every act of literary mimicry is ultimately transparent

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

I'll interrupt most anything I'm doing for a chance to read a James Wood essay. This morning I got up early to read "Sins of the Father: Do great novelists make bad parents?," the latest Wood contribution to The New Yorker.

Fascinating, all of it—how wouldn't it be? It's Wood on the memoirs written by the children of famous novelists—Janna Malamud Smith (on Bernard Malamud), Alexandra Styron (on William Styron), Susan Cheever (on John Cheever), and (the real focus of this essay) George Bellow on his father, Saul.

About the first three, Wood writes: "All three are vibrant storytellers, alert to scene and detail, almost sickeningly sensitive to the way that large male egos stage themselves; they know that, in some odd combination of respect and revenge, they are turning their fathers into novelistic characters."

About Bellow, Wood is not nearly as convinced. "It is less a memoir than a speaking wound," Wood writes, of Saul Bellow's Heart: A Son's Memoir. And then he proceeds to show us how.

But what really caught my eye in this essay were the words of Bellow himself. Wood has just noted how, "in the greatest novels, the ghost of the author's soul rustle into life." Then he quotes Bellow:
When you open a novel—and I mean of course the real thing—you enter into a state of intimacy with its writer. You hear a voice or, more significantly, an individual tone under the words. This tone you, the reader, will identify not so much by a name, the name of the author, as by a distinct and unique human quality. It seems to issue from the bosom, from a place beneath the breastbone. It is more musical than verbal, and it is the characteristic signature of a person, of a soul.
Yes, I think. Oh, yes. Every real writer is in possession of his or her own true voice—tones, patterns, structures, rhythms, ways of seeing that erupt from a life lived like no other life will ever be lived. I write, for example, the way I write because I skated once, and because I am a middle child (always), and because I traveled to certain places at certain times and saw things and felt things and they recur, and because I have fought and lost and fought and barely won. It's all in there, for good or for bad—and I'm not just talking about plot. The sentences loop. The images are elided. There are sudden stops and odd angles and gush, mid-course corrections. Some people cannot tolerate my way with words, and that is fine. But it is my way with words, and no matter how many different genres I write, no matter how many different locations I set my stories in, no matter how old I get, it is me, Beth Kephart—perhaps not a fully realized real writer yet, but one who works hard at the craft—at the keyboard.

So every writer is in possession of his or her own true voice. And every act of mimicry, correspondingly, is transparent—a short cut, a tool, an exercise in industry as opposed to an expression of something raw, dredged up, authentic. The imitating writer may believe she'll get away with this, that no one will notice, that it will be fine. But inevitably there are breaks and gaps and awkward gestures that out the act of shadow writing. The images and patterns have been borrowed. The work has not been forged.


Serena said...

I wish I knew what my voice was sometimes.

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