Saint-Nicolas, 8 July
Dear Karl Ove, What an interesting letter you sent. So much to think about. I’ve read it through twice now and given myself some time to mull over what you had to say about the USA (the country, not the soccer team) and our cultural decline.
While I am concerned about the trajectory of culture in the US, especially whether literary culture is declining, the more general question you pose about whether literature has a future seems the more serious concern. If the average person doesn’t read, then what’s the point of writing books? One writes to be read, or at least (in my case) one hopes to be read, but such hope is doomed to frustration unless there are people capable of reading. What seems to be the case is that the literary world here in New York is small and we all read each other’s stuff and comment on it, but rarely does anyone outside the literary clique bother to pay attention to what we are doing. (I write “we” as if I’m included in that literary scene. I am not. I’m an outsider, but I’ve been to enough literary events in New York that I recognize who’s who and know first hand that “we” are a small community not completely dissimilar to the small community of craft beer enthusiasts.) Are we writing for each other? Do we hope that what we write will be read by the population at large? I read in one of the literary reviews recently that most works of literary fiction that are considered successful only sell a few thousand copies. Your own books have sold in quantities approaching 100,000 and that is literary stardom in this country. But that is comparable to the number of people in the US who tune in to watch a soccer match on a Sunday afternoon.
Where I think I’ll come down on this issue is that I’m not worried about culture being on the decline, nor am I troubled by thoughts that fewer and fewer people are reading literature, and I’m not going to lament the death of the novel. I doubt that you’ll take issue with this view. It’s better if we readers and writers just carry on doing what we do and spreading the word (literally) and if our message is good enough, if it’s relevant, than the next generation will take up the cause.
On the other hand, I can see where a little bit of worrying might do the literary world some good. Are there things that we could be doing to make our work more relevant? What you wrote about students showing up at university not having read contemporary literature or being familiar with the history of literature but still thinking that literature could be a possible career for them didn’t seem so shocking to me. Maybe it does signal a decline, but isn’t there a cure for ignorance? Gaps in knowledge can, in time, be filled. When I arrived at St. Thomas College, I was as ignorant of contemporary literature and literary history as a person could be. And yes! I actually thought I could be a writer. But nobody had bothered to explain to me that I needed to read contemporary writers. Nobody said that it was important for me to know my literary history. When I was growing up, I read what I wanted to read. I read science fiction and fantasy. For me the height of literature was Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Douglas Adams, and Robert A. Heinlein. The day I walked into academia at the age of 18, what I desired most was to write a book as good as Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Some might think that such a datapoint would contribute to the declining trend, but another way of looking at it is that even though I loved “low” literature, at least I loved literature and books and wanted to devote my life to them. If the students who arrive at university are ignorant of contemporary literature and literary history, then maybe we should spend more time with our children and talking with them about what is good to read.
And if we write good books about soccer maybe that’s a start.
Yvon Paré says, “La situation du livre au Québec est difficile. Bientôt, on va avoir plus d’écrivains que de lecteurs.” Which sounds like a joke, that there could be more writers than readers, but it certainly feels that way when one is talking about “boutique literature.” I still can’t stop comparing Quebec with Louisiana. If the literary situation seems precarious in Quebec, in Louisiana it’s nearly nonexistent if one considers French language books only. In Louisiana there are only a handful of writers writing in French, a dozen or less. And they write books of poetry. Who reads such books? This might be a case where the number of writers and the number of readers is equal if not tipped in favor of the writers. In my travels to Louisiana I’ve made a small collection of such books. I can’t claim to be a good judge of poetry, but the works appear to be competent enough. I wonder if this production of poetry is the first stage of a renaissance in Louisiana French literature? It seems strange to me that poetry should be the first stage of a literary revival since it’s more challenging to write good poetry. When one is writing prose, it is often sufficient to have something interesting to say.
Of course, there’s no reason for a regional literary culture to commit to a minority language. Globally, French is not a minority language, but in the US it is. Even in Louisiana it’s spoken by a few tens of thousands, but each and every one of those French-speakers speaks English fluently. So why not write in English? All these questions are somewhat academic to me since I no longer live in Louisiana. If I wasn’t relaxing by this refreshing river in Quebec, I probably wouldn’t be thinking about local French-American literature at all. What else does one do to pass the time between World Cup soccer matches?
Something else that Yvon Paré wrote perhaps has a more general relevance to writing. He says, “Écrire, c’est une manière d’être, une nécessité. Sans l’écriture, je deviendrais invivable. C’est ma façon de me brancher, de me situer dans le monde. L’édition, la publication devient un épiphénomène. Publier n’est pas le plus important.” He goes on in a similar vein, but that is enough to describe how I feel about writing: Writing, indeed, is a way of being, a necessity. If I didn’t write, I wouldn’t know how to live. Writing is the way I connect with the world and how I find my place in it. Publishing what I write is something extra, something not important to what I do.
Like Yvon Paré I write for myself in my notebooks. Preparing books for publication seems superfluous. Of course, I realize that going back and rewriting what one has already written is a necessary act if one expects others to read their words. Never waste a reader’s time. And this additional work of revision, of improving is part of the act of writing. That initial flow of words that seems to come from another source is just the beginning. But I doubt that I would bother writing at all if the act wasn’t central to my being and my life.
One last thing about Yvon Paré and then I wrap this up. In the interview, Pare talked about the books he’s written, each a part of un grand saga familiale et recherche d’identite. How alike Yvon Paré and I are! The fat book I’ve been working on for the last decade is just that, a big family saga (in fact I refer to the big book at “The Fisher Saga” after the family which provides the main set of characters) which is also a search for identity.
I began writing my “Fisher Saga” after a trip home to Oklahoma. I wanted my son to the see the farm where I grew up. I wanted him to meet my grandfather, to hear his stories, to be immersed in the world that was mine when I was his age. Taking Patrick back to my boyhood home was an attempt to share something with my son that I could never communicate in any other way. In order to understand me, to know who I am you must walk these grassy fields, these forest paths, you must swim in the pond behind the farmhouse, cast for fish in the Cimarron river, climb the sandstone bluffs at the old river bed. The land shaped me as much as anything else. Of all the places on earth, that is the one I know best and that is why I still think of that little patch of land in Oklahoma as home.