Literary Agriculture, Austrian and Other Ways

My favorite bookstore is one located in a strip mall across the street from a cornfield, in the decidedly unhip part of town, where the owner, who gives off a slight Tom Waitsish vibe, sometimes attaches spontaneous discounts to purchases involving literary fiction.

My most recent bundle:

Crossing the Sierra de Grados by Peter Handke
3 Strange Tales by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Hectic Ethics by Francisco Hinojosa
Wonderful, Wonderful Times by Elfriede Jelinek

After looking them over, he mumbled something about "serious literature" and punched in what seemed to be a five percent discount, so quickly and habitually that I didn't even register he'd done it until after he had already moved on into talking about how he used to read fiction more often but now he mostly reads nonfiction.  I have no idea if he recognized me, but he's started similar conversations with me before.  This time he said that he would like to read more fiction but he finds nonfiction easier because if he's interested in a subject it's easy to get absorbed.  I was in a slight hurry, and I also usually have doubts about whether people really want to discuss something they bring up or are just making small talk, so I didn't pursue the subject.  But if I had I would have said, It's the opposite with me.

Firstly, creative nonfiction of the personal experiences variety is for me about on par with creative fiction.  The American obsession with truth bores me.  I'm not going to care (much) if it turns out someone's memoir is fabricated, but I'm also not going to read a memoir just because someone experienced something supposedly extraordinary.  I would rather such subject matter be put in the hands of a competent interviewer.  I don't trust people with their own experiences in a public forum for the most part.  Most, if they are convinced what they have to say is inherently important, will express themselves badly, in my experience.

That aside, when it comes to subject-based nonfiction, it is for me what fiction is for the bookstore guy.  It's something I respect but which is something of a chore for me to read, or at least more so than fiction.  Some people are real world junkies, they crave news and facts.  I find those things important, and they sustain me, but I don't crave them.  What I crave is to get into someone else's head.  As far as I can, for a brief period of time, which is something that you can't do with people in person.  It takes weeks, months of getting to know someone before you start to get into and past the first layers of emotion and experience, of the simplest explanations for why this person is who they are.  And in the culture I live in, that many of us live in, this is seen as the "real" part of someone.  That's the part of the culture that values the "truth" in autobiographical writing, that doesn't just want confessional-based writing but wants confessions.  To me this way of valuing truth is something dreadful, because it demands more truth than a person can possibly provide, it demands more of an explanation for WHY than anyone can provide.  It begins to cannibalize itself and remains a closed system that I nevertheless feel trying to pull me into its circuitry.

That horror story also aside, whether it comes to strangers or people I love, I ultimately find what lies past those layers of emotion and experience more interesting.  And what is interesting and lovable to me about humanity is in the way that place beyond arranges itself according to the logic it has been given and the will that has been imposed upon it.  What I want to know, when I read, isn't only what someone feels or knows but what they see.  And I like to feel that they've deliberately allowed themselves to see, have cultivated this ability.

So sometimes what I do is I deliberately go looking for fiction in translation, and I deliberately look for things that don't seem like the typical "foreign" story of clashes between generations or the modernization or Americanization of other cultures.  I look for books that don't seem so close to being marketed for a Western audience.  Reading a book in translation that contains certain aspects of a culture unknown to me is likely to contain a lot of stuff that's over my head, but this doesn't particularly discourage me.  Because even if I miss 90% of what's intended, I'm still getting 10%, and even if what I "get" is not what the author intended, it's still something.  It's a means by which to rearrange and maintain and cultivate my own internal logic and sense of being, and that helps me to be more interesting to myself and therefore hopefully a better writer and reader.  And that's how I more often than not end up with a stack of "serious literature."

No comments:

Post a Comment