Thursday, December 14, 2017
A while back, Jason Guriel wrote a grumpy article – his specialty – for The Walrus that castigated other essayists for inserting their own lives into the mix of whatever theme or argument they were trying to outline. A few days ago, he followed up, in kind, with another ‘rule-breaker’, this time an admonition to stear clear of the writing mill injunction to “read widely”. His previous piece had some initial merit. What reader, after all, hasn’t felt irritated after segueing in a few short paragraphs about – say – immigrants’ struggles to adjust to lateral poverty in their new countries – with the addition of language difficulties and confusion – to struggles in the author’s own life as a literary newbie trying to engage socially at a poetry reading? Trouble is, Guriel frequently takes a promising issue, sets up his own misrepresentations like tenpins three feet from the bowler, and smashes them without having to worry too much about aim. He argued against the critic’s attempt at street cred by way of personal anecdote tied to the book, movie, or CD that the review supposedly highlighted. But Guriel’s ‘proof’ weighed heavily on examples from the online world of rock crit and celebrity gossip. Rock crit, by nature, is subjective, often lighthearted, light on literary concentration, tonally hyperbolic, and personality-driven. Usually, readers prefer this approach to popular entertainment. But Guriel tries to plane off-the-cuff concert reviews onto the literary stage, with disastrously inappropriate results. Quoting Woolf, or even dragging in Pauline Kael and Dorothy Parker, means nothing when the object of ridicule is a reviewer of Celine Dion. Besides, there’ve always been narcissistic reviewers of pop culture. Teh interwebz, of course, has accelerated this, and has made it more accessible, but, against Guriel’s contention, nothing fundamental has changed. Music mags and newspaper box weeklies from yesteryear also featured self-promoting reviewers displaying their epiphanies when playing Grand Funk Railroad under the auspices of speckled black lights and lysergic acid. That’s why the venues in which their thoughts were splashed were called “rags”. You’d leave them on the bus after skimming the reviews for a laugh.
The new essay doesn’t even have a legitimate starter. “Read widely” is belittled even though Guriel is unsure of what it means. That doesn’t stop his assumptions (and resulting rebuffs), though. His modus operandi is to use very little evidence on which to peg his argument, and what evidence is used is conveniently suspect, if not, as here, ridiculous. To wit: novelist and critic Aleksandar Hemon is chided for a tweet (yes, Guriel’s entire argument is based, directly, from one tweet), in which the “hapless omnivore” (Guriel’s words), reads (in Hemon’s words) “compulsively – preferably a book of my choice, but anything would do. I’ve read, with great interest, nutritional information on cereal boxes. I regularly read wedding announcements in The New York Times.” Well, as Guriel himself wrote in an essay from his The Pigheaded Soul, “who doesn’t hate that guy?” When writers advise other writers to “read widely”, they don’t often mean to “read indiscriminately”. Also, to read widely doesn’t mean to “read everything”, as the unfortunate essay title has it. I realize that Guriel probably isn’t responsible for that click-bait enticer, but he does angle toward that hyperbolic end-point of the continuum when quoting Hemon, and when naming disparate authors later in the essay. Total assumption on my part, here, but most “read widely” advisors are probably aware that doing so still means only a waft of possible depth and breadth in the reader’s variety of literary experience contrasted to what has been recorded in the archived repository of words. But that seems an even greater argument for wide reading, to break open a window or two even though it means only seeing an extra meadow on Earth in a universe whose spatial possibilities we can’t comprehend. And isn’t it ironic that two of the “read widely” authors Guriel mentions – Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King – are literary genre and hard niche genre writers, respectively? Obsessive authors – the kind Guriel prefers – have read widely for many reasons which have later helped their vision and craft: to find out what has been done so as not to repeat the process, thereby becoming DOA; to find out what one (usually an author in her or his early ‘career’ stage) likes/dislikes or is good/bad at; to gain information out of simple curiosity, as well as for informally targetted research purposes; to take on different styles for possible use in their own writing. To this last point: Guriel is wrong about the uselessness of exploring different styles, as if this was a waste of time, or worse, a confusing avenue of approach. Would Joyce’s Ulysses have been possible if he’d been a hedgehog instead of a fox? How about Robert Lowell’s career arc? One might think of Emily Dickinson as narrowly focussed, but she was a wide-ranging, voracious reader, exploring many movements and genres. This is the further irritation in Guriel’s insistence on narrow (narrow-minded?) obsession as against diversity and expansion: an author doesn’t decide one way or another. There are great writers who’ve had a fairly limited range of background reading, but (and I don’t include farm manuals or billboards here) most authors of any renown have been plugged into a wide range of material for its own sake. “Read widely” is advice I used to give aspiring writers, as well. (Notice how I insinuated myself into this, which is, of course, a Guriel no-no?). But it’s pretty useless. Writers who are excited about writing are usually excited about reading, and variously so, whether the books involved are high or low, poetry or novels or non-fiction, comedy or tragedy, politics or kitchen-sink miniatures, history or fantasy. (There will always be preferences, and even, yes, obsessions, but that doesn't cancel out variety.) If you have to tell someone to read widely, or even to read at all, you’re probably telling them to take their cod liver oil.
An author can eventually burrow deeper into one or two areas more exclusively, of course. In fact, I agree somewhat with Guriel here. But then he goes off the rails again by his focus on one author at a time. Great advice for a biographer. Pretty stultifying for a creative writer.
(Guriel gets excited by Strunk- & White-like rules. I purposely included, above, the em-dashes and semi-colons because of this. I guess he hates Nathaniel Hawthorne’s prose, or indeed, just about any eighteenth-century novel. I even caught a mid-sentence "however" in Orhan Pamuk's latest masterpiece, and I'm only on page 99!)