Ursula K. Le Guin
“Edgy” has passed its high point as the highest word of praise in the sophistico-critical vocabulary, but I’m sure something similar is replacing it at this very moment — an edgier word to imply dangerous, daring, nerve-wracking, aggressively shocking. Something like “fugu” — that Japanese fish that maybe kills you maybe doesn’t? — “For the fugu experience of your life, read Tad Grimgrocer’s fearless semi-fictional exposé of the kinky underbelly of the tampon industry.”
Meanwhile, we’ll have to coast along with “gut-wrenching.” Cover hype and blurbs continue to assure us regularly that if we read this book our guts will be wrenched. Also our eyeballs are very likely to be seared and our complacent assumptions shaken. That they go on repeating these phrases year after year must mean that it pays off, that readers want to be wrenched, seared, and sneered at.
It seems odd. If my assumptions are complacent, am I likely to go looking for books that discomfort, that disembowel them? Complacency, by definition, refuses to be made uncomfortable. Truly complacent people often do not read at all, because almost all reading is likely to tell you something you didn’t know and thus upset your complacency. There are complacent readers, of course; they read reassuring things that agree with their politics and their religion and bolster their assumptions. Probably the cover says it is “life-affirming.”
However, it seems to me that there’s something very complacent about announcing that your play or your book will shake people’s complacent assumptions.
Who are these complacent people anyhow?
The boojwazzee, I suppose… Artists are suppposed to épater le bourgeois, or we tell ourselves that we do, or we boast about doing so. But we have met the bourgeois and he is us.
In 21st Century America we don’t hear about the working class any more; we are all middle class. (A lot of us don’t have jobs and more of us than ever before go to bed hungry, which didn’t use to characterize the middle class, but never mind that.) There are the filthy rich of course, but they don’t read, they never have, there’s no profit in it. That leaves the middle class to épater itself.
My French dictionary says that épater means to break the foot off a wine glass, or “(slang) to flabbergast.” Can fiction still really flabbergast its readers, shock, shake, amaze, dumbfound, disturb, frighten them? Or can it merely continue meeting the expectations of those whose literary diet consists of revelations of infamy, perverted sexuality, violent injustice, monstrous brutalism, physical deformity, deliberate cruelty, and the mutual infliction of misery on one another by the members of dysfunctional suburban families?
These are revelations?
Is it news to most readers over five that people can be really, really mean to each other?
Or do they just like to read about it?
They do. I do. I sit open-jawed, horrified, enchanted to watch Atreus’s or Hamlet’s dysfunctional families destroy everybody who comes in contact with them in the process of destroying themselves. I am fascinated by Heathcliff’s cruelty and Ahab’s wicked madness and Lennie’s innocent murderousness.
But I don’t think Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Bronte, Melville, or Steinbeck were writing to horrify, to shock or frighten or sicken, to sear eyeballs or to wrench guts. They were aware of audience, oh yes indeed, but their intentions were not violent. They were not in assault mode. A writer whose intention is to frighten and distress the reader has a very aggressive program and a very limited goal. Serious writers want to do something beyond asserting power over their audience, beyond self-satisfaction, beyond personal gain — even though they may want all those things very much.
I think the mystery of art lies in this, that artists’ relationship is essentially with their work — not with power, not with profit, not with themselves, not even with their audience.
If this is true, a writer’s relationship with readers has no need to be aggressive, exploitive, coercive, or collusive. To writers whose essential relationship is with their work, the shock, distress, and fear their work may cause their readers to feel are means to an end, their only way of saying what they have to say. They will use these dangerous means carefully, sparingly, at need. The effect can be immediate, long-lasting, and profound. It can last several thousand years.
Writers whose work is not an end in itself but a means to gain fame, power, money, etc., may find that causing shock, fear, digust, etc. are a direct means to that end and can be hugely effective. They use them as a pusher uses drugs. The effect is immediate, brief, and trivial. It lasts until the next best-seller.
Readers who want no more than to get their jollies from the latest exploitation of the latest shock fad are praised by the blurbs for their courage in daring to read dangerous revelations, but I suspect that they’re just as complacent as the readers of “cozy” fiction — risk-free, knowing exactly to expect.
Good writers ask for our consent, in fact our participation in their work, our collaboration in its recreation on the stage as we watch it or on the page as we read it. I guess the reason they’re “good” writers is that they’re so good at winning consent and participation from us, persuading us to give them our trust, and rewarding it with something we did not expect.
That’s quite different from asking us to sit there guzzling another jolt of starbug caffeine while reading a novel in order to have our panic buttons pushed again.
Trust somebody who’s going to give us something we didn’t expect? But that could be dangerous!
Never fear. You’re safe. Just trust the cover copy folks. They’re all out there, ready to wrench your guts and serve them up in a presentation of fried eyeballs and fugu in complacency sauce. Bon appétit!
12 September 2011
Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her most recent book is Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country, co-authored with photographer Roger Dorband.
She contributed an original poem, “In England in the Fifties,” to Book View Cafe’s anthology Breaking Waves, which benefits the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund.