"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." -- Leo Tolstoi
Later we'll talk about weak writing. In this space I usually talk politics. I complain about our leaders and the fact that they don't listen to me. Hell, they don't even call me.
But here is a different issue, and it is fundamentally important: literature. This art form helps shape civilization, and helps shape our society, and helps shape our concepts of good and evil, and our ideas of moraltiy, and our notions of cause and effect. Indeed, literature helps create our very concept of self.
Since literature is so important, I wonder why it has fallen on hard times. I am tired of seeing praise, in newspapers and magazines, for weak writing, for literature that doesn't fulfill its mission to enlighten us.
Recently (Oct. 21, 2010) I wrote a letter to the managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, in reaction to a book review of his:
Dear Davan Marahaj:
I was surprised when you wrote, in the Book Review Oct. 17, that the following line [from V.S. Naipaul] is famous and is from a masterpiece:
"The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it."
Of course the world is what it is. What else could it be? That is so obvious it is not worth mentioning. Indeed, it goes without saying. And many men in the world are nothing, because they lack the courage or motivation or family connections to become something.
Here, Naipaul is a keen observer of the obvious. The sentence is bland and boring and offers no insight into the world or into human nature.
So why is the line famous?
Of course, I have received no reply. I didn't expect one.
Now, let's compare the V.S. Naipaul line, the opening of "A Bend In The River," with the Tolstoi line above, the opening of "Anna Karenina." Tolstoi gives us some insight into human nature right off the bat. He tells us the truth, and probably a truth that we had not ourselves observed. So he fulfills the first mission of literature, to give us insight into ourselves.
The Tolstoi novel that follows this line is one of the great novels of modern civilization. Someone once asked William Faulkner what three novels one should read, to learn how to write novels. Faulkner, argubly our greatest American novelist, answered, "Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, and Anna Karenina."
Where are the great writers now? Where are the Tolstois and the Faulkners? I read widely and I don't find them.
What we get instead is praise, in a major American newspaper, for weak writing. I have also seen such praise in the New York Times and in The New Yorker, two of my favorite publications.
I don't think these editors are stupid.
So why do they do it? Has literature come to this?
Praise for weak writing is another form of crap.
Perhaps it is bearable, but it should not be.