Weird and Wonderful: U-Write-It

No, this is not some new outline-type software that gives you a scaffold to start a novel on and you fill in the blanks. (That’s such a good idea, though, I’m sure there’s something out there like that.)

U-Write-It is actually a Stanislaw Lem story from his collection, A Perfect Vacuum. The “stories” in A Perfect Vacuum are not really stories at all. They’re reviews of books that have never been written. Sounds like a joke and indeed a lot of it is funny, but the premise would get old quickly if that’s all there was to it. Lem’s comedy is never just that. There’s always more to it and with him, comedy and tragedy are twin sons of different mothers.

Lem himself provides a review of A Perfect Vacuum. It serves as a preface or introduction but reads like one more review of a non-existent book. This time, though, the book is quite real. You paid for it, after all. Funny idea. The tragedy? He’s the only one that can write a review of the book.

Genius comes to those who are obsessed. Well-rounded individuals rarely possess the stamina. Lem is unusual in that he is well versed in the entire world, a genius on many levels. From quantum physics to linguistic theory to political machinations, he knows a lot of stuff. This makes him hard to understand at times, but when he hits on a subject you are familiar with, he blows you away.

The whole idea of this book is pure genius. Why write a bunch of books to get your philosophy across? Why not just sum it up. Easier than framing it in a convoluted plot that involves a cast of thousands.

Take for instance U-Write-It. This story is not a review of a book but of a kit. A writer’s kit, in fact. U-Write-It is called a “literary erector set.” It’s a book-shaped box that contains directions, a prospectus, and a bunch of building elements: pieces of paper with bits of famous prose printed on them. The prose comes from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Lucy Maud Montgomery, etc. The idea is for you to build your own book, mixing and matching bits of classic texts. The result will surely be well written but at the same time, new and of your own making.

Silly idea certainly and possibly not much to work with, but Lem builds his story around the effect U-Write-It had on the literary world. Critics received it with dismay, anger even, wringing their hands at the thought of besmirching the masters’ intentions, manipulating the classics, painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

In the end U-Write-It failed not because the masses agreed with the critics that the original works were sacred, but because they couldn’t tell the difference between “the book of a fourth-rate hack and the epic of Tolstoy.”

How much easier to illustrate this idea with a summation than to go through an entire storyline with climax, subplot, subtext, protagonist, antagonist, sidekick, and happy ending. Who would publish such a book anyway? Who would get such a premise?

Stanislaw Lem–Weird and Wonderful genius.

Sue Lange
Sue Lange’s Bookshelf at BVC

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