Under this title, James Lloyd Davis recently asked a bunch of interesting questions in a post at Fictionaut, pointing out that some of the biggest names in American fiction yesterday and today are hard core recluses — like J D Salinger, Thomas Pynchon or Cormac McCarthy:
«How reclusive are you? How important is that place of peaceful contemplation, that solitude, in your own practice of writing? Is a reclusive nature the basis for what makes a good writer … or is it an aberration?»
I responded at length, as I’m inclined to do when I’m fired up by an argument — coincidentally (constant readers of this blog may have noticed the E.M.Forster quotes popping up everywhere) I’d just re-read Forster’s “Aspects of the Novel“, which informed my reply more than anything else. I said:
I just re-read E.M. Forster’s ‘Aspects of the Novel’ (1927) for the 50th time or so. He distinguishes writers who are into FANTASY (—not the modern genre, but writing informed, say, by mythology, strange connections, the supernatural, throwing us off balance) from those focused on PROPHECY (writers for whom the extension of characters and plot dominates the work without turning into preaching: writing “like song”, he says, not talk.)
Forster puts JAMES JOYCE in the FANTASY category (esp with Ulysses—Finnegans wake, which is even stronger in this way, hadn’t been published yet). While DOSTOEVSKY for him is a true prophet (not a preacher), as is MELVILLE.
I’m saying all that because, when you look at dimensions like fantasy/prophecy (and i do strongly suggest you take a look at Forster’s book – it’s little – if you don’t know it yet, no matter if you’re a flash/short story writer or a genre/hack writer — Melville as a prophetic writer comes through in the short story “Billy Budd” as strongly if not more so than in “Moby Dick”), then the dimension “published/not published” (or public figure/recluse) seems rather pale and wan.
Pynchon, Salinger, McCarthy — incidentally they’re all brilliant FANTASY writers (with Forster) — as relative recluses from the world (as you pointed out, they are withdrawn celebrities rather than forgotten hermit geniuses) they’re only turning their back to the hubbub and refuse to be dancing bears in the circus of commerce & media. They prefer to keep us in the dark about the size of their genitals and their hemorrhoids, thank god, but I doubt that this shyness is anywhere near the centre of their art.
[In fact, I suggest all of them are too much in love with words, and that is with themselves]
Melville would have loved more publicity and publication; Dostoevsky was hungry for it all his life & died a happy man because he did get it in the end; … and do I need to talk about Dickens (who started all the media tohubohu acc to Jane Smiley)…he couldn’t get enough of the crowd. Henry James: tried hard (with his plays) to suckle at the public tit (but without success)…and on and on it goes.
So —in response to your last question, I should say it’s not relevant, though of course, to the individual writer – you, me (and I am struggling with that issue), many people here – how withdrawn you need to be or want to be while you create is of utmost importance.
As I’ve said elsewhere I believe it’s inhumane to ask from us to be publishers, internet gurus, bloggers, tweeters, facebookians, Google+ians … and more … and all of it at a high, professional level of sophistication and and energy — and ALSO write well (in German our word for it is “Eierlegende Wollmilchsau” — meaning a sow who lays eggs, gives milk and provides wool). I don’t know anyone who can do all that and also writes something I like to read. Personally, therefore, I’m currently opting for relative recluse.
Which is why there’s only going to be the weekly (or so) sample story, an occasional blog post like this one (when I’m all written out otherwise), a self-serving tweet or facebook wall post here and there…a decision I’m very happy with though I keep looking over my shoulder if my own attention-grabbing shadow is following me or not…but what John Gardner (in: “On Becoming A Novelist“) says about bad writing habits and bad first publications is also true for other habits, I think:
«It’s hard to live down one’s shoddy publications, and it’s hard to scrap cheap techniques once they’ve worked. It’s like trying to stop cheating at marriage or golf.»
Take a look at the other voices from Fictionaut members here.
Update: the following quote may help with the confusion that some readers had with Forster’s terminology of “FANTASY” (not the genre) and “PROPHECY” (not religious); this quote from a summary at Story Insight paraphrases Forster’s words and might lift some of the fog:
“Prophecy is an accent in the novelist’s voice. His theme is the universe, or something universal. The characters and events still have a specific meaning within the story, but they also have greater resonances. In Dostoyevsky the characters and situations always stand for more than themselves; infinity attends them.
This is different from symbolism, in which characters and events represent concrete meanings. Rather prophecy is about mysterious, imprecise meanings which connect us with the history of humankind. It is not a veil, it is not an allegory. It is the ordinary world of fiction, but it reaches back. Melville — after the initial roughness of his realism — reaches straight back into the universal, to a blackness and sadness so transcending our own that they are undistinguishable from glory.”
Now, John Gardner (without using the word ‘prophecy’), who’ll be next week’s guru on this site, uses a very similar argument as Forster to characterize what he calls the “true or highest form of novelist”. Forster is a little more tolerant and since he’s British you’d never know where he’s coming from anyway…