The Loss Legacy of First-World Writers

I want to share an inner monologue I had while reading Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.  As an aspiring writer gauging the merit of an established writer, this may come off as extremely self-deprecating, but this is not my intention.

I am committed to Kundera’s “legacy”. His is an apogee I may never surmount. Realistically, I thought about the level of greatness I was aspiring towards; Kundera, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Nabokov. Perhaps, my generation of aspiring writers is innately impaired. More than that, perhaps aspiring American writers (or any first-world aspiring writers) are aiming for a pinnacle that has closed its gates to us entirely. This concept stemmed from a very simple question.

What makes greatness?

First, let me establish what I perceive to be greatness versus legacy in terms of writers. The words are interchangeable, but for the sake of this argument they will take slightly different meanings.

To be considered a great writer is to be universally and timelessly acknowledged and lauded by fellow writers and academia in the field of literature, writing, and language. To have a legacy is to be withstanding throughout time, to be a milestone perhaps, but not necessarily recognized among peers or academia as a “Master of the Word”. Greatness is achieved through a prolific body or lifetime of work. Legacy can be achieved through one work that has a short burst of popularity that fifty years later might not ever be mentioned again. A distinguishing difference is that greatness is elected through popular vote and academia, whereas legacy is usually only popular vote (i.e., Twilight maintains popular vote, but the academia would not consider Stephanie Meyer a prolific or masterful writer, only an entertaining one.)

“Legacy” has another meaning; the sum of an entire lifetime’s work passed down through time. I know this gets confusing as I use this definition of the word in my opening paragraph to speak to Milan Kundera’s body of work and what it represents. Legacy is not necessarily accompanied by greatness. From here on I will use the words as I have defined them.

So, I pose again: What makes greatness?

After much deliberation over this question, this is what I came up with – experience. A writer that writes from experience or has experience to pen into their work is chapters ahead of the writer who only has imagination.

I am not discrediting imagination. It is impossible to be a successful writer without imagination, and some will argue that all writing is fundamentally based on imagination. I am not denying this or disagreeing with this. However, a writer that has experience has a perspective that one cannot imagine, simply because it is real. The reality comes through, sometimes subtly, in the diction, in the stylistic choices, in the vibrating passion underlying words.

Kundera experienced exile; Tolstoy experienced war. Perhaps the barrier between greatness and legacy is experience but also the timing of that experience. What macro hardship does the American author have to endure in this modern era? Most of a developed nation’s issues are reflections of internal or “micro issues” such as finding identity, finding happiness, finding love; certainly not revolution, famine or exile. Specifically, in America culture, we are in an era of tolerance. There is no real all encompassing dissidence. Americans are allowed to think and say whatever they please, and if everyone in the world disagrees with you – you cannot be persecuted, you cannot be silenced. There is no punishment; there is no consequence. (Note: Holes that I can foresee in this argument include the microaggressions and continued discriminations towards African-Americans and homosexuals. I want to make reference to these as to not seem callous but also as to why I do not consider these in this argument. I consider the struggles of the American homosexual or African-American “micro” in the global scheme of things. In America, despite skin color or sexual orientation, everyone may live with the option or potential of luxury and privilege. People who suffer from discrimination in America still have it infinitely better than in certain African or Eastern European countries.)

All the American, or first-world writer, has to offer the novel are stories about experienced micro issues and imagined macro situations. These imagined situations will be, even in the most subtle ways, evident in the novel. What makes macro situations greater than micro situations? Scope. A level of scope and understanding that cannot be imagined, only experienced. Here lies the fundamental difference between what establishes greatness.

Perhaps I will never achieve the pinnacle of Kundera because I have no understanding or experience of the macro situations that touch a nation, a world, and a people. Perhaps all first world writers are resigned to that same fate. We are born in the shadow of greatness because of the time and geographic location of our births.

Then my boyfriend derailed my dramatic train of thought by interjecting I was reaching for an excuse as to why I would fail. In which case, I have set myself up for failure before I even begin as talent isn’t confined to experience. What a killjoy… clearly he doesn’t understand that all I have are my first-world micro grievances. #FirstWorldProblems

On the Bookshelf: David Sedaris – Squirrel seeks Chipmunk: A Modern Bestiary

Squirrel seeks Chipmunk

Before I begin this book review, I should mention that this was my first David Sedaris experience. Now, here is why mentioning that is important – though Sedaris is a highly regarded author, and I would never question his merit, I was disappointed by this compilation of short stories.

First, a short history lesson: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a compilation of bestiaries. Historically, a bestiary is a short anecdotal tale about (you guessed it) various animals, accompanied by morality lessons. Bestiaries were wildly popular during the Medieval era. Some modern examples of bestiaries would include your run-of-the-mill fable. Everyone is familiar with the story of the Tortoise and the Hare or the Grasshopper and the Ant.

Bestiaries have evolved even more in the last few decades. Modern forms of bestiaries do not necessarily include morals. A recent instance of a modern bestiary without a moral is in the video game Final Fantasy VIII. Within the gameplay, there are reference lists of the different beasts and monsters you encounter during your journey and a short description of them.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a collection of satirical allegories united by that common theme. Sedaris puts his notoriously humorous spin on these allegories by personifying animals and placing them in human situations. I believe this serves to exemplify the sheer farcicality of human behavior amidst modern technology and dilemmas. Most of these bestiaries are structured similarly and riddled with different types of irony, mostly situational irony.

His style is formulaic. His choice of diction is clean and simple. There is a beauty in simplicity and a practical purpose within it. Simplicity works well against Sedaris’ ludicrous situations. While executed well, juxtaposed against the last novel on my bookshelf, Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, it seems ridiculously simplistic. (Though this is exclusively a matter of preference.)

squirrel-seeks-chipmunk21 squirrel-seeks-chipmunk1

The illustrations scattered throughout the pages of these fables are fitting. They are reminiscent of tongue-in-cheek editorial cartoons found in (archaic) newspapers.

There is a good handful of fables cautionary against religious superstition. And not just against the usual Catholicism or Christianity, but also against the new-age hippie philosophy, which, in its cultish fervor, could be considered a religion. As far as the religious argument goes I stand fairly neutral. So, I can objectively say – it’s been done, over and over and again! Frankly, I’m disappointed in the lack of creativity. Poking holes in the logic of religion is just too easy; it’s already done for you! While an advantageous effort, Sedaris loses points for allowing already established stereotypes and archetypes to do the majority of the work that the writer is meant to do.

There were a few stories that made me feel uncomfortable. These were the stories satirizing animal abuse. For example “The Motherless Bear”.

lat_bear103110_146508a_8colThis allegory tells of an adolescent bear whose mother dies a sudden death. The adolescent bear is mournful, but her grieving is soon replaced by her cravings for attention and sympathy. This urgent desire drives her out of her forest village into a traveling circus act where she meets an adult male bear performer. The bear performer is littered in festering open wounds, has only one leg, cannot speak well or eat solid food since his teeth have been knocked out, and has remained shackled his entire life. However, this adolescent bear doesn’t see this circus bears’ misfortune, only her need for attention. I won’t spoil the ending for you, (but since this is a fable, it’s pretty much telegraphed for you).

I understand the point of juxtaposing a tortured bear against a selfish one serves to highlight the absurdity of her self-serving ways. However, as an animal advocate, I am not comfortable with the idea that animal cruelty takes a secondary priority in the scope of this fable. This fable parallels a real story close to my heart – Raju the Elephant, who cried.

Raju endured fifty years of slavery and abuse at the hands of his owner for profit. This particular animal made headlines because he cried tears of joy once he was released from servitude. True accounts, like Raju’s, make reading stories that use animal cruelty as a device nearly impossible to read objectively. I am aware that this is due to my bias and experiences, however upsetting or alienating certain audiences is something an author who chooses to use controversial subject matter must be conscientious of and prepared for. Therefore, I feel justified in my opinion.

In summation, everything about this novel screams stereotypical satire; from the choices of irony to formulaic structure to illustrations. I find the execution of the concept while notable, trite as it has been done before. George Orwell did much the same in Animal Farm and, in my opinion, did it better. The fables your grandparents told you about the Tortoise and the Hare carry the same weight as Sedaris’ bestiaries; the only difference is Sedaris’ are humorous and published. His execution of technique and style are well done. Sedaris is a conscientious writer. I’m sure he weighs every stylistic choice heavily, which leads me to believe, that perhaps his style just isn’t my cup of tea.

The former begets the quandary of, ‘when great writers write mediocre things.’ Not to dismiss, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk as mediocre, but when creating a book of fables, most of the work is already done. Perhaps the key to this particular quandary rests in my expectations of David Sedaris’ highly regarded talent. I am sure I am not the first person to read a work by an accomplished writer and come away sordidly disappointed. I pose this question at the end of this review because I am hard pressed to write any accomplished author’s work off (no pun intended) as anything less than great since they have established merit. I’d be interested in hearing others’ thoughts. Is it a matter of preference? Could the work really just not be as good as critics made it out to be (usually for marketing purposes)? Or is it just expectation?

I hope this does not dissuade anyone from enjoying this particular piece of fiction. I will continue to read more David Sedaris novels.

Did Milan Kundera telegraph the advent of social media?

Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding.”

~Milan Kundera~

Referencing the last paragraph in the excerpt of Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, it appears that Kundera was telegraphing the advent of social media, but furthermore prognosticating the effects of such a cultural phenomenon. There are parallels between Kundera’s coined “graphomania” on his generation and the effects of social media on our generation.

As described in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting “graphomania” is:

Graphomania (an obsession with writing books) reinforces and aggravates the feelings of general isolation in that everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without.”

In this abstract concept, Kundera is speaking to the universal and timeless human quality – self-preservation. Though this instinct is inextricably part of humanity’s DNA, civilization and technology have re-wired the human brain so that it functions more akin to self-obsession. The concept of self-obsession is motivated by something even more powerful that instinct – ego.

Freud’s notoriety was based entirely off of the ego. Likewise, so is Mark Zuckerberg’s and all his precursors.

As in Kundera’s generation, housewives needed to xerox their diaries to create the “Wall of Mirrors” ( this is just a tangible example, I harbor no hidden agenda against housewives). In this millennial generation, everyone has a “Wall of Status Updates and Pictures”.

Everyone wants a Facebook, a Twitter, a Tumblr, an Instagram, or a WordPress (guilty as charged). Social media has evolved from a means of mass social connectivity to a self-contained empire breeding and gratifying selfishness. We post pictures and write statuses about the most important life events, such as a death or a birth of a child; and the most mundane, what we ate for lunch or where we ate it. These “posts” or “tweets” allow our “followers” (Followers? Have we just regressed 100 years in history?) to envy, ogle, follow, and “like” you.

One could argue that postings on social media sites allow us to stay connected with loved ones through distance. Sure, that is one possibility for social media, but to the person that argues this point I pose another question.

How often do you check your families social media pages or your friends’? Once, twice a day? Or perhaps only when it pops up in your newsfeed as you are scrolling through your mobile app waiting in line at Starbucks. That sounds more accurate for the majority of my generation, again, guilty as charged.

Here is the conundrum: we expect to post a photo and receive at least several (definition of “several” subject to interpretation) “likes”, “comments”, or “re-tweets”. If this quota is not met, we are deemed unpopular on social media, and a correlation is made to our popularity in “real” life.

In this instance, we have failed at becoming immortalized and run the risk of being erased from the pages of history entirely. We as humans must leave our immutable mark.

Failing to become immortalized through our “photos” and “statuses” provokes us to populate another’s social media page. We “like” and “double tap”, and “comment” in hopes that the other party will reciprocate, thus immortalizing you on your social media page.

Kundera describes this fear, inspired by the ego, as the primary motivation for his generation wanting to become writers and surrounding themselves with their “Wall of Mirrors”, i.e., graphomania. For Kundera, he saw these desires in the form of words. In our technological generation, we see traces of this desire in the form of “likes” and “re-tweets”.

It sounds much more like a self-serving cycle than genuine communication with another person, doesn’t it? We may have gone into creating our social media pages with intentions of sincere communication, but this is not where we, as a culture, have arrived. Where we have arrived is indicative of mass isolation, universal deafness, and at times, lack of understanding, exactly what Kundera foretold.

“Graphomania” is a familiar concept to millennials. We call it “Facebooking”.