Aliveness in Writing

Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead -- “One of my university professors, who was also a poet, used to say that there was only one real question to be asked about any work, and that was – is it alive, or is it dead? I happen to agree, but in what does this aliveness or deadness consist? The biological definition would be that living things grow and change, and can have offspring, whereas dead things are inert. In what way can a text grow and change and have offspring? Only through its interaction with a reader, no matter how far away that reader may be from the writer in time and in space.”

Writing is alive if it begets more writing?

Raymond Chandler defined literature as “any sort of writing that glows with its own heat.” In the spirit of Lakoff and Johnson's Metaphors We Live By, we might look for other ways our response to strong writing resembles our response to living things. If something's alive, there's the issue of longevity -- some writing feels alive to only one generation, or for only one decade, while the greatest writing we call “immortal.” Living works can be found even in dead languages. Then there's the concept of a literary ecosystem, as in this passage from Franco Moretti's Modern Epic:

“... more than three centuries ago, the Inquisition decided to forbid the sale of European novels in Latin America. An act of censorship with very clear intentions – and very strange consequences. Because, once the novel was eliminated, the result (other things being equal) was a literary system that, far from being poorer, was much richer than its European counterpart. An absurd result, at first sight: a subtraction producing an increase. But a bit less absurd if you think of literature as a kind of ecosystem, and of the novel, for its part, as the most fearsome predator of the last half millennium. In such a scenario, a world without novels certainly loses one narrative form: unlike Europe, however, it preserves all the other forms that the novel would otherwise have swept away. In particular, pre-realistic narrative forms survive (myths, legends, romances of chivalry); and hybrid forms, such as the cronica, where the boundary between invention and historical fact is unclear.”

5 thoughts on “Aliveness in Writing”

  1. Perhaps certain tenets of conservation biology can be applied to literature — just as some species can no longer survive in the wild, some types of writing cannot survive without subsidy. Can censorship be justified in the name of diversity? As a way to reduce the destructive impact of highly invasive and opportunistic species of writing that could otherwise sweep other forms away?

    Chandler wrote to Erle Stanley Gardner of “the perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control of a great pitcher. That is to me what you have and more than anyone else. Dumas had it, Dickens, allowing for his Victorian muddle, had it; begging your pardon I don’t think Edgar Wallace approached it. His stories died all along the way and had to be revived. Yours don’t. Every page holds the hook for the next. I call that a kind of genius.”

    Edgar Wallace is indeed a good example of a bestselling writer whose prose is completely dead – such writers often make a good living but rarely appeal to subsequent generations.

    Leon Trotsky wrote of Edgar Wallace in 1935, “The state of my health condemns me to reading novels. I picked up a book by Edgar Wallace for the first time. So far as I know he is one of the most popular authors in America and England. It is hard to imagine anything more mediocre, contemptible, and crude. Not a shade of perception, talent, or imagination. The adventures are piled on without any art at all, like police records laid one on top of the other. Not for a single moment did I feel any excitement, interest, or even simple curiosity. While reading the book you have a feeling as if out of boredom, for lack of anything better to do, you were drumming your fingers on a fly-specked windowpane.”

    However, Wallace's The Four Just Men is worth a look – the great Sid Chaplin called it one of the “great bad books," and it actually does have a certain vitality. Wallace's other books tend to be simply bad – I remember one where the villainess is a jolly pretty girl carrying a tennis racket, and the detective always knows when she's been on the scene because someone comes up to him and says, “I say, I've just seen a jolly pretty girl carrying a tennis racket.”

  2. Doris Lessing, "Writing Autobiography" — "I am sure everyone has had the experience of reading a book and finding it vibrating with aliveness, with colour and immediacy. And then, perhaps some weeks later, reading it again and finding it flat and empty. Well, the book hasn't changed: you have."

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