Saturday, May 31, 2008

Why do we write what we write?

I mentioned that famous Philip Roth quote the other day about writers not being able to contend with the crazy reality of the times. John W. Aldridge, writing about Catch 22 in 1986, has an interesting take on this:
Mr. Roth was, of course, writing out of an era that was particularly notable for unbelievable and often quite repellent happenings. There had been the fiascoes of the Eisenhower Presidency, the costly Korean War, the sordid inquisitions of the McCarthy era, the Rosenberg executions, the Nixon-Kennedy debates. But then, Mr. Heller was writing out of the same era, and what makes Mr. Roth's essay historically interesting is that nowhere in it does he show an awareness or even imagine the possibility that the effort to come to terms with the unreality of the American reality might already have begun to be made by such writers as William Gaddis and John Barth, whose first works had been published by 1961, and would continue to be made by Thomas Pynchon, whose V came out two years later, as well as by Joseph Heller in Catch-22.
These writers were all, in their different ways, seeking to create a fiction that would assimilate the difficulties Mr. Roth described. And they achieved this by creating an essentially new kind of fiction that represented an abdication of traditional realism - a form rendered mostly ineffectual because of those very difficulties - and that made use of the techniques of black humor, surrealism and grotesque metaphor to dramatize unreality, most often by making it seem even more unreal than it actually was.

This is an area which fascinates me. Is there a similar movement today? The writers Aldridge is referring to reacted against the culture of the time and the literature of the time. They were, essentially, post-modernists reacting against the stuffy, academic modernism which had prevailed. And they were reacting against a world which appeared to be going quickly insane.

In this way, they became an integral part of the counter-culture which prevailed in the 1960s. Where is today's counter-culture? Is there a literary movement at the forefront of changing people's perceptions? McSweeneys? Really? Fatuous smugness? Or the Cormac McCarthy inspired legion of post-apocalyptarians? But hiding in the future is no way to contend with the present. What else? What typifies today's literature? What coherent stand is it taking? What is it telling us about our own culture?

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