “intelligent.” It is a word that is often misapplied. However, in the case of House of Leaves, it must be said that Danielewski uses German pretentiously. In a book that is littered with scraps of the German language, shouldn’t that language be used properly? “der absoluten Zerissenheit” [sic; 404 and elsewhere — a Heideggerean citation] should read “die absolute Zerissenheit“–the genitive is never earned. “unheimliche vorklaenger” [sic; 387] should read “unheimliche Vorklänge” and does not mean “ghostly anticipation.” Whenever Danielewski quotes the German, he is being pretentious–that is, he is pretending to know things of which he knows nothing.
It is impossible to escape the impression that Mark Z. Danielewski does not want to be read. Noli me legere = “Do not read me.” The House of Leaves is a book at which to be looked, not one that is to be read. Its sprawling typographies and fonts distract the reader from the impoverished prose.
Words are reduced to images, to pictures.
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When did writing stop having to do with writing? When novels became precursors to screenplays. With the rise of mainstream cinema came the denigration of literature. The visual overthrew the verbal. Around the same time, imaginative prose began to be dumbed well down. There are two infantile reductions at work, both of which are visible in House of Leaves: a dumbing-down of language and an accent on the optical (as opposed to the verbal).
Such infantile reductions are everywhere in evidence whenever one picks up a contemporary American novel. We can thank America for the coronation of the idiot and for an all-embracing literary conformism. Even stronger writers, these days, morosely submit to the prevailing consolidation of a single “literary style.” A style that, of course, is no style at all. And these same writers, listlessly and lifelessly, affirm in reciprocal agreement that the construction of a well-wrought sentence isn’t something worth spending time on. Or blood.
How self-complacent American writers have become! The same country that produced Herman Melville, William Faulkner, and Saul Bellow has given birth to Mark Z. Danielewski. Nothing is more hostile to art than a culture of complacency.
There was, I’m sure, something very refreshing about Charles Bukowski in the 1970s, when the vestiges of a literary academism still existed. Mr. Bukowski, I am assuming, would be dismayed to uncover the kindergarten of illiterate “literati” to which he has illegitimately given birth. His dauphin, Mark Z. Danielewski.
Weaker students of literature might feel invigorated by the Church of Literary Infantilism, yet even they know that the clergy engenders nothing sacred or profane. This explains their virulent defensiveness when anyone, such as myself, dares to write well or explore another writer’s engagement with language. “Writing doesn’t matter,” you see. They have never luxuriated in the waters of language; they have never inhabited a world of words. Words don’t interest them; people do. And literary discussions have degenerated to the level of a bluestockinged Tupperware party. If you like the main character, the book is “good.” If a book is warm and friendly, that book is “good.” If a book reassures you that you are not a slavering imbecile–that is to say, if you can write better than the book’s “author”–that book is “good.” If a book disquiets you or provokes any kind of thought whatsoever, that book is “bad.” If a book has an unsympathetic main character, that book is “bad.” If a book is difficult to understand, that book is “bad,” and so forth and so on. Whatever exceeds the low, low, low standards of the average readership, in a word, is blithely dismissed as “bad.”
Things grow even more frightening when we consider the following: These unlettered readers are quickly transforming into writers. That would be fine if they knew how to write. And if the movements of language were valued, culturally and humanly, their noxious spewings would find no foothold. The literature of challenge has been supplanted by the litter of the mob, with all of its mumbling solecisms and false enchantments. The problem with mobs, let us remind ourselves, is that they efface distinctions. They do everything in their power to make the distinguished undistinguished. And so instead of James Joyce, we have bar-brawling beefheads (e.g. Chuck Palahniuk), simian troglodytes (e.g. Henry Rollins), and graphic designers / typographists (e.g. Mark Z. Danielewski).
Instead of poeticisms, we have grunts. We have pictures. We have graphic design and cinema.
* * * * *
Someone said to me: “I am a good writer, but I don’t know how to spell.”
Someone said to me: “No writer is better than any other.”
* * * * *
America is responsible for the production of more linguistic pig **** than any other country in the world. There is absolutely nothing surprising about this statement. After all, America is the only country that celebrates stupidity as a virtue. How could things be otherwise?
At the poisonous end of the democratization process, which is indistinguishable from the process of vulgarization, every jackass on the street sees himself as an “author.” His brother, his grandmother, and his step-uncle: they, too, regard themselves as “authors.” After all, they think–inasmuch as they are capable of thinking–“Writing has nothing to do with writing. If Mark Z. Danielewski can be published, so can I!” (Yes, their desire is “to be published,” as if their lives would be inscribed on the page, disseminated, filmed, and thus rendered meaningful.) We live in an age of all-englobing and infinitely multiplying cyber-technologies, where stammering imbeciles mass-replicate their infantile scribbles, but let us not deceive ourselves: If a “writer” is simply one who writes, then they are writers; however, one should reserve the word “author” only for those who are profoundly committed to the craft of verbal composition.
* * * * *
Judging from a purely technical point of view, House of Leaves is consistently faulty, fraught with excruciating Hallmark banalities and galling linguistic errors. Hipster Mark Z. Danielewski is seemingly incapable of composing a single striking or insightful sentence. It astonishes me that anyone ever considered his tinker-toy bromides to be publishable. The House of Leaves is a house that is neither well-appointed nor ill-appointed. It is simply not appointed at all.
* * * * *
Who cares about language anymore? No one in America even questions the assumption that good writing does not matter. And this assumption is no longer limited to America–a horrific logophobia is spreading throughout the globe. The impetuses that motivate this tsunami of “literary” vomit are the following ideological assumptions: The fallacy that 1.) everyone is entitled to be an author (this is a particularly nasty perversion of the democratic principle) and that 2.) the visible improves on the verbal. American letters have been reduced to the gibbering and jabbering of semiliterate simpletons, driveling half-wits, and slack-jawed middlebrows. It’s only a matter of time before the English stop caring about language, as well.
When you live in a culture of complacency, a culture of appeasement, a hypocritical culture that assures you that you write well even if you don’t, there is only one way out. There is nothing for the strong and serious student of literature to do but to write for himself, to write for herself, for his or her own sake.
An Analysis of Only Revolutions (Mark Z. Danielewski) by Joseph Suglia
The mystery of all mysteries surrounds Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions (2006): Someone actually thought that this endless circuit of gibberish qualified for the National Book Award. And it is an endless circuit, literally. Columns of words loop and spiral, making the text all but unintelligible. We have two narratives–though the book does eschew traditional narrative, as if there were something revolutionary about doing so in 2006–that of Sam and that of Hailey, both of whom are perpetually sixteen. If you look at the bottom of the page while reading Sam’s narrative, there you will find Hailey’s upside down. The size of Sam’s text dwindles as it progresses (from 22 November 1863 to 22 November 1963), gradually dwarfed by Hailey’s. Turn the book around 180 degrees and start at the back, and you can read all about Hailey, from 22 November 1963 (the pivot of the book, the day of Kennedy’s assassination) to 22 November 2063. History is circular, don’t you know! The book’s one motif is the stupidity of circularity.
Despite Danielewski’s transparent desire to be innovative, there is nothing new here. It really is stunning how stale the book is rendered. The huge “S” with which Sam’s narrative begins was stolen wholesale from Ulysses, the characters Sam and Hailey are openly imitative of Shem and Shaun (the famous brothers of Finnegans Wake), the typographical tics recall Derrida’s Glas and La dissémination, and the wordage sounds a bit like the driveling gobbledygook of an ill-read high-school stoner who just finished leafing his way inattentively through both Finnegans Wake and Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Vaguely resemblant of a designer Joyce-Made-EZ, Only Revolutions is enslaved to its precursors. Whereas Joyce creates worlds with words, however, Danielewski seems fearful of language and its literary capabilities. There is a kind of aggression toward language here, a certain virulent logophobia. It is a book not to be read–though I have read every silly, jingling phrase–but to be looked at.
How bad is the writing? At his very best, Danielewski recalls Shakespeare at his very worst. At his worst, he is singsongy, spewing forth nonsensical nursery rhymes that emerge from the page like sulphurous flames issuing from some mephitic kindergarten in Hell, as if the writer regarded Finnegans Wake as a collection of limp, wince-inducing doggerel, as if the book were his ill-conceived idea of a “found poem”–the “found” part being the sort of dribbling babble found at the bottom of e-mails in order to fool SPAM filters–or his deeply unfortunate, private misinterpretation of Brion Gysin’s “cut-up” method or of surrealist automatism. To say that Danielewski’s versification has little concern for elegance or expansiveness would be to say too little. When, for instance, he writes phrases and sentences such as “I outrace furry. Populate worry” [H 24]; “All of it too with puddles of goo, sog and drool” [H 43]; “Concerning her poverty, I resort to generosity” [S 9]; “I’m the heist. The impersonal price” [H 13]; “Slump. Plop. Awshucking dump” [S 83]; “Sam takes the lumps. And The Pumps” [H 55]; “Only capless Sam ups for horny, ogling my feet” [H 53]; “Sam spurts his mess. All over my chest” [H 59], you feel that it is really the result of indifference or laziness, as if jangle and flash were more important to the man than the explosive possibilities inherent to literary language.
By this, I do not mean to suggest that Danielewski’s language is too difficult–far from it. His banter is not so much “difficult” as it is sterile and vacant of meaning.
It is impossible to do justice to this book without discussing another gimmick in its typographical design. This is because the book IS its typographical design. Danielewski the Graphic Designer highlights every “O” in the book with a golden hue, as if the letter were globally hyperlinked. This not an insignificant matter. The internet impresses itself upon every page of Only Revolutions. And in the final analysis, the flashy fonts and sprawling typographies are nothing more than glitzy Web design, counter-linguistic ruses distracting readers from the impoverishment of the book’s verbal properties. But as some of us know, the pyrotechnics of typography and font are no substitute for writing with vividness and grace.
ANALOGY BLINDNESS by Joseph Suglia
Over the years, I have invented a number of words and phrases. Genocide pornography is one that I am especially proud of (cf. my essays on Quentin Tarantino); anthropophagophobia is another word that I coined, which means “the fear of cannibalism” (cf. my interpretation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It). I would like to introduce to the world (also known as Google) a new linguistic term:
analogy blindness (noun phrase): the inability to perceive what an analogy represents. To be lost in the figure of an analogy itself, while losing sight of the concept that the analogy describes.
The Analogist: Polygamy is like going to a buffet instead of a single-serve restaurant. Both are inadvisable.
The Person Who Is Blind to the Analogy: People love buffets!
The Analogist: Being taught how to write by Chuck Palahniuk is like being taught how to play football by a one-legged man.
The Person Who Is Blind to the Analogy: A one-legged man who knows how to coach football? That’s great!
The Analogist: You should not have reprimanded her in such a rude manner for taking time off from work. You treated her as if she were guilty of some terrible offense, such as plagiarism.
The Person Who Is Blind to the Analogy: But plagiarism is bad!
Derived from Hui-neng: When the wise person points at the Moon, the imbecile sees the finger.
An Analysis of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia
I have written it before, and I will write it again: Writing fictionally was not one of David Foster Wallace’s gifts. His métier was, perhaps, mathematics. David Foster Wallace was a talented theorist of mathematics, it is possible (I am unqualified to judge one’s talents in the field of mathematics), but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions (I am qualified to judge one’s talents in the field of literature).
Wallace’s essay aggregate A Supposedly Fun Thing that I Will Never Do Again (1997) is worth reading, if one is an undiscriminating reader, but it also contains a number of vexing difficulties that should be addressed. I will focus here upon the two essays to which I was most attracted: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a conspectus on the director’s cinema from Eraserhead (1977) until Lost Highway (1997). Wallace seems unaware of Lynch’s work before 1977.
In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace warmly defends the Glass Teat in the way that only an American can. He sees very little wrong with television, other than the fact that it can become, in his words, a “malignant addiction,” which does not imply, as Wallace takes pains to remind us, that it is “evil” or “hypnotizing” (38). Perish the thought!
Wallace exhorts American writers to watch television. Not merely should those who write WATCH television, Wallace contends; they should ABSORB television. Here is Wallace’s inaugural argument (I will attempt to imitate his prose):
1.) Writers of fiction are creepy oglers.
2.) Television allows creepy, ogling fiction writers to spy on Americans and draw material from what they see.
3.) Americans who appear on television know that they are being seen, so this is scopophilia, but not voyeurism in the classical sense. [Apparently, one is spying on average Americans when one watches actors and actresses on American television.]
4.) For this reason, writers can spy without feeling uncomfortable and without feeling that what they’re doing is morally problematic.
Wallace: “If we want to know what American normality is – i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television… [W]riters can have faith in television” (22).
“Trust what is familiar!” in other words. “Embrace what is in front of you!” to paraphrase. Most contemporary American writers grew up in the lambent glow of the cathode-ray tube, and in their sentences the reader can hear the jangle and buzz of television. David Foster Wallace was wrong. No, writers should NOT trust television. No, they should NOT have faith in the televisual eye, the eye that is seen but does not see. The language of television has long since colonized the minds of contemporary American writers, which is likely why David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, and Jonathan Safran Foer cannot focus on a single point for more than a paragraph, why Thomas Pynchon’s clownish, jokey dialogue sounds as if it were culled from Gilligan’s Island, and why Don DeLillo’s portentous, pathos-glutted dialogue sounds as if it were siphoned from Dragnet.
There are scattershot arguments here, the most salient one being that postmodern fiction canalizes televisual waste. That is my phrasing, not Wallace’s. Wallace writes, simply and benevolently, that television and postmodern fiction “share roots” (65). He appears to be suggesting that they both sprang up at exactly the same time. They did not, of course. One cannot accept Wallace’s argument without qualification. To revise his thesis: Postmodern fiction–in particular, the writings of Leyner, DeLillo, Pynchon, Barth, Apple, Barthelme, and David Foster Wallace–is inconceivable outside of a relation to television. But what would the ontogenesis of postmodern fiction matter, given that these fictions are anemic, execrably written, sickeningly smarmy, cloyingly self-conscious, and/or forgettable?
It did matter to Wallace, since he was a postmodernist fictionist. Let me enlarge an earlier statement. Wallace is suggesting (this is my interpretation of his words): “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!” The first pose is that of a hipster; the second pose is that of the Deluded Consumer. It would be otiose to claim that Wallace was not a hipster, when we are (mis)treated by so many hipsterisms, such as: “So then why do I get the in-joke? Because I, the viewer, outside the glass with the rest of the Audience, am IN on the in-joke” (32). Or, in a paragraph in which he nods fraternally to the “campus hipsters” (76) who read him and read (past tense) Leyner: “We can resolve the problem [of being trapped in the televisual aura] by celebrating it. Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst [sic] by genuflecting to them. We can be reverently ironic” (Ibid.). Again, he appears to be implying: “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!” That is your false dilemma. If you want others to think that you are special (every hipster’s secret desire), watch television with a REVERENT IRONY. Wallace’s hipper-than-thou sanctimoniousness is smeared over every page.
Now let me turn to the Lynch essay, the strongest in the collection. There are several insightful remarks here, particularly Wallace’s observation that Lynch’s cinema has a “clear relation” (197) to Abstract Expressionism and the cinema of German Expressionism. There are some serious weaknesses and imprecisions, as well.
Wallace: “Except now for Richard Pryor, has there ever been even like ONE black person in a David Lynch movie? … I.e. why are Lynch’s movies all so white? … The likely answer is that Lynch’s movies are essentially apolitical” (189).
To write that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is to display one’s ignorance. The truth is that at least one African-American appeared in the Lynchian universe before Lost Highway: Gregg Dandridge, who is very much an African-American, played Bobbie Ray Lemon in Wild at Heart (1990). Did Wallace never see this film? How could Wallace have forgotten the opening cataclysm, the cataclysmic opening of Wild at Heart? Who could forget Sailor Ripley slamming Bobbie Ray Lemon’s head against a staircase railing and then against a floor until his head bursts, splattering like a splitting pomegranate?
To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is to display one’s innocence. No work of art is apolitical, because all art is political. How could Wallace have missed Lynch’s heartlandish downhomeness? How could he have failed to notice Lynch’s repulsed fascination with the muck and the slime, with the louche underworld that lies beneath the well-trimmed lawns that line Lynch’s suburban streets? And how could he have failed to draw a political conclusion, a political inference, from this repulsed fascination, from this fascinated repulsion?
Let me commend these essays to the undiscriminating reader, as unconvincing as they are. Everything collected here is nothing if not badly written, especially “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a hipsterish pamphlet about Midwestern state fairs that would not have existed were it not for David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), both the film and the book. It is my hope that David Foster Wallace will someday be remembered as the talented mathematician he perhaps was and not as the brilliant fictioneer he certainly was not.