Imagine you want to create a work of art in fiction writing. Your topic? The nebulous and weighty matter of Identity. Let’s say you draw from all of your life experiences, your belief systems, your worldview. You bring it all to bear. And when it’s all said and done, the end result is basically, “I’m not really sure what to make of Identity, but I can riff for 200 pages, and keep you entertained on the fact that I don’t know what to make of it. But nobody really does, do they?”
I finished the book I was reading, Sorry Please Thank You, by Charles Yu, and this is what I came away with: the sense of being engaged for a short while by a street performer. First, he gets your attention with his best act, the real mind-blower of bravery and cleverness. You stop and watch, and then enthusiastically applaud, turning to your spouse and whispering, “Wasn’t that great? This guy is really good.”
Then the performer pulls out his next act – a very clever magic show. He does some tricks that you haven’t exactly seen, but they are not unfamiliar. Still, he deserves another strong applause. You’ve got time, so you wait while he does a few more tricks, throwing in variety at points, juggling balls, swallowing fire. He quickly changes his costume and repeats the same trick. Then seeing your enthusiasm start to wane he bursts into a tap-dance routine, struggling to be graceful, original and frenetic all at the same time. But you’ve seen plenty of tap-dancing, and this one is not especially interesting. In fact, you start to feel that it is just a tad pathetic. He is trying so hard, you think to yourself, and for what? You take a quick look at your watch hoping he doesn’t see you, because you don’t want to be rude. You smile at your spouse with that smile that says, “I’ve seen enough. How do we get out of here?” The acts seem to be getting cheaper, requiring less skill, like little tricks with his nose that he learned in junior high, but he won’t release you. Until finally, he brings out his big finale. It is somewhat of an uptick because he saved a special routine that involved playing three instruments at once and high-kicking while sparklers burn from various places. He gives a deep bow to your polite applause, and you add another dollar to the five you already stuck in his jar. You and your partner are finally free to move on.
As you walk, you guess that the guy had been toying around with a banjo for many years, and he probably took some tap lessons at some point, and read a book of magic tricks. You figure, based on the execution, that he had probably only been performing on street corners for a few months. And admittedly, you were moderately entertained.
I am not trying to be uncharitable. But in the role of the writer critiquing another writer, I am being honest. And I know someday the spotlight will be turned on to my work, and some blogger will be tearing it to shreds with greater vitriol and bile than I have done here. My wish is not to impugn Mr. Yu. He possesses more skill than most writers, and unfortunately I mean that. My desire is to reawaken readers to what once was (and perhaps still is somewhere, but just not in this book). My other desire is to inspire writers to reach ever higher. To delve as deep as possible into the well of your soul. There are short stories and novels that have the power to change you forever. Can you write one?
This is Yu’s second book – the first was an acclaimed novel. This second book is a collection of short stories. I have read that it is sort of an axiom among publishers that books of short stories simply do not sell. I don’t know if that’s true, because I know of several books of short stories that have done moderately well. And Mr. Yu’s collection has done quite well, bucking the trend. I am happy for him, and he is getting a fair bit of publicity. He was even interviewed on NPR. His popularity seems to be rooted in his ability to create new twists that brush up against some old science fiction themes.
But in view of what Faulkner said about all good literature arising from problems associated with the heart in conflict with itself, I’d have to say that only a fraction of the stories qualify as good writing. Too many are mere solipsisms – reflections on the self by alter-selves in which nothing happens except the contemplation of selfness. (In case you’re wondering, Faulkner did not mean solipsism when he said “the heart in conflict with itself.”)
It took me only 3 days to read, but not because I am a fast reader. I am not. But there is so much white space on the pages that frequently there is just very little text. One story is formatted so that there is only one sentence or paragraph in the center of the page, and you cover 40 pages in about 8 minutes. Another “story” is completely written in outline form. Another is three alter-selves talking to each other about the one person they all are, but never saying anything – just getting confused. This is all just a street performer tap-dancing with all his heart – sound and fury signifying nothing.
I say, we should insist on quality. Not that lesser writers should stop writing. They should not. But what we pay money for should nourish something inside. Stop giving your time and attention to every street performer, every acrobat, every clown, every hipster with vampire makeup on. Don’t be satisfied to look at shiny tinsel mosaic. Don’t be satisfied with horror shows dripping with fake blood. Insist on real blood! Don’t even be satisfied with easy love, because easy love is usually false love – it is just as easily lost.
The best literature tells you something about yourself and about the people you share the world with. It brings you close to The Mysterious, the unspeakable things of life. It also delights you with originality and a vision beyond what you possess. It does not rely on gimmicks or hat tricks, and it doesn’t simply imitate a successful formula.
You can only read so many books in your life. I say, don’t waste time on stuff that doesn’t matter.