How to Swim In A Sea of Shit
(published in early 2011 in an anthology in support of PEN Canada’s work, Finding the Words)
A famous writer wrote the last bit of the title you’ve just read and I’ve always wanted to quote him. When I first discovered the correspondence between Flaubert and Turgenev fifteen years ago, I laughed aloud at several lines. Every year or two, as the age-gap closes between myself and the writers, I flip through the book and find more to laugh about.
In Paris, on November 8th, 1872, Turgenev laments sympathetically: “It’s the boredom and disgust with all human activity; it’s nothing to do with politics, which after all is no more than a game; it’s the sadness of one’s fiftieth year. And that’s why I admire Mme Sand: such serenity, such simplicity, such an interest in everything, such goodness! If for that one has to be a bit over idealistic, democratic or even evangelising—by God!—let’s put up with such excesses . . .”
From Croisset, on November 13, Flaubert responds: “Thank you for your encouragement! But alas, I fear that my sickness is incurable. Apart from personal sources of grief, the state of society is crushing me. It may be stupid. But there you are. I am overwhelmed by public Stupidity. Since 1870, I’ve been a patriot. Seeing my country die has made me realize that I love it. Prussia may dismantle her guns. We don’t need her to bring about our demise.
“The bourgeoisie is so stunned that it no longer even has the instinct of self-preservation; and what will follow will be worse! . . . I feel a wave of relentless Barbarism rising up from below the ground. I hope to be dead before all is swept away. But in the meantime, it is no joke. Never have affairs of the mind counted for less. Never have hatred of everything that is great, contempt for all that is beautiful, abhorrence for literature been so manifest.
“I have always tried to live in an ivory tower; but a sea of shit is beating up against its walls, enough to bring it down. It’s not a question of politics, but of the mentality prevalent in France . . . I can no longer talk with anyone without getting angry; and all the contemporary writing I read makes me wild. A fine state of affairs!—all of which doesn’t stop me planning a book in which I shall try to spit out my rancour. I am not admitting defeat, as you see. If I didn’t work there would be nothing for it but to throw myself in to the river with a stone round my neck . . .
“. . . then [in December] I hope to pay you a visit. In the meantime, try to bear your gout, poor dear friend; and believe that I love you.”
Must I say more? Isn’t it enough, really, to quote these two?
Alas, no. One hundred and thirty five years later, the metaphorical sea of shit (accompanied by a literal ocean full of oil, thanks to BP) is more expansive and oppressive than ever. To make matters worse, today’s humble writer has no ivory tower. We are plugged in, connected, blasted with the same tidal wave of crap that everyone else has to deal with. The last straw was the bloody iPad. I just figured out how to use my cellphone. The BlackBerry? The iPhone? Do I want to write and read emails all the time? No, I do not. I am inundated with them, suffocating in apps, entangled in online petitions and Facebook, not waving but drowning in a mass of language from which there is no escape. There is no escape. If I go for three days without checking email, people consider calling 911 or think I despise them. Or choose someone else to do the job. The world has become fast and full of appointments, while the writer remains slow, best suited to ambling, fermentation, and unscheduled adventures into unexpected territory.
How nice it would have been to be Turgenev, even with the gout, and receive wonderful letters from Flaubert. I remember letters. I used to write them, five, ten, twenty page letters, hundreds of them over a twenty year period. Another age, obviously. I wish people would stop calling me a young writer. I wrote letters. On paper. With a pen. Daily. Ergo, I cannot be a young writer. I am a relic! Ah, Turgenev, despite your unhappiness in love—something you shared with your French friend--how pleasant to settle down daily to work on your latest book, with a few servants around to bring in your lunch and your afternoon coffee.
What would it be like to know that I was working in a fresh, elastic, powerful form of literature, le grand roman, the novel? Instead of being where I presently am, harried by a hundred emails at the end of an era, wondering what literature will look like when I enter my fifties, with publishers severely diminished and book reviews a thing of the distant past. I will be too old to do acrobatics or walk a tightrope for any book launch I might have in my fifties. Perhaps book launches won’t exist in a decade—or books. There will be (and already are) booksellers who print out certain texts on demand, or source out-of-print editions from enormous underground warehouses full of rodent poison to protect the aging and bizarrely ephemeral stock. We will be able to order any book we want on the iPad for a dollar, or probably less, seeing as Apple and Kindle are already giving several thousand of them away for free.
Hmm. With thoughts like these, why the fuck do I want to write another novel?
I grew up under the impression that books mattered deeply. I grew up believing that the novel was a powerful act of creation; that books could change people’s lives; that a brilliant novel, especially if it was brave enough to wade into politics, could constitute a kind of action, be a form of intervention, like the writings of Voltaire, Zola, Rizal, Camus. Or, for that matter, Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller, Betty Friedan, Audre Lorde, Susan Griffin. Both distant and recent past is rich with the brave works and the brave acts of writers whose words influenced not only the reading public but also the political forces of their times. I believed in all of them, growing up.
I admit there was some transference going on. I was raised as a fundamentalist Christian, so my original sense of words was, well, you know, The Word. The Most Important Book came directly from Him. When I broke up with Him in puberty, I had to put all that devotion somewhere. I poured it into books and writers.
But in our post-industrial, language-saturated, compassion-fatigued world, am I out of my mind to still believe that the creation and artefact of the novel still matters? And am I a traitor to the cause when I doubt the relevance of both novel and novelist? What loaded questions! And what a load to place on the venerable novel’s old back, not to mention the novelist’s, who already has enough chiropractic and massage therapy bills after sitting at a computer five, six, eight, ten hours a day.
Despite all that onerous sitting (and emailing), the novelist of today rarely possesses the kind of transformative power I’m talking about, either in the act of creating or in the resonance his or her work has in the wider world. Sometimes this is not the novelist’s fault. The writer spends two years, or four, or ten, walking back and forth on live coals in the service of the Important Novel, the big truth-telling novel. Finally the novel is published—given over to the world, a gift, even an act of witness, or a call to arms. Not that many writers bother trying to write this kind of book; irony or poetics usually get in the way.
Anyway, the new-born book rises up on the media wave. There is a squall of interviews, a flurry of reviews, opinions. Then the wave is cresting, now it curls over, the beloved novel carried with it--mais non!--the wave topples into a deep dark trough, and the novel sinks into . . . the sea of shit.
Not even Flaubert could have imagined it. This is a new sea, never before experienced in the history of human culture. The beloved book--repository of wisdom, experience, craft—is sucked down into a competitive whirlpool of mass media: the iPad, movies, DVD’s for sale and rent; advertising (images with their demands and their promises), video game obsessions, cell-phone addictions, 24-hour news channels, lifestyle shows, reality TV, and that great lethal octopus the Internet, that sucks in human minds and human hours, wraps powerful tentacles around the imagination, and squeezes it dry, paradoxically, by pumping it full of too much information.
If you disbelieve the power of these new media, then you are either a technophobe or more out of touch than I am. Or you are without teenage sons and daughters. And if you think I describe only a sad North American mania, think again. The last time I was in Paris, a couple of years ago, I read an article that made me feel je ne sais quoi: sick to my stomach? depressed? as furious as Flaubert? A major poll of lycees across the country asked students to suggest the most desirable and important professions. How did the young citizens of the republic answer? Rock star, movie star, T.V. personality. Doctors and writers didn’t even make it into the top five. Tant pis.
In one hundred years, we will all be dead. Will our children’s children, or their children, read books in the next century? If they are already not reading them, if they are already losing or have lost the habit of mind that makes ample space and time for the Novel, how can the form be a force that influences the world of the real and touches people’s minds?
I do not know.
This lack of knowing, this growing hesitation to judge, is partly what makes me a writer. I write in order to know, to learn, to experience not only my own life more deeply, but to enter imaginatively into the lives of others. To be uncertain about my power as a writer is perhaps a willed state. If I knew in advance that my work was going to create a certain effect, I would be a rock star. Or a T.V. personality. Not an artist.
To not know is also a way to hold on to the possibility that, against all the evidence to the contrary, it is important that I write another novel. Any other book, for that matter, in any genre. And this essay. Important not just to myself but to this plant-animal-human world. I say plant-animal-human world because, as we continue to desecrate the planet, to destroy land and poison water, and perhaps to drive our own and definitely other species to extinction, it will become a writerly responsibility to bear witness to that violence. Not enough of us are doing this yet, but I believe we will. I believe we will have no choice. Paradoxically, the novel will be reinvigorated by destruction. And it will cease to be a territory reserved for human life.
See? This archaic fundamentalism is hard to get rid of. In a way, as already mentioned, I can trace it all back to God. I can’t give up the faith. I cannot help believing in the novel, poor old thing. The humble bound book, a technology so slow that it doesn’t even move. Nor possess a single megabyte. But it is the longest memory we have. I cannot help imagining that the novel will continue to grow and respond to the contortions of the future, and that people will respond to it, in ways we cannot know. The novel is a force for truth—the subjective, vital, complex truth of the individual, the truth that changes clothes, the truth with two eyes, one brown, one blue, the embodied truth of narrative. It is not just this happened, then this, then this happened after that, but narrative as the essence of human experience. This distillation produces an alchemic liquid similar to blood: that which is invisible but flows everywhere under and even through the surface, enlivening the body of human history,by revealing it to be more than a chronicle of wars and great men and their empires. The Novel is the ultimate alternative history of the world. .
That is why I have ignored email and the Internet long enough to write and, as importantly—perhaps more importantly—to read. To read and read books, more books, beautiful books that smell of old paper and sometimes mildew and ink. Crisp new strangely confident books. I know that a good novel can change a life. Books changed my life. But as importantly, they have given me so much pleasure.Something happens when the right pages are opened at the right time; that invisible liquid lifts, flows up off the page and enters the reader’s mind and heart.
Let’s face it, reading is the wisest form of fundamentalism. It is late. The house is quiet. You are lying in bed in a pool of light with a delicious book. (It is, I can assure you, better than lying in bed with the novelist.) To be alone with a good book! To stem the tide of shit and take back your time and hide yourself away to read! To feel what you would not feel at all, if you were not reading. To travel so far. Late night passes into early morning as written people and ideas and emotions soak into you. Not just your mind. Forget that. This is a bodily experience. Such reading is deeply lustful. It is private; between ourselves and the universe of the novel, which is the universe of physics: random possibility, chances, hunches, mystery. You are reading this now because you, too, have had such affairs with books. We cannot do without them.
So, over and over again, despite being repeatedly overwhelmed by public Stupidity, (keep the capital: I’m quoting Flaubert here!) I seduce myself through reading. And the reading convinces me that, by extension, what I write and publish does matter, must be wielded as a tool for truth-telling, celebrating, challenging.
Ten years ago, I was struggling to write a novel about a Burmese man in a Burmese prison, sentenced to solitary confinement. I was writing outside of my culture, my sex, my own formative experiences. I wept every day for a few years. During that time, I had the chance to ask the great Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer—a quiet, brave man who spent years in prison for having written his novels—if he had any advice for me. He sat thinking for a while. Then he took a drag on his clove-scented cigarette, exhaled, and announced: “Be daring.”
Pramoedya was right. His advice worked. Be daring is still my slogan.
I’ve taken my most profound lessons from writers in countries where writing words is an essential act of courage. There are so many places where telling the unofficial truth—by critiquing governments who abuse their citizenry, by recording the narratives of the silenced and oppressed--is galvanizing, and dangerous, an physical act of bravery, such an assertion of power that the dictators and the tyrants continue to arrest, torture, imprison, and kill writers.
Those writers are creating—when they can, when they survive—a literature of action, even if it is written on toilet paper or scratched onto plastic bags. Or, tapped into a computer to appear instantaneously on other computer screens thousands of miles away. Despite all my bitching about the Internet, it is a marvel, a miracle for writers in places where paper publication is too dangerous or impossible. Even if these writers’ words are read only by a few, by those who smuggle texts out of a prison or out of a country, even if no one reads them because the manuscript is confiscated, destroyed, it is still a triumph. A writer wrote her words, his words. The human hand and mind created, acted, summoned up the ghosts not only of famous humanist writers but the spirits of many others, not famous, some without names, the writers in the mass graves, the men and women who died in Argentina’s Dirty War and Pinochet’s Chile and Soviet Russia and South Africa and Cambodia and the death camps of the second world war. The list of imprisoned and murdered voices is long, and grows longer each day, and cries out for one act: that we read it.
That we still that churning sea and hear the other voices: from Mexico. Ethiopia. The Congo. Kazahkstan. Iran. Turkey. China. Algeria. The “new” Russia.
If we want to know or to remember what a literature of action is, we must turn our heads and our hearts to those countries and their writers. They make my doubts and worries about the sea of media-shit seem small, another kind of luxury. Those writers remind us all of our real power, especially when the state of society is crushing us. Or when we feel fearful of the latest wave of barbarism. Or convinced that affairs of the mind have never counted for less.
They remind me of lines I read by Camus when I was in my teens, and believed so hard in the power of words. Why not believe in it still, without bitter irony or my usual griping? Half a century ago, he exhorted writers to refuse to lie about what we know and to resist oppression, whatever form it takes.
In other words, be courageous. As Pramoedya said, Be daring.