George Orwell’s essay ‘Inside the Whale’ is, among other things, an examination into the state of English literature. It’s always comforting for a writer to read anything that suggests that somewhere over the rainbow is a place where people care about the written word. Orwell cares for at least two reasons, one being that he is susceptible to good writing, and the other having to do with his insistence that all literature is propaganda.
In part two of the essay, he takes up poetry. What does a generation’s choice in poetry say about it? He talks a lot about Housman, who wrote ‘poems that I and my contemporaries used to recite to ourselves, over and over, in a kind of ecstasy.’
Gee, I don’t recall my generation reciting poetry at each other. Mostly we sat around and listened to records.
Music, of course, is where the money is, so it’s no surprise that that’s the direction in which potential poets tend to gravitate nowadays. And for the consumer, a spoonful of music does help the medicine go down, especially when you can amplify it and annoy your parents. Electricity has not been good for that which for lack of a better term I will label ‘serious poetry,’ which finds itself in the position of Ravi Shankar at Woodstock, who said afterwards that the kids were so dazzled by amplification that they simply weren’t impressed when he offered them something quiet.
Novels are quiet, too, compared with movies, which are to novels as pop music is to poetry.
Is prose fiction a dying art? Golly, I sure hope not, although I confess that I do feel, as a novelist, somewhat quaint as I sit here in my tweed jacket, tapping away at the keys. I do wish that the electronics industry would stop coming up with more and more portable ways to watch movies. Books used to win hands-down when it came to portability.
And there’s the problem with proportion. There are far too many of us scribblers and not enough readers to support all the scribbledehobble. But that’s not a situation unique to writing. It’s universal in the art world, and I think I can safely say that it always has been.
Who wouldn’t want to be an artist? You’re free to play at whatever you want, and people pay you for it. Ah, there’s the rub. Most of the time, being an artist means starving in one way or another.
And yet we soldier on. What a noble lot we artists be.
What we be, actually, is obsessed, and we have no choice but to soldier on. The hard part is finding a way to both work and eat. I’ve always managed to eat, but the work has been neglected too often. One thing that getting my novel done has taught me is that writing really is a full-time job, or at least it is for me. I did nothing but write, sleep, and ride my bike for three months, and that seems to have been what it took. Jack Kerouac says that all he knows about writing is that you have to stick to it like a benny addict, advice that has always sounded right to me but that I hadn’t followed before.
Will people care? The few dozen people who have seen advance copies tell me they do. It sure would be nice to get my books from the printer, so I could start to chip away at the eating versus writing conundrum. Maybe I’ll even hit the jackpot someday, and young people will recite passages from my book at each other, in a kind of ecstasy.