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A literature student grows up

If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”

T.S. Eliot- “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

When I was younger, I eagerly devoured writing (in a variety of forms and genres) that was personal, confessional, and revealing. I loved to read about an the personal demons and private struggles of authors, both famous and obscure. If I identified with the author’s revelations, reading such stories was a comforting experience: it assured me that I was not alone in my experiences and struggles. But even if I couldn’t relate, I preferred personal and confessional writing, and reading it and emulating the style in my own writing (both private and public) became an act of defiance, a proclamation, a rebel yell. I saw it as a form of activism. I stubbornly clung to the idea that the world would be a far better place if writing was more intimate, revealing, and confessional. A self-proclaimed crusader for the demolition of traditional and modernist notions of the value of authorial expertise and authority, I flippantly dismissed transpersonal writing, perceiving it as an outdated and oppressive relic of the past. I dreamed of a future in which every author’s voice carried equal weight, and believed that this future would come about only when the personal had fully destroyed the transpersonal, and when the experts and the authority figures had been knocked off their perches. I committed myself to bringing about that future.

That’s not the entire story, though. During that period, I was studying literature, first in college and then in graduate school. And I had a secret: I preferred modernism and the transpersonal. I deeply respected earned authority and expertise. I felt quite ashamed of this. To admit it would be to sell out, to betray my principles. How, I asked myself in exasperation, could I let literary merit get in the way of my cause?

It took a few years, but I eventually grew up. I realized that my crusade was selfish, silly, and childish. I came to understand the ridiculousness of the idea that personal and confessional writing is inherently more valuable than transpersonal writing. I was mortified when I realized just how immature I had been. I understood, at last, that if I (or anyone else) truly respected and loved literature (and I do, oh how I do!), I could never again use it as a tool for my own personal crusade.

Looking back, I can’t help but cringe in embarrassment. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, though. I don’t know. All I do know is that I’m extremely grateful that I came to my senses when I did.

  1. I share your preference for personal and confessional style writing, it feels like the author is talking to you instead of in general. It is a lot like the difference between a conversation with a mentor or being one of many attending a lecture. As you said, both are valuable, but it doesn’t mean we can’t have a preference.

    July 18, 2011
  2. Benjamin S Nelson #

    I was much more comfortable with modernist stuff when I was wee, which is probably why I’m not ashamed of reading something that is a bit more self-indulgent now. I feel like the spirit of avant-gardeism needs to be protected and nurtured.

    But I draw the line at “Naked Lunch” or “Ulysses”. At some point self-respect kicks in. Experimentation is great, but quite often the experiment is a horrible horrible failure.

    July 18, 2011
  3. Have you read any works by Latin American authors? Like fine wine, they seem to only get better with age. Of course, if you can’t read them in the original Spanish or Portuguese, a lot depend upon the quality of the translation. Some are great… some pretty pathetic.

    July 18, 2011
  4. I had a similar experience in my own growth as a person. for me, it was not so much about writing, but an attitude about interpersonal relationships. I still believe that there is usefulness in communicating with the world in an open way that tears down the social walls that we build up (The Wall, as Pink Floyd called it). I still believe that allowing people to see the real, vulnerable, and delicate me is a thing of importance and beauty, but i also recognize that not all people are capable of appreciating it, and so I reserve that privilege to those who I think can appreciate it.

    It’s not exactly like your example, but it has structural similarities. Thank you for sharing.

    July 18, 2011
  5. Alexander #

    A great post Miranda, and one I think many bibliophiles can relate to. There is no need for you to be hard on yourself, since at least you own up to your mistake. Personally, I went through a similar phase in my late teens, where I looked down on any book that did not fit in with my understanding of what was the socially accepted realm of intellectual literature (even if I secretly considered some of these “intellectual” books I was promoting to be pompous and self-aggrandizing). It was stupid and childish of me to set such a shallow requisite , and I now try to see the value of any piece of literature simply on the merits of its individual prose. But old habits do die hard.

    I see a similar trend happening in music, with people dismissing entire genres and decades worth of artists only because it falls outside their realm of what is “true music.” But that is completely off-topic. Cheers, and good writing.

    July 19, 2011
  6. petercx #

    A great post. A couple lessons to be teased out. The first: at 22 you felt confident that your narrative on what kind of writing had the most value was correct. Then 10 years later you realize it wasn’t correct at all. Definitely the sign of an open mind so big self-respect points there for seeing it and embracing the new narrative. So two things: why be grateful? Grateful to who? You made the change and you were able to see the value so it seems you get full credit. Next point: You should expect this process to continue every ten years or so. Plan on looking back 10 years from now and seeing an embarrassing picture. If you’re lucky, you will continue to mature for a long time and so this pattern will repeat itself. Enjoy the ride and I hope I get to see just some of that joy.

    July 21, 2011
  7. QuentinTheThird #

    Horrible to hear someone call Ulysses a failure! What hubris you have Benjamin. To say War and Peace is bad literature because it is long and tedious is simply laziness, not a reflection on poor quality. To mention Naked Lunch and Ulysses in the same sentence is comparing Andy Warhol to Magritte, respectively. Burroughs was a murdering sociopath, Joyce filled his literature with deep feeling and observation.

    That being said, not all literature must be the kind of introverted style that we too often get these days in the post-modern drivel that passes for literature. It was Faukner who characterized literature after the 50’s as “being of the glands” rather than the heart. This is the fundamental transition and, somewhat despicable amorality, which has possessed the literary world.

    I’m not even sure I know what “transpersonal” writing is. It would have been nice for the author to define this term. All I have is a vague metaphysical concept from wikipedia.

    October 16, 2011

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