Later, as the 1980s came to a close, publishing began to change, and there were obstacles. She began to complain to me that publishers seemed to want her to be an unpaid member of their marketing department, when it was her job to write. Publishing houses started to become parts of conglomerates, imprints were bought and sold, editors came and went. She became much less content with how she was allowed to do her work. At one point, in the late 80s she told me seriously that she’d decided to stop writing altogether. But she couldn’t, of course.
—Jenny Diski, “When Doris Lessing rescued me”
It’s indecent to confess this—it’s always vulgar to admit to one’s needs; it invites the hideously unfair but probably ineliminable stigma of poverty: “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”—but I do think from time to time about why my fiction is often rejected by agents, editors, and publishers. Some of the answer is statistical: in contemporary literature, many invite themselves, but few are chosen. Another part of the answer is, of course, crassly sociological: being neither MFA nor NYC, I don’t have the right connections, can’t pronounce the magic names at the threshold (though I shouldn’t exaggerate my exclusions—I am PhD, which is literally across the hall from MFA, so it is not altogether hopeless for me in the “connections” department).
But there are aesthetic reasons, I have come to believe. Sometimes I suspect the literary world has divided itself too neatly between the in-your-face experimental and the “solidly constructed,” whether this latter is realist, fantastical, or something in between. Whereas I like work—and not only of prose fiction—that gives a superficial appearance of conformism, even of ease or complacency, which it then progressively undermines, often in ways hard to articulate, however palpable. If you are already very famous, you can publish such work, and it will be celebrated. I think, for instance, of a novel no less garlanded than Coetzee’s Disgrace, with its nearly invisible first few paragraphs, its initial posture as another campus sex-and-culture-wars satire; you would never predict from its beginning that it will eventually, and without ever quite changing its tone, strand you on Lear’s heath or in Hamm’s room, euthanizing a dog while Plato whispers in your right ear, Andrea Dworkin in your left.
Or—okay, enough about everybody else, let’s talk about me—consider my as-yet unpublished novel, Portraits and Ashes. It is a fairly self-aware attempt, as most of my attempted fictions of the last ten years have been, to collapse together modes of fictional representation customarily either kept apart or sutured to one another all-too-smoothly: psychology and allegory, family romance and public apocalypse, sentimentality and cultural critique, a lyricism of the everyday with an ugliness of the inhuman, a narrative teleology with a stylistic stasis. I want to do this without subsuming the latter term in each pair into the first term, which is what the contemporary literary novel tends to do and why it registers as conservative (for its writers, love conquers all), but also without jettisoning the first term outright, which is what our avant-gardists prefer to do (for them, shit conquers all). “Real life,” whatever that means, means both at once.
You can’t represent both at once with a smooth fictional surface, though, so I don’t try. My work takes place in unnamed cities that may remind you of real places, sometimes more than one–like the aggregate city people who have lived for long periods in two or more cities dream about. My work always has politics, but it is politics seen from the outside, as a set of unverifiable disasters, explosions hedged round with baffling talk, competing certainties. (I can just hear the Marxists, RonPaulites, etc. among you—because I used to be you—as you accuse me of playing by the CIA rulebook. But no, the CIA rulebook tells novelists not to mention the explosion at all; I mention it unceasingly, I just concede that I don’t know who planted the bomb, and I don’t think you do either.) I don’t explain everything; there are things I don’t even know. I will be charged with laziness—I have been before!—but I hate the idea of the novel as research project. Along with the airlessly overwritten sentence, this research mania is another damaging legacy of Flaubert, who boasted of digesting whole libraries to write his historical fictions. Flaubert is considered modernist, but he was an anti-Romantic modernist and I am a Romantic modernist: I want novels to be lyrical in generic terms—the utterances of a sensibility, and not a sensibility exsanguinated to make room for facts, whatever those are, and as if anybody remembers them anyway. But I still worry that readers will think I’ve simply made mistakes, as if I tried to do something that I failed to do instead of trying to do something else. Which don’t mean I didn’t fail either, I must allow.
Is this making it worse? Making you want to read my novel less? I swear it has a gripping plot, it’s a real page-turner. Characters to break your heart. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll hurl. Even as it interrogates art in an oppressive society. Even as it indelibly satirizes, unforgettably portrays, etc.
How little all this rhetoric has to do with the experience of writing at its best, when you feel as if you have extended filaments you didn’t know you had into layers of the earth and sky you didn’t know were there. It’s a curious feeling in which emotions like fear go away, which allows actions like judgment to be held in abeyance. It is an amoral state, but toward yourself above all. You feel somehow posthumous—in a good way. It’s inhuman because you sort of no longer care about anything, but you sort of no longer care about it because you are in it rather than worrying about it, if this makes any sense. Some lines from Joanna Newsom capture the experience as economically as I’ve seen anyone do:
And in our quiet hour
I feel I see everything
And am in love with the hook
Upon which everyone hangs
There is no point in complaining about how you have to come from that state to the state of advertising if you want to accrue whatever meager social benefits remain to the artist. And I complain resentfully, too, which is the worst way to complain: I complain just because I’m so bad at it, at what the French call, with some bitter irony I’m sure, le marketing.
Anyway, after all that, let me know if you’d like to read good old Portraits and Ashes! Sure, it gets a lot of rejection letters, but I bet some of your favorites and mine got a lot more.
Bernhard thus endows the first person narrative with an entirely new meaning and value. That meaning and value utterly exhausts itself in the experience of its creator. What is verifiable from our readers’ perspective is the following: 1) Bernhard thinks, in good postmodern fashion, that the problem of art is a social problem. 2) He thinks through this postmodern problem to conclude that the ideal form of art will not be dependant on social relations. 3) Logically, such a form can give satisfaction only to its creator, never to its audience. 4) In freeing life from recognition, such a form will “transform” its creator, and give him the only “real satisfaction” possible in art or life. 5) The end of Woodcutters suggests that Bernhard sees in his novel just such a form. 6) Woodcutters’ exploitation of the first person narrative techniques of Beckett’s Molloy provides some limited evidence that the joy expressed at the end of the novel is the joy of real satisfaction at total transformation.
—Michael Clune, “Bernhard’s Way”