Thursday, July 22, 2010

Where Have All the Good Books Gone?

"She thought of his face as it had been when they met; and watched it now. She thought of all they had discovered together and meant to each other, and of how many small lies had gone into the making of their one, particular truth: this love, which bound them to one another."

"She did not answer. She covered her forehead with her ringed left hand and stared into the dish of salted peanuts as though all the answers to all riddles were hidden there."

"The sky looked, now, like a vast and friendly ocean, in which drowning was forbidden, and the stars seemed stationed there, like beacons. To what country did this ocean lead? for oceans always led to some great good place: hence, sailors, missionaries, saints, and Americans."

Sometimes there's nothing like a perfect, underline-able sentence, to make you realize just how rare truly great prose actually is.

This past week, I've been devouring James Baldwin's
Another Country, a gorgeous novel about a group of friends struggling with their desires against the societally-proper structures for race, gender, and sexuality. It's been a long time since I read Baldwin; the last work of his I tackled was Giovanni's Room during a brief trip to Paris last fall. But it took only a few pages into Another Country for me to remember what a brilliant mind he had, and what a pleasure it is to read 400 pages of nothing less than flawless, sublimely beautiful prose.

When I was reading slush submissions for a literary magazine, I was told that a writer had a limited amount of space to convince you their story was worthy of publication. "At most," our managing editor told us at the time, "a person will browse through 2-3 pages in a bookstore before deciding whether or not they want to buy the book. For a short story, that's 2-3 paragraphs, max. So if you're not engaged in the story by the end of the first page, it's probably not ready for publication." This puts a lot of onus on the writer to make every sentence perfect: not a word wasted, each line a flawless composition, each paragraph a symphony of impeccably-performed notes. Supposedly, this is what it takes to get accepted for publication in this incredibly competitive marketplace...but of course, you have to then ask the question: if writing has to be perfectly economical and engaging to be worth publishing, then how do you explain all the dreck that stocks bookshelves today?

Let's be honest about the state of fiction: while there are a handful of good, inventive, often smart writers out there, there are very few writers legitimately worthy of the title "genius." Even those authors who've won coveted "genius" grants would still get knocked flat when put in a literary cagematch with
Baldwin. (The only book I can even bring to mind that comes close to this level of sentence-by-sentence excellence is Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, and that debuted over two years ago.) I'm a compulsive underliner of sentences, no matter what I'm reading, but I've found that even those recent titles I've adored fall far short of the excellence I'd find with someone like Baldwin. Compare these sentences:

"I sat in the stern, far away from my brother, and we headed north, hugging the shore, past realms of marsh grass and humps of pink granite, which in the hard red light of morning resembled corned beef hash."

"The heat and the noise began their destruction of nerves and sanity and private lives and love affairs. The air was full of baseball scores and bad new and treacly songs; and the streets and the bars were full of hostile people, made more hostile by the heat."

Guess which one is

To be fair,
Baldwin was writing, arguably, in a much more poetry-inspiring time than we are now. Everywhere he looked, people were stuck between the staid, slave-owning, racism-infused past (where they knew how to survive, if not flourish) and the more inclusive, less bigoted future (where there was no clearly defined path to success or happiness). Baldwin's prose, gorgeous yet fraught with anxiety, tackles the issues of the day with as much passion and intelligence as they deserved; ordinary sentences wouldn't do in a time of such enormous cultural commotion. His prose rose up to meet the epoch, and he didn't disappoint. The 1962 reviews of Another Country demonstrate how grand his position in literature was even at that time; the New York Times review by Paul Goodman said, "There is no doubt that this tenuous kind of involvement is in fact the daily experience of millions of people in our society, and they ought to have their Homer."

The prose in most literature today pales in comparison to
Baldwin, but perhaps this is because so few writers dare treat their novels as serious endeavors. What once was called passion now is deemed hyperbole; what would be called social engagement is called political fixation. In addition, publishers seem deathly afraid to take on any books that might prove more edification than entertainment. Sure, you could publish a serious work on the age we live in . . . but why do that when you've got a new dime-a-dozen thriller to pick up? For those of us who wish a bit more than just a cheap thrill and a speedy-read, it's the backlist of writers like Baldwin who will always be picking up the slack, naming the unnameable and throwing light into the dark corners contemporary writers would rather ignore.

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