Sunday, July 27, 2003


I've been steadily reading through Bernard Malamud's novels and short stories over the past month or so. I don't understand why he's virtually forgotten: he must be one of the major American writers of the past fifty years. He seems to be out of print: certainly you can't buy his books here. Before I read him, I vaguely thought he was a "popular" novelist of no particular worth, along the lines of Neville Shute. So it was a bit of surprise to encounter such a thoughtful and literary writer. Maybe his sin was being popular: I don't know. Books like Pictures of Fidelman, an amazing collection of linked short stories, don't deserve to go down the memory hole. Don De Lillo and other giants of the current scene look pallid and trivial beside him.

Also reading Russell Hoban, who seems a stunningly different writer in every book, and finally going to seriously examine Phillip K. Dick. Discovered also another poet with a fantastic imagination: Michael Ayres, whose work, including poems and an extract from what looks like a hugely ambitious fantasy novel, is downloadable from the excellent UK mag Shearsman.

Daniel was saying last night that much contemporary writing, in its careful delineation of the banalities of ordinary life (he counts Kate Jennings Moral Hazard, which I enjoyed, as one example) is a kind of defeat. A mass artistic retreat from imagination, taking refuge in the accepted "ordinary", which challenges nothing about how the world is perceived. This chimes with the distress I felt recently when asked while on a panel (Poetry - Getting it out there) as part of the Readings@Miettas festival. The panel topic was not especially here or there, but there was a question from the audience which has reverberated around my head ever since.

The question was, "where is the poetry of ordinary life?" And behind this question there was another implied question, or even an accusation: that poetry does not concern itself with "ordinary life".

Which ties in distressingly with a comment made by Age columnist Hugh Mackay today:

The phenomenon of disengagement has been a dominant theme in social research over the past couple of years, and its causes have been thoroughly canvassed here. In brief, we have been destabilised by too many changes coming too quickly; we're tired of "issues", disappointed in our leaders and disturbed by our own sense of powerlessness.

In response, we have taken refuge in the celebration of our ordinariness, our normality, our domesticity. "Relaxed and comfortable" have become our goals, too: disengagement creates the illusion that we've achieved them.

Another way of putting this is to say we're scared, so we've switched off. You might even say we'd prefer to be lied to, if that would comfort us. (And who doesn't want to be told lies sometimes, even if they are transparent? Most of us welcome lies that make us feel better about ourselves, reinforce our prejudices and tell us what we want to hear.)

More later...

Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?