“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.'