The Taming of Modern Letters
Where have all the bookish rebels gone? Long time ago.
Ernest Hemingway, an accomplished liquor-connoisseur — though no personal hero of mine — famously advised young and aspiring writers to write when drunk but to edit only when absolutely sober; Charles Bukowski seemed capable of drinking up within a single evening a month’s booze supply of a small bar; Henry Miller wrote his novels with the air of a man who knew all Parisian prostitutes both by their real names and by their fancy monikers; and Hunter S. Thompson’s death must have sent gigantic shock waves across the drug market, threatening its collapse and a narcotic version of Black Tuesday, due to the passing away of such an illustrious castaway from the drug-laden swinging 60s.
Nowadays, on the other hand, everything seems to be calmer, more polished, more toned-down, and impeccably sophisticated, if not gutless — yes, gutless, that’s the right word for it — as if the whole literary world had been treated to a tremendous dose of sedatives overnight, like too rebellious a mental patient whom even the straitjacket a few sizes too small can’t hold in place. Authors are more and more often expected to sign those elaborate legal contracts — as long as Kerouac’s original scroll, if not being far longer than their novels themselves — prohibiting them from engaging in the forms of behavior that may in any way hurt sales. Forget about boosting your recognizability by imitating the drunken antics of rebels — even if theatrical ones — like Martin McDonagh who notoriously told ex-007, Sean Connery, to “f*ck off” and lived to tell the tale without scurrying away every time someone hums the Bond theme. It’s how it is these days, even though scandalous actions and outrageous comments had once been considered a cornerstone of every healthy and respectable literary success and a good enough means of amplifying one’s visibility and exposure for the long-gone legions of bookish titans, not to mention that more authors than not turned it into their subversive trademark. It used to be the surefire recipe for facilitating a literary triumph, but not anymore.
It’s as if the whole literary world had been treated to a tremendous dose of sedatives overnight.
F. Scott Fitzgerald drowned the best years of his writing career in the inconceivable inflows of booze; the eventful sex life of Anaïs Nin could only be matched by the ones of her fictional characters; William Faulkner barely managed to sober up after a night of heavy drinking to give one of the best acceptance speeches in the history of Nobel Prize; and the queen of psychological thrillers, Patricia Highsmith, seemed to be parting with a cigarette only to use it to light up another one.
And those were mostly mainstream writers (with the exception of Anaïs Nin, a member of Parisian avant-garde), and not some bohemian, underground scribblers as well as obscure heroes of weed-smoking high school kids!
But if now — when everything has to be more respectable than a textbook definition of respectability — a writer showed up to a book signing and merely produced a pack of cigarettes from the pocket, unwrapped it, and started fishing for a lighter there, he or she would instantly be frowned upon and looked down on with disdain, like a person flaunting a bushy mop of hair at the bald men’s convention, and, sooner or later, some voice from the back row would explode far too emotionally: “How dare you jeopardize your talent with that?! That! That thing! Don’t you know it’s unhealthy?”
And the only thing they cared about was their work, their art — and art not only with a capital A, but also with a capital R and T.
Many writers of old had that devil-may-care attitude, that rough-around-the-edges look, even if they strived hard to appear stylish, as if they couldn’t care less whether you saw them in a properly ironed shirt or not, and the only thing they cared about was their work, their art — and art not only with a capital A, but also with a capital R and T. Whereas today, the literary heavyweights seem to be tripping over one another to flaunt their new watches, to present their best profile to the ever-prying camera, and lose sleep over trying to remember if their hair was combed to the correct side during the last book reading event.
Where have the archetypal rebellious writers and authentic iconoclasts gone to? Where are the real literary nonconformists? Michel Houellebecq, as the only one right now, seems to be doing a fine job by living up to the image of a legitimate literary maverick, even though I am hardly one of those whom you may call admirers of his work, as I can’t help regarding him as the poor man’s Céline, or the even poorer one’s Zola. Where are the full-blooded revolutionaries of the written word ready to burn the whole book industry to the ground, to the last page, to the last paragraph, if only to make their own unmistakable mark on the world? Have they gone extinct? Have they been ruthlessly tamed and bridled and petted to death, to their untimely bookish deaths?
Where are the full-blooded revolutionaries of the written word ready to burn the whole book industry to the ground, to the last page, to the last paragraph, if only to make their own unmistakable mark on the world?
Do I want to imply that the old literary world teeming with assorted drunks, chain-smokers, zany weirdoes, and depraved geniuses was better than the current, sanitized one? Not in the least, but it was decidedly more interesting than today’s slick and glossy corporate-like literature that makes you think of those rows upon rows of desks manned with bland and gutless — exactly that, gutless — clerks from Kafka’s most nightmarish visions. At least, the former literary state of things provided enough room for writers, those natural-born eccentrics and misfits, to practice their art, to cultivate their uniqueness, and to express their rampant individualism in whatever way they liked without stifling them, their fragile creativity, with the shackles of the duty to fawn on readers, to behave with sales figures in mind, and, in general, to act as if they were human-sized equivalents of chewing gum that’s never supposed to lose its sweet, sweet taste. After all, every author’s prime goal should be to shock us, to jerk and nudge us unmercifully out of our cozy and plush comfort zones, and not to treat us like brittle wafers that may break under the sheer weight of our own gazes, and ours is to come to terms with that shock and its aftermath, to grapple with it, to go to the mat with it, and to emerge from that struggle victorious, strengthened, enriched — both spiritually and culturally — and more cognizant of the reality we happen to live in.
Do I want to see writers’ lives ruined by excessive smoking and the cavalier abuse of alcohol? Certainly not; but that at least testified to their ongoing, and often losing, battle with their formidable inner demons. What kind of inner demons does torment and plague today’s writers? The concern over the speed of their wireless internet connections? The risk of developing cancer from sitting with a laptop over their precious intimate parts?
Do I attempt to pass myself off as a self-proclaimed apologist of the authors who led such self-destructive lifestyles? By no means; but their cases may become the starting points for our meditation on the truly humanist issues like the inscrutability and unpredictability of human nature — and especially of its darker, grimmer side — and for our posing the perennial question: How — and if at all — should we cope with separating authors as fallible and erring beings from their works?
After all, every author’s prime goal should be to shock us, to jerk and nudge us unmercifully out of our cozy and plush comfort zones.
The question is: what kind of advice would modern writers, those bards of the internet era, those purportedly individualistic and fearless voices of the new tablet-wielding generation, those intrepid trailblazers enjoying their places at the very forefront of supposedly endangered world literature, give to the newcomers to that kingdom in which printing ink still reigns supreme? Drink your latte before the foam deflates? Don’t spread your hummus too thin? Drink your milk before going to bed? Somehow, I can’t say I’m getting excited at that prospect. Not a bit. And I write it — full and shameless disclosure here — as a great hummus enthusiast and a sworn enemy of desecrating black coffee by adding anything to it (a cup of coffee is, after all, not a prison cake to be forced to accommodate a host of files, pliers, and metal cutters, much less… milk).
There are those who believe that controversies are bad for business, and that’s true, but only if you’re peddling non-slip socks and fingerless gloves to the crowd of blasé vacationers at some ski resort. But when it comes to literature, there’s nothing deadlier for it than boredom, pure and unadulterated boredom. And it pains one — and it slowly kills one — to see how dreadfully boring the literary landscape has become.
One thing is certain: Something has changed. We’ve grown comfortable, yearning for even more comfort, and current literature reflects that. But whether this change has been for the better or for the worse is something we’ll all have to see for ourselves.
Thank you for reading.
Copyright © 2019 by F. R. Foksal
F. R. Foksal is a Polish author writing in English, his second language. His short story collection, Hour Between Late Night and Early Morning, is available at Amazon. He believes that writing about literature doesn’t have to be boring and that books still stand a chance in today’s high-definition reality.