Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Get Your Glands Out of My Face

    I want to take a moment to complain about the state of adult literature.
    Specifically, this book, The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, which I am reading, and which I am not yet done with, and probably won't ever be, because I don't want to finish it. (UPDATE: I did finish it, and I'm still right.)
   Now, this book is very, very well written.  It's a really good book.  The plot is good. I really want to know what happens.  In fact, it's so well-written that it's making me depressed and anxious, because the main character is depressed and anxious.

   Which is great.  I love talent.

    But f*ck, Mr. Grossman.

    I don't want to read your books about apathy.  Apathy and sex and drugs don't make a person an adult.  Perhaps apathy and meaninglessness are adult issues, but for f*ck's sake, your character should grapple with these things.  There should be striving to overcome.  I don't mind if there is failure.  But a portrait of a character who is never happy, and jumps from one thing to the next hoping that it will fulfill him, and is never fulfilled by any of it, does not a story make.  Maybe it did, the first hundred times I read this story in undergraduate workshops.  But I am so tired of adult literature characters who do nothing and say nothing and want nothing and strive for nothing, and I am tired of stories about the failure of a man who failed because he never tried for anything at all.

    I guess I need to make it clear what I mean by trying.  I don't mean "doing stuff."  Quentin, the main character in The Magicians, went to magic school.  He learned things.  He met a girl and had sex with her.  He moved out and did drugs.  He cheated on his girlfriend.  He found a magical pathway into the fictional world of his favorite books.  But he didn't ever reach beyond himself.  He didn't ever try to grow, or become more than the things that he did.  He never declared himself on one side or another of the deep abyss.  He never strove for greatness.  I am on page 387 and I still have no idea what this character wants, beyond a magic f*cking fairy to come render him magically happy. He certainly hasn't desired any of the Faulkner six: love, honor, pity, pride, compassion, sacrifice.  Faulkner said that these were the only verities worth writing about, and that if one does not write about them then one writes only of the glands, and not of the heart.

    I am tired of reading books about the glands.

    And while I'm ranting, can we talk Hemingway and Fitzgerald for a bit?  Also, Salinger?  It took me years to understand these books.  For a long time I did not; for a long time I did not allow myself to understand how important the Faulkner six were, either in my writing or in my life.  But The Great Gatsby is about Fitzgerald's recognition of the loss of these values--he saw that money and wealth brought only a desire to be entertained, to be sated.  To be drunk.  The narrator of Gatsby loathed Gatsby, but Gatsby had been the only one of that whole wealthy set who believed in something greater, and Fitzgerald was lamenting Gatbsy's failure to achieve it.  Gatsby's fatal flaw was the desire to earn approval of people who didn't enjoy living.
    Hemingway--he wrote about these truths, only he preferred to write about them without ever naming them.  He used language as a frame for a picture of the heart of his characters, and let the truths fill themselves in.  Which, yes, gets confusing.  He wrote an entire story about abortion without saying the words "abortion" or "baby" or "pregnant," and he wrote about courage the same way.
    And Salinger--I have one phrase for you.  Unreliable narrator.  Holden Caulfield is guilty of everything he accuses others of.  He is a phony, and a coward, and the story is about the way a man will put out his own eyes to avoid going to war.

    These stories are about the failure of the heart to rally over the demands of the universe, but they are also about the attempt. And somehow, in this world where it has become funny to laugh at compassion and pity and honor, the narrators of our stories--and also a lot of the real people I know--are more afraid of being laughed at than of failing at living.  And I am f*cking tired of it.

    So, writers (and painters and musicians and everybody, really) I would like to request this:  do your best to write about the heart, and not the glands.  Take that which could hurt you the most, and put it on the page.  Stop trying to be clever, and philosophical, and deep, and rich, and for f*ck's sake write about something that matters.  I will try to do the same.  But give me stories I want to read, and give yourselves a life worth living.


  1. This was an excellent piece on Salinger in Vanity Fair, specifically how his WWII combat experience shaped Holden Caulfield and the story of Cather in the Rye so deeply.


  2. Also, I love this post.