A strange thing happened to me when reading Flannery O'Connor last month. While I generally love her stories, characters, symbolism, and plot construction, I nonetheless felt a bit hollow, incomplete, because I was unsatisfied by her use of language. Granted, there are many good reasons why O'Connor uses the language she does. Nonetheless, because I have been reading so much fiction lately that turns "accepted" conventions of fiction on its side, I am starting to wonder if the conventions of the story and/or language are too normalized. As with 99.9% of the fiction we read, O'Connor prioritized plot, character, symbolism, and tension - language is, to a great extent, transparent, if by transparent I mean sentences that do more or less what we expect them to do.
Last week, more of the same: Toni Morrison read from her latest book, A Mercy, here at the Universiteit van Amsterdam (sponsored by the John Adams Institute). Toni Morrison is often rightfully praised for her lyric sensibility, and I'm a massive fan of her work, but - and this shocked me - I became frustrated when I heard her read sentences like, "Her face was hard." It wasn't simply that some of Morrison's choices were easy or cliche. It was more my sensibility that while we live in a weird, crazy, complex, paradox-riven world, we expect - and, for many, demand - language to function in very standard ways. Perhaps certain uses of language function as necessary anchors when delving into difficult content, but too many authors seem content to write a decent sentence and get their characters round.
At that moment, listening to Morrison, I realized that I'm having a sort of crisis of writing. Or of aesthetics. Perhaps I'm no longer interested in characters and plots, no matter how insightful or interesting, if the prose isn't similarly interesting. And by similar, I don't mean that content and form run in parallel, because I'm not sure they should - why should form "enact" story? I just don't want language to function as a delivery mechanism for story.
It strikes me that, as gross generalization, poetry has license to disturb language (or syntax, or page placement). But for fiction, especially if you only have access to mass-market (if still literary) fiction, expectations run in precisely the opposite direction. You specifically don't mess with language because it gets in the way of story. By letting prose function seamlessly, you can focus on arc, tension, point of view, and other elements of "craft."
As case study, take the use of the second person. Why do most people hate it? It's too easily argued that it's pretentious (Bright Lights, Big City) or confrontational (uh, Bright Lights, Big City, or much of Lorrie Moore's Self-Help), but that doesn't explain why many people just think it's a bad idea. Unliterary. Granted, I'm not planning on writing an opus in second person, but I would consider that its intrinsic scariness and the tension in its implicit, in-your-face contradiction (you simultaneously try to inhabit the "you" and find that you cannot) opens up possibility spaces. Besides, doesn't the first person do the same thing? That "I" on the page is, at once, the narrator and the reader, but most people don't get cranky about the first person. Somehow, first person is considered authentic, while second person is gimmicky. Hmmm.
What does it mean for my own writing, or the writing I want to publish in Versal? Can the writing space I crave, one in which interesting stories are told in interesting ways, with interesting words and unusual syntax, not be considered experimental or self-reflexive or pretentious? Must the structure of a text "follow" the dictates of the content? How can our words train people how to read - or expect - differently?
Conspirators in possible disruption,
PS: if you want a gory, disturbing, crazy, literary, and very good read, take a look at Brian Evenson's horror-noir Last Days...