Reflections on Necessary Roughness in Fiction
William J. Jackson
The problem I’ve been wrestling with is this: there is a great divergence of audiences, with different standards. The spectrum runs from the prim and proper audience viewpoint, not too different from the mainstream ‘50s of Ozzie and Harriet, all the way to extreme movies and cable TV shows and novels with many four letter words and complex situations, like HBO’s “The Wire” and “The Sopranos.” Even CBS and NBC TV shows now regularly use more realistic spoken language, curse words, funny slang, street banter. There is a spectrum in audiences for short stories and novels too.
I've been a writer for 50 years now. I write both fiction and non-fiction.
I often think of my fiction writing as sort of rough-edged. I've spent 50
years acquiring an eye and ear for certain colorful rough-edged materials to include in my fiction compositions. (I do the same in my collages—I like to compose visual art with found objects.) This element of roughness includes rough-edged language, which people often use when speaking unselfconsciously in private conversations, and also quirky rough and rude actions, which are later repressed by forgetfulness or denial. Unpolite, informal, spontaneous, emotional off-the-cuff reality. Controversies. Textures of everyday life. Not the slick veneer of nice ordinariness, but vivid bits of life that are unforgettable. Fifty years later you’re still haunted by some phrases and gestures—now that’s what I call vivid.
For example, in my novel Diving for Carlos, toward the end there is a graveyard scene, in which a gang of teenagers are drunk and in a destructive mood. In the darkness they stumble among the tombstones and curse, fight among themselves, using the harshest language they can think of. I wanted that scene to stand out as one full of funny adolescent obscenities. I wanted that high school graduation night scene to be wild and memorable, the climax of a phase of the characters’ lives. I used strings of slang insults and curses, vile language liberated from everyday life and captured in art.
I have encountered some editors who seem determined to remove all rough edges from texts. They seem unsatisfied until everything they've never heard of, everything they disapprove of, and everything they are embarrassed by and disagree with, is deleted and the text is smooth, with no rough edges of real life left, a cartoon book of safe conventional words being all that remains. They assume that if a writer uses harsh language it is because he is not aware that polite society forbids it in conversation. They assume it was not a conscious choice made by the writer to give life to a scene, but a lack of knowledge about how to write a proper conventional scene.
They try to make the work conform to their sense of what's right and neat, to turn it into a consumable confection, standard inoffensive fare, the expected and acceptable. Meanwhile, using realistic slang is a conscious choice in my aesthetic. I deliberately composed it to be wild, jarring, outrageous, compelling, full of life’s rough and tumble dynamism. It is through the elements of the wild and grotesque, and the power of untrammelled spoken language, that I seek to give daring vitality to my work. In the aesthetic I like to work with there are spots of rough reality, cinema verite, with tell-it-like-it-is flare, irrepressible vitality breaking through the curtain of conventions. I think these elements help keep people honest, and prevent being lulled into bamboozlement.
I'm not talking about editing to make thoughts clearer, because that is always desirable, but about the removal of language and issues that are not polite, and risk being always politically correct. I like roughneck imagination--the rugged shocks of dream images, surrealism and grotesques--Swift, Rabelais, Charlie Chaplin, Marx Brothers, Bob Dylan. The weirdness of brothers Grimm folktales. I like art weird as Rimbaud and Beckett, Kafka and Burroughs. The oddness of e.e. cummings’ lower case poetry, the weirdness of Finnegan’s Wake, where it’s all familiar but dreamily mixed up—the collective unconscious is like that, so roll with it. I like a page or two composed of lists, as in a novel by Gunter Grass, and the incredibly long sentence, as in some of Faulkner—all inspired and consciously constructed, deliberate, artfully woven, intriguingly weird. In my experience anything like this is what most editors have knee-jerk reactions to. They assume it’s an unconscious mistake, and they break it down to boring correct forms they know. I always wonder, when I see any experimentation, any fun exploration, such as Gertrude Stein’s repetitive cubist statements, or Padgett Powell’s works, how did they get this past the editor, the publisher, the owner, the censor, the grammarian, the reviewer, the conventional guardians of what prose should always look like?
Those who capture something of the vitality of reality, and then try to approach the marketplace often experience philistinism. Did you ever read what happened to The Catcher in the Rye at the places where it was first submitted? Salinger must have been frustrated, to have his novel rejected by conformist drones and cowards. How did Hieronymus Bosch do it? If you don’t go along with the authorities—the buyer, the agent, the editor, you lose your voice, because they don’t publish you. But in some places, like on HBO, and in recent months in The New Yorker it’s a different story. Mrs. Grundy retires, and a new crew loosens things up. So you adapt, get away with as much as you can, hoping to get more of your vision and nuance to an audience next time.
If an artist makes a representation of the collective unconscious, people not used to encountering that may project their fears and anxieties into it. They miss the point and take it personally. So it takes an advocate, an intermediary, to make the unofficial novelty part of the mainstream. Mary McCarthy stood up for William Burroughs—then he was able to be seen for what he was in a positive light. Richard Eberhart and Lawrence Lipton wrote about the Beat poets, gaining respectful recognition for them. Allen Ginsberg served as an agent for Kerouac’s On The Road. Every original writer with creative daring using vivid language and accessing the collective unconscious needs an advocate who has faith in him, I would say. The charismatic unknown artist needs a discoverer. As Elvis needed Col. Tom Parker, and Bob Dylan needed Albert Grossman, James Joyce had to be championed by Sylvia Beach, and James Baldwin needed supporters too.
See more at my Red Room blog. http://redroom.com/member/william-jackson/blog/researching-diving-for-carlos
Find Diving for Carlos on amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/Diving-Carlos-Heroes-Welcome-Blues/dp/1466435674