“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Monday, July 30, 2012

'The Problem with the New Yorker Story Is That It's Too Well Written'

My friend Adam Rivett drew my attention to these totally awesome Bookworm interviews with Gilbert Sorrentino, who is/was one of my heroes (and the author of the quote at the top of this blog). Anyone interested in his work--and, really, anyone who has ever wanted to be a writer or an artist--should buy Sorrentino's brilliant Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things immediately. But these interviews also provide some really useful insights into his writing, and they also emphasise the continuity between Sorrentino's work and the 'homemade' quality of much American modernism--in that both attain a great deal of textual and theoretical complexity while engaging with material that is openly local and often (intentionally) banal. But despite engaging with the simple, Sorrentino's work remains both philosophically dense (it is not inappropriate, for example, to note a resonance between Sorrentino's ideas and Blanchot's literary theory) and innovative in a rigorously formal manner (much of Sorrentino's methodology, as the below interview emphasises, resembles Oulipo).

In this interview, Sorrentino also does a great job of explaining something that I have often not been able to articulate clearly: why I don't like The New Yorker (many of whose staff members are soon to descend upon Melbourne). Sorrentino's point, both brilliant and humble, is that the problem with the kind of realist fiction that the The New Yorker represents is that it appears to know things, or to teach us things, with a kind of discomfiting certainty:

'The problem is that the writers who write those [New Yorker] stories always annoy me because they take this position in which they supposedly have the answers. They know everything. Well, I don't know everything. I know very little. And my point is to try to write a book that is true to its own structure...a writer can only really lie in terms of his form. He can't really lie any other way.'


Anonymous said...

Good to hear that someone out there knows about Sorrentino. His "A Strange Commonplace" is a masterpiece. I'm a huge fan of his last phase, from 1996 on, though I've read all his work except "Odd Number" and "Rose Theatre."

Make sure to check out good old Edward Dahlberg too. I was struck by how much Dahlberg sounds like Montaigne, especially the latter's "On the education of children" essay.

Emmett Stinson said...

I've read Dalhberg's The Carnal Myth as part of my academic research on Sorrentino's Imaginative Qualities, which I thought was OK. I plan to read Because I Was Flesh at some point, but would be keen to know if there's a better entry point...the diversity and number of books Dahlberg wrote makes it hard to know where to start...I haven't read A Strange Commonplace yet, either, so will have to move that up the list...

Anonymous said...

Dahlberg entry point: The Leafless American.

Academic research on IQOAT? I have the utmost respect for that. We need more Sorrentino material out there. The recent Review of Contemporary Fiction devoted to Sorrentino was pretty half-assed, yeah? Some jottings and scraps, but it didn't have much to say; the only interesting material being that written by the former Stanford alum about Sorrentino smoking in his office, and the piece about finding the locations featured in Steelwork. Otherwise, a VERY disappointing issue.

Emmett Stinson said...

The RCF issue that's dedicated to IQOAT from 2002 is pretty good, I reckon, esp. given that there's very, very little other criticism on the book (I particularly like Tyrus Miller's piece), though, needless to say, I think there's much, much more to be said about it (and quite a few unfortunate misreadings of the book have persisted). One of the things about IQOAT is that, the first time you read it, it seems sort of simple and conversational, but on re-reading it (and I think I have read it five or six times, now), you begin to see how complex a work it is...which, in my opinion, also makes it very, very hard to write about!

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