WRITE YOUR STORY reads the advertising placard for corporate octopus Citibank on display in the Union Square subway station in Manhattan. The campaign’s thrust appears to be this: by spending money, being a consumer, one, in fact, indites a story on the face of the everyday. Coming from the figurative lips of a multinational bank, big keeper of accounts and fellow citizen in the arena of U.S. law, the message translates nearly to the ubiquitous YOU ARE HERE. As enjoinments go, this flag-waving for authorship negates what it would convey—as if facility at telling a story and the robustness of a bank account had anything to do with each other—while also channeling the widely dispersed fantasy that wealth equals consequence, equals storied-ness, what is most worthy of note.
Most of the writers I know would have it otherwise. Though they may wear the same pair of shoes for years on end, dine regularly on Stouffer’s Signature Classics, have a soft spot as bar patrons for $2 cans of beer, and own exactly one moth-nibbled suit, the belief is that when, or if, the serious project is someday finished and before an audience, collective or individual—the play, the chapbook, the novel—their voices will register as voices of consequence. All of which depends on the belief that a writer will be taken on the verve and resonance of language alone and not as a collection of consumerist signifiers à la Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.
Here’s the thing: just the other day, I encountered my consumerist doppelganger online. Through one of the people-finding engines that capitalize on information made available across the webscape, I discovered a profile sporting my address, phone number, a meter indicative of financial health, a lifted Google-street view image of the building where I live and—yes it’s true—a childhood photo. Nothing yet about what I had for dinner the night before. I requested that the page be deleted but can only expect that, like a weed, another will creep up soon. To move past what smacks of surveillance-state glomming (only, is it weird, that as paranoid dystopias go, the perpetrator is not the government but unregulated private enterprise?), it is not much of a leap to see that such sites only take the movement of social networking one step further: making profiles for those who do not choose it. As Nicholas Carr wrote in his widely referenced 2008 Atlantic essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”: “Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better… It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.”
As Facebook, Google and those relatively less scrupulous contend for the mantle of knowing—and hawking—who among us prefers which jelly donut, writers of tomorrow live with the risk of finding themselves announced, in effect, before they ever arrive.
And writers of today? The not-totally-figurative-dragging out of the writer from behind a curtain parallels the direction of pop culture at large: the decade-plus turn toward reality TV, the dwindling of mystery around the lives of movie stars, an erosion courted by Hollywood’s continuously evolving publicity apparatus. Not to mention the thinning of any pretense to objectivity in the news or broad-based interest in political consensus-making. As a way forward, it can feel pretty backwards. Since everyone who wants one has some semblance of a platform—as well as many who did not wish it so—our favorite writers register as only a Google-click away, Thomas Pynchon notwithstanding. (No, wait: he’s out there, too.) The dialectic in how the Artist is perceived sways between torch-bearer in a proud tradition and freak in a cage, as in Todd Haynes’ Dylan biopic I’m Not There.
Many of America’s most famous writers, specifically those on the forefront of Modernism, led lives as storied as their prose: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Carson McCullers (pictured above), to name a few. Around the bend, spinning narratives from a more magisterial remove were John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Ford Madox Ford and Gertrude Stein. Today, magisterial remove, save in the lives of a few conservative politicians and writers (George Will, say), is a conceit besieged on all sides.
In their essay “Internet as Social Movement,” the editors of n+1 assess the internet’s impact on collective consciousness as follows: “‘One person, one computer,’ Apple sloganeered in the early ’80s; ‘the web is for everyone,’ Netscape said when it launched its first browser in 1994. From the mechanism of our mass administration, the computer would be the means of our individual liberation.” The paradox here is pronounced, a point made clear by flipping the last sentence: seeking freedom, a feeling of “connectivity,” we flock to be mass administered, everyone a visible node. In the resulting information overflow, much pours through the mind’s sieve, as David Foster Wallace suggested:
The general point is that professional filtering/winnowing is a type of service that we citizens and consumers now depend on more and more, and in ever-increasing ways, as the quantity of available information and products and art and opinions and choices and all the complications and ramifications thereof expands at roughly the rate of Moore’s Law. (Introduction to The Best American Essays 2007)
With the proliferation of choice, so heightens the necessity of drawing boundaries, for withholding attention. And the perception that a speaker’s point of view does not include us, or a fair recognition of who we are (as opposed to, say, our consumerist doppelgangers), is usually enough of a reason to click away.
Maybe it is the tendency to conflate a distant narrative voice with snobbery (e.g. a knock on Henry James), but in our near-universal platform culture, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and McCullers are threshold figures for American literary fiction. They offer visitors welcome to a capacious, echo-ridden structure that is said, like the mansion on which The Great Gatsby was based, to be scheduled for demolition. In part, their power seems a function of how easy it is to identify, to see oneself in the intelligent woman committed beyond all reason to a tragic relationship, the golden, high-jumping boy whose flight was broken in time, the iconic adventurer whose radical individualism led ultimately to despair.
My fascination with the figures Fitzgerald and Hemingway cut, some notion of heroism, transfixed me with the still face of the page that somehow breathed, and it was in their narratives that I began to meditate on who I was and what I wanted in life. As do many by McCullers, the stories of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, especially some of their earliest (The Beautiful and Damned and “Big Two-Hearted River”), dare the reader to identify protagonist with author, and in this identification of author with hero, these Modernists abide. It is no error to spot Fitzgerald in The Last Tycoon, enraptured with his own fall, and Hemingway in Old Man and The Sea: as writers, they never outgrew casting a thinly veiled version of themselves as protagonist. They spun narrative in life; in the aftermath, their lives are enwombed by it.
Writing one’s own biography into fiction speaks persuasively to the immense, unguarded joy a writer must once have taken in representations of life on the page, and in that respect, these authors are much more readily identified with by readers who take a similarly immense, unguarded joy. As opposed to the magisterial remove of a Dos Passos, Dreiser, Ford or Stein, authors who conflate biography and fiction offer both the drama of a story well-told and a sort of meta-drama around it: to see them fly, or fail to, inside the imaginative machines they fashioned for negotiating civilization’s atmosphere.
In a world held at center, and destabilized, by MTV-out-and-grab-ya jump cuts, as likely to be a viewer’s own between web-pages as a music video director’s, hunger for the behind-the-scenes story can circumvent the ornate concentration of an author, the fiction proper. Lionized authors become champions of excess, shadows at the furthest reaches and, keeping that corridor distant, we free ourselves to babble on. The inclination, for those who would lower the boom of disdain, is to diminish their accomplishment, the endurance of their aesthetic, by reducing each to an easily dismissed tag, as in the cases of the three previously mentioned: Carson, the willful depressive, Scott, the antic drunk, Ernest, the woman-hating blowhard.
Maybe having something to do with the autobiographical impulse that is general across the social network horizon, where status updates promote a synecdochal regard for experience, glints among glints, a double-edged desire grows for a more comprehensive representation of experience, complemented by a disdain for the same.
Why should that be? The desire to share, share all, is central to the birth of the fictional impulse, and it is a hallmark of young writers to conflate autobiography with fiction (for a knowing spoof on this, somehow both satiric and deeply in earnest, see the opening sequence of Wallace’s Infinite Jest). Could it be that the number of would-be writers who venture out with autobiographical stories only to return chastened having renounced the writing of fiction has something to do with the intense regard of contemporary authors’ biographies over and above the fact of story itself? Could it be that the presence of a Fitzgerald, Hemingway or McCullers in our minds weighs on the decadence, or perception thereof, in a living author’s continued existence? See how the floodgates of popular embrace opened on Wallace’s passing.
Old school criticism has it that apprehension of the work must go before any judgment of the writer. “Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry,” writes T.S. Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” a critical masterpiece that still somehow bored me to tears in high school. Because, you know, I couldn’t tell what it had to do with me. Eliot obliged my feeling of being ignored: “The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.”
There are contemporary views that hold with Eliot’s sense of discernment. n+1 critic Elizabeth Gumport’s tangentially fascinating essay “Gentrified Fiction” relays [my italics]: “If the first generation of gentrification novelists worked to some degree in the self-reflexive tradition of American symbolism, the second generation proves itself to be less concerned with the novel than the novelist and his lifestyle: where he lives, how long he has lived there, and what bars he frequents.” Gumport is focused here only on urban novelists, but as cities take ever more precedence in American lives, the metropolitan, for better or worse, acts as fiction’s most visible practitioner. Turning up the volume on Gumport’s distinction between artist-known-for-the-work and artist-known-for-being-an-artist, critical giant Harold Bloom opined in a recent interview with the New York Times: “I don’t want to take part in this madness in which sexual orientation, ethnic identity, skin pigmentation, gender, origin of one sort or another, is deemed to be the most crucial element in apprehending a poet or a playwright or a storywright or a novelist or even an essayist. I guess I’m very old-fashioned.”
In contrast to Bloom, one writer almost synonymous with his city said in conversation with The Paris Review, “When you start putting a higher value on works of art than people, you’re forfeiting your humanity. There’s a tendency to feel the artist has special privileges, and that anything’s okay if it’s in the service of art.” “Humanity,” here, appears to mean embraceability as a social being as opposed to, say, the lordliness of literary construct. Comedian, filmmaker and fiction-writer Woody Allen suggests that an artist’s humanity ought to be considered as much as, if not more than, the work itself—and, reciprocally, that the artist must consider the impact his or her work will have on the lives of others. (There is some irony here.) Placing humanity first, Allen votes for the company of people over books. And, really, except for the mad and the artists and everyone in between—except for just those guys—who wouldn’t?