The Writer as Reader: Melville and his Marginalia


William Giraldi in The LA Review of Books:

Melville remains one of the best American examples of how every important writer is foremost an indefatigable reader of golden books, someone who kneels at the altar of literature not only for wisdom, sustenance, and emotional enlargement, but with the crucial intent of filching fire from the gods.

How might Melville react to today's writers' conferences and creative writing workshops in which so many have no usable knowledge of literary tradition and are mostly mere weekend readers of in-vogue books? An untold number of Americans will finish a book manuscript this year, and the mind-numbing majority of them will be confected by nonreaders. How can a nonreader imagine himself an author, the creator of an artifact that he himself admittedly would have no interest in? Can you fathom an architect who's not fond of impressive buildings, or a violinist who has never listened to music? The erroneous assumption among the multitude is that writing doesn't demand specialized skills. In The War Against Cliché, Martin Amis offers this explanation why so many wish to “join in” the game of literature: “Because words (unlike palettes and pianos) lead a double life: we all have a competence.”

The Austrian journalist Karl Kraus, an aphorist as scathingly accurate as Oscar Wilde and H.L. Mencken, once quipped: “So many people write because they lack the character not to.” By “character” Kraus meant the good sense to know that not every story is worth telling; not everyone can muster the intellectual, emotional, and narrative equipment needed to succeed as a novelist. But the abracadabra of the internet has transformed us into a society of berserk scribblers; now anyone can have a public voice and spew his middling stories and thoughts at will. Forget that blog is just one letter away from bog, or that the passel of burgeoning “literary” websites is largely a harvest of inanity with only the most tenuous hold on actual literature. Our capacity for untamed, ceaseless communication has convinced us that we have something priceless to say.

More here.