Back before the NYT destroyed, or blandified, its Book section, it used to have a regular feature called By The Book. This consisted of questions like: What books are currently on your night stand? Who is your favorite novelist of all time? And your favorite novelist writing today? Do you have a favorite genre? Any literary guilty pleasures?
Etc. These questions form a sort of program: the writer – the novelist – is part of a profession, and spends his or her time reading and judging texts, which are also part of the profession. Even social time is professionalized: “You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?”
The limits of this set of questions imply an image of what the writer – and here, I am mostly talking about the writer of fiction, or poems, or essays, or memoirs – does as a laborer. The NYT is traditionally for management, so the questions are never about the means of production, as in, what do publishing houses do correctly or not, what do you think about your book’s publicity, etc. Nor about the interaction between reader and writer.
Nor, going a bit further, is the writer contextualized in a broader culture. For instance, I don’t think I’ve ever read anybody ask about oral storytellers.
I consider this a bit odd. I know that myself, I used to like to go into Panera in Santa Monica, get a coffee, and listen to the old codgers bitch and brag to each other, sounds which fed into certain parts of my novel. But more than that, I am sure the stories I listened to when I was a wee little pea and my parents were giants gave me a total, preliminary sense of narrative possibilities. Not that I am special in this respect – you can hear narrative patterns passed along, generation to generation, from family member to family member. And you can hear characteristics that belong to vocation.
My pop was an air conditioning man – he did the range of things, from working in a research laboratory (which he hated with all his heart) to repairing or installing hvac systems in businesses and institutions, to selling the machinery. It was the repairing and installing part that formed the heart of stories that usually had the motif: pops vs. idiot. The idiot could be the local repairman, the person running the business or institution, or the backup in the company, but most definitely the adventure of putting in hvac required an idiot to make the story juicy. Not that the stories were always so juicy by Hollywood standards. They often involved descriptions of working in impossible spaces in impossible conditions – small places in steamy hot weather, crawl spaces filled with toads and bugs, etc.
One of the formally interesting things about these stories is that they were sorta diagrammed: that is, repair work requires a pretty clear beginning, middle and ending. You begin with the problem (usually the result of some idiot making unbelievable mistakes installing some unit), you advance towards the solution (usually involving some hazardous or bizarre repair that might require doing certain things no normal man would do, such as dealing with electricity in a flooded, dark basement), and the solution comes about because of your action. Epic, really.
My Dad didn’t do certain things in his stories. For instance, I can’t recall him ever imitating anybody’s voice. I myself love to imitate accents. I like this not so much to mock those accents but to expand my musical range, although of course I know the usual thing about imitating accents is to mock their departure from some pre-supposed norm – everyday racism, innit?
My Mother’s stories were more complicated. This is because she worked as a school secretary, which involved the more sinuous lines and complexities of human behavior, on various scales. There were many less idiots in her adventures, but many kids acting out, teachers having fits, and parents with many woes, which of course they told Mom. If the structure of my Dad’s stories had a classic cast not so distant from the old Writing Program dictate of showing and not telling, my Mom’s were closer to the underground of gossip and rumor, where telling is all and showing is a matter of glimpses and interpretation.
Of course, these are extreme paraphrases of my parent’s styles – but they certainly connect the act of writing to the natural life of language. I do think, like an old Commie, that you have to baptize the book in the stream of life of the people. That doesn’t mean making the book dumber – oh contrah, as they say around here. Ulysses is my notion of a novel that successfully takes its orientation from oral culture and the oldest of bookish traditions. It is ultimately a DIY novel, the best kind.