Writing that Sucks

If he had not been hit by a laundry truck–There’s a great story about that encounter that, if not true, should be true. Barthes was walking home along the streets of Paris one winter when he was struck by the laundry truck. The truck driver leaped out of the car, saw Barthes lying on the street in front of his truck, and shouted, “Mon dieu! I’ve killed Roland Barthes!” That a laundry truck driver knew Barthes by sight slays me. If something similar were to happen in New York City, say, the driver would not shout, “Oh my god! I’ve killed Harold Bloom!” but “Oh my god! I’ve just killed some fat guy! Did you see how he jumped out in front of me? Really! He just appeared! He stepped out from behind that parked bus!”Anyway. If he had not been struck and killed by the erudite laundry truck driver, Barthes would probably be blogging today. Of course, he would be 91 years old, but still, blogging interesting things.One of his first passages speaks to me especially loudly, as it seems to validate my reading life and my blog title. He asks us to imagine a man who is able to abolish all barriers within himself so that all languages, illogicality, and incongruity may be accepted. This man, according to the laws of society, would be, as Barthes says, a “mockery.” But who is this strange fellow, he asks us rhetorically. This “anti-hero” is “the reader of the text the moment he takes his pleasure.” When we read, we take pleasure in seeing “the Biblical myth…reversed” and we realize that “the confusion of tongues is no longer a punishment.” Reading allows us to “gain access to bliss by the cohabitation of languages working side by side.” All of the things that ordinarily strike against each other, all of the things that cause friction, all of the things that are wildly incompatible with each other are able to cohabitate in our books. What a lovely thought.Barthes goes on to talk about how writing attracts the reader, and I see in his discussion some friendly cohabitation with some of the ideas I threw out the other day about writing. Barthes speaks elliptically about a sort of seduction that goes on with the writer and the reader. He says that he “must seek out this reader (must ‘cruise’ him)” to find a “site of bliss” where the “game” between reader and writer may be played. He says that he is not seeking the person, the actual reader, but the site. This site is crucial because it allows the reader to walk in and join the writer, who can then lay on the full press of seduction. It is a game with unpredictable, and therefore exciting, possiblities. But what happens when writing is bad? Barthes does not use the same metaphor that I did–literary masturbation–but one that is more basic, perhaps, and certainly reveals a Freudian interpretation of the relation between the writer and his or her work. He calls boringly bad writing “that foam of language which forms by the effect of a simple need of writing.” That last part strikes me in particular–the need of writing. There is a lot of bad writing out there that is produced because of the sense that one must express something, never mind if it’s boring or stupid or predictable or banal. Barthes goes on: “the writer of this text employs an unweaned language.” Essentially, the writer is still suckling at the breast, producing writing that sucks. Here I can see the similarities between our points, and I realize that Barthes’s image works much better than mine. The unweaned language is “imperative, automatic, unaffectionate.” Let me consider these qualities for a moment and see how they compare to my idea of literary masturbation. First, imperative. You must read this. See what I have to say because my story is worht it. Now, when I spoke of literary masturbation, at the time I was referring to writing that is not allowed an audience. However, I think there is that same imerative impulse: I must write because I must tell my story–it is narcissistic and solipsistic. The second, automatic. Here I think of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” where he speaks of prefabricated chicken coops of langugae–the set words and phrases that roll easily off the tongue but are essentially meaningless. Automatic writing is like this. There is something more to it, though. Automatic writing participates in a set of expectations about what writing is and does without thinking about language in any significant way. I think of the memoir fascination and the James Frey “scandal” of a few months ago, where Frey made up most of the horrible things that appeared in his memoir. He, and many other immature writers, I think, see a pattern of writing (I hesitate to call it a genre, becuase I’m feeling snobbish at the moment) and blindly, blithely pour out more of the same. This repetition is also imperative in that it says, “They are writing about their lives, so I must write about mine because I am worth reading about.” Finally, unaffectionate. Barthes seems to be saying that the seduction part is left out, and he means seduction in two different but complementary ways. Writing that fails to appreciate and love langauge will not win over any readers. This sort of text is “a frigid text.”The writer who fails to take into account the reader becomes “nothing [to the writer] except this address.” Again, this sounds like solipsism, writing that is about itself and not about looking for that “site of bliss” where the reader may become enthralled. Writers who use the reader as merely “a vessel for expansion” are unweaned, immature, and worst of all, boring.I said that someone who writes without letting anyone read that writing was practicing literary masturbation. I believe that the same impulse lies beneath Barthes’s unweaned writer. The former fears an audience and tries to write for no one. The latter has no real concept of the audience and writes as if the reader is merely an extension of the writer’s ego. Neither is comfortable with the seductive game, the “dialectics of desire,” that creates literary bliss.

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