Evolution and The Artist

June 30th, 2004 · No Comments
by Booksquare

We don’t normally link to book reviews — we find them interesting, but not necessarily fascinating. But Salon’s review of David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion made us pause. So much so we had to make a second pot of coffee to think it through. Laura Miller describes Wallace’s shift in humor as shedding his inner Thomas Pynchon (how nice that someone mentions Pynchon’s humor) toward his inner Samuel Beckett (also funny, which we do so adore in a man). Underlying her observation is the sense that Wallace’s earlier readers may not be willing to follow him down his new path.

Why is it that we like our artists in pigeonholes? Nobody seemed to mind much that Shakespeare moved casually from comedy to tragedy with forays into sonnets (at least we have no evidence people minded — perhaps his patrons tore out their hair in frustration; it might explain the use of wigs). When Jim Carrey did The Cable Guy, people didn’t like his dark side. We thought it made sense; comedy is frequently the stuff of darkness.

We see this aversion to artistic growth even in genre fiction, especially romance. When authors make a natural progression toward more complex or different works, their fans plant their feet and cross their arms across their chests. “Oh no, we won’t go.” Not all fans, we should note, but just enough to form a disturbing pattern. This concept isn’t, of course, unique to romance. We believe it’s why so many authors churn (and we dislike this word, but cannot find one more appropriate) out sub-par efforts. They are locked into reader expectations with no hope of release. Because the long-term income prospects of a writer are shaky (and day jobs so soul sucking), we suspect many authors resign themselves to their fate while trying to grow outside their boxes.

Last night, we attended a reading by Leslie Schwartz. She’s a big believer in structure; her philosophy is that structure sets you free. One need look no further than genre fiction to see the truth of her statement. The rules of genre fiction offer incredible challenges, and working within them exercises your creativity. But there’s structure and then there’s prison: writing the same story (names changes to protect the innocent) time and again because disappointing your reader base is unthinkable. After all, mortgages don’t pay themselves.

We don’t have an answer to this conundrum, though our feelings are along the lines of “Damn, the torpedeos.” Even if it sometimes turns to “Damn, the torpedoes.” It’s up to the artist to be brave. And that’s a scary thought.

  • The horror, the horror: David Foster Wallace delves into the heart of human darkness in his chilling new story collection.

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