Friday, April 08, 2005


This morning I wrote about the difference between literary and commercial fiction in my fun blog, I'M REALLY NOT A WAITRESS and about my ongoing irritation with the ghettoization of each by the other. I consider a book good if its story entertains and stimulates me, if its characters make me forget my own goals and grievances for a little while, if without ever leaving my couch, or my cramped seat on the bus, I can be transported to a new landscape. If the places I visited or the characters I met are still with me ten years after I put down the book, then it isn't just a good book. It's the real thing. Both bestsellers, and prestigious prizewinners regularly fail the test and pass into irrelevence. When Carol Shields won the Pulitzer Prize, she anchored herself by studying the list of former winners, most of whom had long been forgotten.

The problem is that with so many good to great writers finding their voices and trying them out all over hell, literary A.D.D. is rampant. It's getting harder and harder for the individual voice to implant itself in a reader or writer's distracted head long enough to become an influence. Twenty or thirty years ago, when a writer was questioned about influences, the answers were pretty standard. There was Faulkner and Hemingway, Fitzerald and Woolf, and a few others; we all know their names. Now with so many dazzling, accomplished voices coming at us from all directions, a writer is most likely to ignore them all, and reach back into the past for a safe answer. Chekhov is the one I hear most frequently. Can't go wrong with the master of the short story.

A voice I still hear through the din is the one that was silenced this week. On hearing of Saul Bellow's death, I mourned him. And maybe that is one of the tests of a great writer; he or she has taken you so deeply into his world, his psyche; you've felt the triumph of their loves, and the annoyance of their pet peeves so acutely that when they die, you actually mourn. Not the way you grieve for a family member, but the way you might mourn a friend who you haven't seen in a long time.

It was lost in the detritus of many moves long ago, but I can still remember my battered paperback copy of Herzog. I'd defaced it with underlinings and furiously scrawled and largely unreadable notes to myself. And I also remember the experience of falling in love with that cranky, sentimental, crass and spiritual character right there on page 1, paragraph 1. (Who says love at first sight is restricted to good looking strangers in bars?) In many ways, Herzog, with his runaway impulse to communicate his petty complaints and his great passion to the world through writing letters to strangers, was the first blogger. He made me love the streets of Chicago with its outcasts and schemers, those who carried weapons, and those who carried nothing more dangerous than their own dreams. I loved it when Herzog said that he wouldn't consider leaving no matter how corrupt or dangerous the city became because his parents were buried there, and he could never be too far from their bones. Bellow got to me when he wrote things like that; he imprinted me. And when, in Humboldt's Gift, he described the formerly elegant poet of the title, ruined by drink and ego, dissheveled and paranoid as he furtively ate a hot dog on the street in New York, he imprinted me again.

Quite simply, Saul Bellow loved the world he found himself in. He loved it enough to write about it with passion and humor, with sorrow and stinging impatience. And he wrote in a way that made the reader love it, too. Now that's Li-te-ra-ture.