Sunday, May 21, 2017

Words in different contexts....literature vs. life

“I don’t care whom I offend; I do care whom I hurt.” (Barbara Gowdy, Macleans, May 2017)

Speaking as a writer, whose imagination takes her into scenes, scenarios and narratives, sometimes with ‘outlandish’ characters, that stretch both her’s and her readers’ imaginations to their limit, this quote makes eminently good sense. In literature, the mouse really can ‘eat’ the elephant, giving the writer an unlimited universe of pictures, brushes, colours and even canvas-sizes to reach the reader.

It is the required and expected ‘suspension of disbelief’ that ‘covers’ the author’s license to rage and to explore and to infuse, in Gowdy’s case mostly the novel, with two-headed, multi-legged characters engaged in rampant coitus, for example, and garners a slice of readers that might otherwise never find these books. Readers are served a menu of people, plots and scenes that are almost expected to stretch them beyond their comfort zones, for purposes known first to their authors, and perhaps, after considerable reflection, then potentially by those who make it to the end of the fiction.

George Orwell, and Margaret Atwood are two prominent examples of writers whose work, (thinking specifically of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, respectively) ‘kick’ their readers to imagine different dystopias with tales that can and do leave only a foul taste in the readers’ “mouth”. The test of literature of this dystopic variety is not how outrageous are the characters, or the situations or the scenes, but rather whether or not it brings the reader to the place where s/he is willing to ‘suspend his/her disbelief and let the ‘story’ do whatever it must to the reader’s sensibilities.

As Orwell famously reminds us, all literature is political; so however the imagination and the courage of the writer converge to create the narrative and however that narrative impacts the reader is a unique and individual “interface” that stimulates impulses in the reader and generates feedback loops for the writer that together comprise a special kind of connection and relationship. And for a writer to be “afraid to offend” the reader is to restrict that writer to a position from which no risk is possible. Literature is for the writer, as Margaret Atwood reminded this scribe, decades ago,  “a leap off the cliff”…into a beyond that neither the writer, nor, of course eventually the reader can know or even understand prior to its unfolding. (The pieces in this space, for the most part, are not based on a “jumping off  the cliff” by the scribe, merely a nudging into a space of testing the toes of the imagination and the political consciousness into the waters of public engagement. Essentially, this space serves as an apprenticeship for a neophyte scribe whose whole life is another form of apprenticeship. Not caring whom I offend, as a guide-post for the writing of these pieces, would be unthinkable.

And the reason is simply that any shift in consciousness that will be sustained will more likely come from a reason-based, nuanced and subtle wakening, not from the radical, sensational and outrageous jolt of high-voltage electricity through the wires of character, plot or setting. That last sentence, on a re-reading, sounds a little absolute, arbitrary and worthy of contention. The obvious counter argument would come from the drowned little boy, on the beach of the Greek Island that brought a loud hue and cry over the Syrian/African refugee catastrophe that focused the world’s attention on the tragedy.

And yet, as the primary responsibility of the journalist/camera crew, such extreme headlines, especially accompanied with graphic photos, this kind of story grabs the reader/viewer by the throat and generates a spike in human indignation. And that spike lasts for a two or three day period known as the “legs” of the story. The news media depends on the audience sustaining interest in a story as the index for their depth and length of coverage, and the editors depend on this “legs” calculation for their positioning of the story: front, middle, back or perhaps editorial page location, and small, medium or large font headline.

On the other hand, perhaps in a similar but extended period, a writer of fiction watches the ‘popularity’ of the novel (play) through sales, reviews, book-signings, and rankings in various book lists, most prominent in North America being the New York Times Book List (for fiction and non-fiction).

This scribe has grown somewhat cynical about the trend in reading appreciation among the ordinary working ‘stiff’. Tweets, and instant seemingly guttural blurts on Facebook and social media, would potentially portend a shortening of the attention span of the population, a growing impatience with nuance, a growing desire and potential dependence on photo evidence and the concomitant required visual “literacy”. The conclusion that extended pieces that attempt to peel the onion on an issue might be part of a push-back on those energies would seem reasonable and somewhat cheeky in such a culture.

Hot-buttons generate headlines and perhaps advertising revenue. Yet, for every hot-button piece, there is a different, and more complex back-story that depends on a more reflective and a more nuanced inspection of the citizen responsibility for the headline. Portraying slums in Victorian England, at the time, was a risky and courageous writing experiment. Dickens demonstrated then a degree of courage and empathy that today we see in writers like Chris Hedges in his non-fiction work from the outcasts in America.

Without jumping “off the cliff” the readers in this space are asked to reflect on their own views on the issues sketched here, however briefly and superficially. And each of these pieces is written with the full knowledge and consciousness that the Viet Nam war was influenced and eventually terminated, not through the impact of “opinion pieces”, but as a result of the constant pounding of real-time photos from the war front on the television screens in American living and recreation rooms.

However, this scribe is not “on the front lines” of  political or military, or corporate or religious wars; the perspective available is merely one of the ordinary citizen, from a distance, dependent on the public coverage, reflective of the various incidents, quotes, or the implications of connecting some dots less likely to be connected by the media dependent on ratings and ad revenue. Fortunately, the web offers a considerably enhanced menu from which to select stimuli for reflection.

And as one less interested in being shocked by the sensational whether in war, space, or even in political debate, I find the exploration of the impact of public events and people on the cultural attitudes and emotions to be a theme worthy of excavating. This “inner horizon” whether considered to be spiritual, intellectual, historic, cultural or even philosophic, is a conscious exploration.


On the other hand, however, on the level of social behaviour, the Gowdy quote is not applicable to everyday life and the multiple encounters we all have with others. In those many cases, if and when we “offend” we also “hurt” the other. And the rising tide of unconsciousness of this social lubricant is quite unsettling and disturbing. Call this scribe “old-fashioned” but “offensive” attitudes, actions, words and incidents continue to erupt in too many days for too many people.

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