Peeking behind the curtain
Yesterday, I did a little catching up on the backlog of articles I’d allowed to build up on Instapaper. Reading Dan Kois’ piece for the New York Times, “Why Do Writers Abandon Novels?” helped kick my brain into some degree of action, to focus on some related issues that I’ve been mulling over for some time now. Why do we like peeking behind the curtain so much?
Kois’ article does much to humanise the author. If John Updike and Saul Bellow found writing difficult from time to time, then there is hope for us all, no matter what our endeavour.
But there is a particular grain of hope for those budding/procrastinating/pseudo writers among us. Such articles (and the like) show that novels do not just ‘happen’. Even the greatest writers are not presented with a story fully-formed. They were all budding writers once themselves. They have all failed. “We” could be “them”.
However, reading the piece again shows just what it takes to be a good writer. It is not just a question of talent; it is also one of persistence. Success comes with hard graft and honest work. That honesty may be in realising a book isn’t working. The hard graft is in putting in the time and effort to write something else. From that perspective, those budding/procrastinating/pseudo writers may be inspired to greater endeavour, or may just realise they aren’t cracked up to the job in hand.
So, perhaps there are two distinct reasons why we like peeking behind this particular curtain – first as readers, secondly as writers ourselves.
As readers, we like to unpack what makes reading enjoyable. I guess this is evident, especially if you look at critical writing and the like. But such exercises seem to be more popular and accessible than ever. It is no longer the domain of dusty academic halls. Michael Chabon annotates his unfinished novel “Fountain City” in McSweeney’s in a frank, unflinching way (well, apparently, I haven’t read it yet). Jennifer Egan’s website contextualises and comments on her work.
So, why is this happening more? Technology is clearly a factor. Writers can blog, tweet, or do whatever else they fancy to bring them closer to their reader. There is now simply so much more room for the off-cuts and the trivia that surround the actual “work”. Where a print publisher might baulk at this, or might have rejected work in the first place, the internet welcomes it. And then when it is clear there is a demand, the print publishers follow.
Also, perhaps we should go back to the birth of the novel, as summarised in Jonathan’s Franzen’s recent essay for The New Yorker. The growth of novels coincided with the growth in people’s free time. Maybe, despite calls to the contrary, we live in such as automated and service-industry-driven world that we really have more time on our hands than we think. We now have enough time to satisfy any curiosity around how art is created. We now have the time (and relatively speaking, the money) to foster (and satisfy) an appetite beyond wanting just the finished article.
We also now have enough time to label ourselves as “writers”, or at least aspire to that station. And so it makes perfect sense to want to pull open the bonnet/hood (to use another old cliché, and to try to make it understandable to both UK and US readers, and generally mix my metaphors) and see how the whole thing works. Any sort of abandoned attempt, or cut passage, or the like is gold dust. What is more valuable than learning from other people’s mistakes?
Writers (of the aforementioned budding/procrastinating/pseudo variety) may also want to feel closer to the experience of real, genuine, successful writers. Unpublished works are less adulterated, are nearer to the writer, as they have not necessarily gone through the same editors, revisions etc that a published work would do. It is much easier to see the inner workings, and especially so if the writer, like Chabon, is willing and able to comment on them with the benefit of hindsight.
Peeking behind the curtain (for want of a better term), is obviously not restricted to the sphere of literature. CDs increasingly have bonus material. Classic (and some not-so-classic) albums are re-released with the original demos and extensive sleevenotes.
Musicians are generally letting us in to the creative process much more than they did in, say, the sixties. While bootlegs were always available, there seems to be a greater demand than ever, and a greater realisation of that demand – even from the old guard. Bob Dylan officially releases volumes from a “Bootleg Series”. The Grateful Dead encourage downloads of their live performances.
Technology obviously facilitates this, but perhaps this is a lingering effect of the transparency and “anyone can pick up a guitar and play” ethos of punk, and then indie music. Plus, making music, and presenting it to the world, has become so much easier, with developments from the four-track to MySpace and beyond.
DVDs have given us countless out-takes, commentaries and director’s cuts of films. While there is an argument that this is just commerce at work, making films people have already watched more attractive to buy (see also: those re-released albums), it is clear that there is a demand. Maybe it goes back to us having more time on our hands again…
To go back to the commerce argument, maybe there is something of the Tupac Syndrome about this too. Once an artist has died, the publisher/studio/record label still wants to make money out of them, particularly in the short-to-medium-term, as nothing boosts sales like death. Death creates demand, in raising awareness and in a whole culture of wanting to find out everything about the deceased. Picking over the bones.
Anyway, back to the general curtain-peek-age argument. I’m a real sucker for it. I love to find out how art happens. I enjoy the preparatory sketches as much as the masterpieces in an art gallery. I subscribe to Tape Op Magazine even though I don’t make music. And yes, I hoover up whatever I can find from my favourite writers, as I am a reader and I am one of those pesky budding/procrastinating/pseudo writers.
I do, however, have one fear. When we are peeking behind the curtain, do we lose some of the magic? Is something lost by picking apart the mechanics of art? I know that after taking a short film studies course at university it took me a long time to enjoy films as a happy/passive viewer, as I was busy focusing on the technique, for example. Do I really, genuinely have any better idea of the writer’s craft because I’ve read a Paris Review interview? Can I love a song any more for listening to several different takes of it?
Does such curiosity help us gain a better understanding and appreciation of art, and perhaps help us towards becoming artists too? Or is this ‘industry’ just another means of fleecing the consumer, or perhaps something a little morbid and unnecessary?
As ever, thoughts, comments, criticisms most welcome…
In re whether bonus/previously unreleased material helps us better understand an artist and/or it’s just a cash-in: from personal experience, I’ll give an equivocal “It depends.” I’ve gone through and read alternate versions/earlier drafts of stories, and I like to see what the author was thinking: why did she change adjectives/shift point of view/etc? I sometimes like that with alternate takes on favorite songs. Sometimes, yeah, the additional material does seem like a cash-in or publicity generator. The glut of previously unpublished material from David Foster Wallace seemed to serve little other purpose than to build up anticipation for “The Pale King.” Is anyone other than a philosophy major going to have interest in his undergraduate thesis? Probably not, but it got published anyway. And just the other day, my RSS feed was graced the other day with news of a previously unpublished David Foster Wallace poem. I was kind of excited, until I read that the poem was from David Foster Wallace, circa age six.
The growing DFW industry was definitely at the back of my mind, especially as it shows the pros and cons of ‘previously unreleased’ stuff. Most of what he wrote is worth reading, but his childhood poetry is probably pushing it. Plus, any dead artist naturally conjures up more interest in their unreleased stuff as they can’t actually produce anything new, what with being dead and all.
I think one concern I have is that the music/book industries sometimes seem to spend more time on the safe bet of a well-known artist’s secondary work, rather than spending time finding and promoting interesting, new (but financially risky) artists.
You know who does the posthumous thing well? Roberto Bolaño’s estate. I’m not sure if he has a ton of things that just haven’t been translated into English or if there’s just a good trove of essays and unpublished novels lying around, but they seem to have found a way to release new (to me, anyway) high quality material: i.e., I subscribed to the Paris Review just to read the novel they’re serializing this year. But still, I agree with you: it seems like every critic got assigned to Freedom detail last year and they’re getting The Pale King duties this year. Freedom was good, and I assume The Pale King is too, but they’re going to sell anyway. If they’d give the same fawning credit to Skippy Dies or Open City, maybe we’d have a few extra platinum records.
I haven’t read any Roberto Bolaño. I guess that’s another name to add to the “to read” list.
I enjoy reading about Franzen and DFW as much as the next man, but even I’m getting Freedom/Pale King fatigue, and would like to read about something (or someone else).
*Adds Skippy Dies and Open City to to-read list too. Weeps a little.*
Thanks for pointing to that NYT article. Excellent.