Friday, January 30, 2009
Whitehead on Bellow -- or, er, Woods.
The bookstores are too full today of writers who have nothing to say. If there is nothing at stake for the characters, then nothing can be at stake for the reader. The writer of fiction must embrace a moral vision, or else he is little more than a cheap Fleet Street haberdasher. I decided early on that the work of Saul Bellow was an exemplar of this aesthetic imperative. You will recall the famous opening sentence of good old Augie:
I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted.There it is in all its Bellovian glory, the bluster and bombast! Can you smell it? The musk of a virile sentence drawing blood into itself? It is about to spread the labia of mediocrity and rut with the ineffable. We could all do worse than to write like Saul Bellow. And when I say write like Saul Bellow, I mean be Saul Bellow. And when I say be Saul Bellow, I mean unzip the skin from his body and wear it as a sort of Saul Bellow suit so that we can get cozy in it and truly inhabit it and understand the Old Macher. Except he is dead. And he was quite short, so your ankles and wrists would poke out of the flesh suit as if you were some ruddy-cheeked schoolboy who has outgrown his uniform, grimly trudging home from the elementary school and dreaming that one day you will write and be free from all these dullards and their cruel jibes—
Where was I?
Colson Whitehead, "Wow, fiction works!", in Harper's Magazine.
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