Tuesday, May 16, 2006

I am spending time thinking about the Best Novel Ever.

Today has been an interesting process of writing maybe 200 words of a story due tomorrow, then spending an hour doing something else entirely, such as reading my gossip newsfeeds or posting about Big Love on Television Without Pity. It looked like I had exhausted all procrastination methods (including! cleaing the bird cages!! all three!!!) until my mom emailed me a New York Times article about the best novel of the last 25 years. Before I opened the email, I said out loud, "Beloved, by Toni Morrison." Sure enough! There was Ms. The Bluest Eye herself, at the top of the list! I felt like a genius, a cultural know-it-all with her finger firmly up the ass of popular culture, for a good 30 seconds.

When I read Beloved, it was part of a senior-level class at Barnard called "The Modern Novel" or "The American Novel" or some such. It was taught by the kind of elegant, grey, tweedy, Connecticut-ty professor that are manufactured expressly to supply women's colleges with professors. I couldn't tell you a single other book I read in that course, but I. Remember. Beloved. It was everything to me. I re-read chapters the minute I finished them, trying to parse out the poetic references, the different voices, the homages to Faulkner ... I was astounded that any one person could produce a work that went so deep and wide into the dark soul of American history, into love, into cruelty, into flashes of joy so sweet you wonder if they were worth having, because everything is more drab in their absence. I'm -- I mean -- The flush hasn't worn off. I reread this book every once in a while and it wrecks me each time. Wrecks me. Each and every time.

The funny part is that after I read it, I stopped writing for like three years. My idea being, "Well, now that this has been written, nothing else needs to be said. Or if it does, I'm sure as shit not going to be able to say it." That's sort of horrifying in a way, but really, did the world need more navel-gazing fiction from a 21-year-old? No. And, I mean, I eventually picked up my, er, cursor again. Toni M. forced me to -- well, to dovetail this story with another making the rounds today, she forced me to NOT feel entitled, to realize that, shit, this is what real brilliance looks like, and I just don't shine in that way. Not yet, maybe not ever. Maybe Kaavya Viswanathan could have avoided her mess if she'd just read the same book. And, you know, taken some notes in class.

The next thing I learned, as I worked backward through the Toni Morrison oevre, ending with The Bluest Eye, is that you can start off non-brilliant (er, downright crappy) and work your way up. I went on an orgy of reading my favorite novelists' first or almost-first novels: Surfacing, by Margaret Atwood (who at the time hadn't even broken through to her best writing); Meridian, by Alice Walker (want to be depressed? seriously depressed? in the middle of the summer while working as a camp counselor in middletown, ny? WELL, DO YA?). What a relief: It's OK to not be brilliant. It's normal! I can write several crappy books before I get brilliant.

Of course, none of this explains why now, at my advanced age, I am still writing crap and am about as brilliant as a swarovski-crystal body-tattoo, but... well, it meant a lot to me at the time. So yay for A.O. Scott and yay for the New York Times Book Review and yay for Toni Morrison. Yay.


ThursdayNext said...

I give you so much credit. My favorite Morrison book is "Sula." I loved that. I got halfway through "Beloved" and put it down. I just didnt have the ooomphin my brain to understand it in its entirety! As for you, if you feel you are writing crap...stop, pause, and write the beautiful...because you can.

Madfoot said...

Remember, my dear -- I was reading it as a class assignment. Even at my Seven Sisters college, this meant I had a lot of hand-holding. If there isn't a Norton edition of this book, I recommend reading it with help from a Reading Group Guide, and/or a reading group, and/or Cliff's Notes, which are GREAT if you read them with (as opposed to instead of) the book.

And, well, THANKS! My prose just needs some TLC, like my garden and my birds.

jennifer echols said...

Your books are not crap. I LOVE your books, especially, ironically, the first one. As teens, Catherine B. and I used to swap awesome YAs and then talk out what amounted to modern-day fanfic about them, but replacing the characters with ourselves and boys we liked. ;) When I finished Focus on This, I called her immediately and said, "You have to read this book! It is one of THOSE books!!!" (Of course she has not read it. Of course she has not even read MY books so don't feel bad.)

Madfoot said...

oh! that! is so nice of you to say!!