|Gaston Bussière (French, 1862-1929): “Exotic Dancers”, c. 1880; oil on canvas, 45” x 35”|
Writing is a lot like stripping.
We all know that part of the pleasure of reading is encountering authors through their words. And we all know that part of good writing is letting enough of your inner secret self shine through.
I recently read Sam Lipsyte's novel The Ask -- which is excellent, by the way -- and there's a scene where a father with a toddler is dropping off his kid at a daycare, or trying to anyway, because they daycare is closed, and he encounters a mother trying to drop off her toddler, and they start talking in a way that is sort of jokey and flirty at the same time, and the father gets really caught up in it, and his marriage is sort of in trouble, and he thinks to himself, Hey, Are We Going Back To Her Place for Sex?
It's a great, great, scene. When I read it, I had the predictable experiences of Oh It Made Me See The World Differently and Oh I Felt Some Feelings! but in addition to that stuff I had a powerful sense of knowing something very intimate about Sam Lipsyte. Not something I could pin down. Not something crude like he had those particular thoughts or whatever. But something. Let's be honest: that feeling is a big part of the pleasure of reading.
The reason it's like stripping and not like simple undressing is that you have to keep the reader engaged. Someone who tells you everything right up front: that's boring. Someone who tantalizes you with just enough so you need to know more: that's the stuff of literary crushes.
Writing has become too much like stripping.
Much as I'm down with the whole yeah-you-gotta-show-yourself-dude! aspect of things, I think the revealing of the personal is way out of control. Readers -- and watchers, too, for that matter -- are obsessed less and less with the artwork and more and more with the person behind it. Memoirs are taking off. Reality TV is everywhere. Novels are in decline. Even novel writers are expected to be on twitter saying stuff about themselves to get readers interested.
I'm not afraid to say it: excessive interest in the producer of art is a serious moral failing. It's intellectually lazy, and it's often the product of a mind made soft from too much social networking, too much TMZ, too much Real Housewives, Top Chef, and Project Runway, and not enough -- well, not enough novel reading and sitting quietly thinking about stuff.
I mean, it's nice that y'all are so curious about one another. But this shit is out of control.
Writing on the internet is like stripping at a party full of strangers.
It's one thing to reveal stuff about your inner life on a piece of paper, where someone is going to be sitting quietly in a room alone and it's just the two of you having this intimate thing going on. It's another thing to reveal your inner life on the web, where there are zillions of people sharing a conversation in the comments about whatever personal thing you happened to share.
The whole internet comments thing is something I really did not see coming. It's especially weird to me when it's commentary on the news. I mean, I wasn't so surprised that people would want to share music and use Facebook and watch videos online. Seems natural to me. But the idea that people would be clamoring to make comments, dying to express their opinions, in short form, on random stuff in the news -- this just seems to me really surprising and strange.
For instance, this morning I got interested in a Globe and Mail article about open marriage. At the time I'm writing there are 281 comments on this article. Some of them say things like "Well, this might work for some people but not for very many" and "I wouldn't be able to do this I'm too jealous" and "An 'open marriage' isn't a marriage at all."
Leaving aside the quality and content of these comments, I just don't even get what motivates people to express ideas like this on the internet. Do they feel like they're talking with one another? Are they trying to connect? Do they just have a need to express something and have no other outlet? I just don't know.
If good writing is always like stripping but the revealing of the personal is out of control, there seems to me to be only one solution. We'd have to keep the striptease aspect of writing on the internet, but scale back the context and particulars. Like, you know how the Victorians were so covered up and weird about sex that they saw sexual excitement in everything? An uncovered ankle, the touch of a hand? Maybe it could be like that: everyone reserved enough about their personal lives that the merest detail would seem like a huge deal?
And now you're thinking "Seriously? Are you living on planet earth?"
I know, I know, But a girl can dream, can't she?