Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fahrenheit 451 Revisited

Bums on the outside, libraries on the inside.

That about sums it up. The phrase is from Ray Bradbury’s futuristic novel Fahrenheit 451, in which an enlightened fireman turned fugitive flees a dystopic urban community and finds shelter and community in a hobo camp of bibliophiles and outlaw intellectuals where literature is preserved in people’s memories rather than actual books, which have been declared illegal, and are routinely burned by firemen whose task is to start rather than stop fires.

Like Jules Verne’s equally prophetic Paris In The Twentieth Century, Fahrenheit 451 describes an urban community that is devoted to technology and war and utterly disparages anything to do with art and literature. Critical thinking is vilified. Original thought is tantamount to blasphemy. Consumerism is broadly and vigorously encouraged. Distractions are plentiful. Conformity is mandatory. Ignorance is a social asset. Knowledge is an endangering liability. Utility and pragmatism are primary virtues. Idleness and reverie are anathematized.

Sound familiar? If the above sounds like the world in which we are now living, then you are more apt to be among the mocked and disenfranchised than the socially well-adjusted and affluent. A bum on the outside, a library on the inside.

Fahrenheit 451 was written in the late 40s and published in 1953, 58 years ago. More than half a century. I was 6 years old. How did Bradbury come to write this book? What put the seed of it in his mind? How did he, as did Jules Verne 90 years before Bradbury’s book was published, envision a future that proved to be so uncannily accurate?

Clearly, the values aggressively espoused from the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s had a great deal to do with it. Industrialization led to the creation of the factory, which mandated a robotic, routinized behavior and a reverence for technology. The factory system gave rise to the modern city and all of its noise and pollution. The arts continued to be taught in the universities and housed in museums and book publication was even more robust than it had been. But there was a tacit assumption that while artistic and intellectual values had some importance to a healthy society, they were inferior to the work of the scientist and engineer. This pattern grew increasingly lopsided until, 200 years later, technically savvy and highly aggressive entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs became celebrated as visionaries. Jobs, upon his recent passing, was virtually deified. Had he been Catholic, rather than a self-professed Buddhist, it would not have surprised me to see him nominated for sainthood.

I reached adulthood in the 60s. I remember them vividly. I grew up in an upper middle class household. My father worked at Boeing as an aerospace engineer. All the households I visited had books. Television had replaced books and radio to become the chief medium of communication, but people still respected books and lauded writers such as Thoreau and Dickinson and Whitman and Emerson. Even the households that scraped by on modest incomes had books. It was inauspicious, but possible, to make a living as a writer. One could announce this as one's life ambition without embarrassment. It had credibility. Writers commanded a respect equal to doctors and lawyers. It was a viable and praiseworthy profession. The Beatles even had a song about it, "Paperback Writer." This pattern continued, albeit with gradual diminishment, until the 80s.

The zeitgeist changed radically circa 1980. Reagan became president. Greed was good. And here in Seattle, a little company called Microsoft began making the headlines.

Three decades later we have a world disquietingly similar to Fahrenheit 451. I try not to mention books at social gatherings because it would be tantamount to suddenly breaking into Chinese, or undoing my belt and letting my pants fall to the ground. An allusion to the written word to the unsuspecting at a wedding, birthday celebration or gathering of coworkers at the local bar is answered, unfailingly, with the deer caught in the headlights look. Glazed eyes, faces pale and numb with perplexity.

One would think that the computer would be the antidote. It looks like a TV and has a lot more fun stuff to look at than the stark little letters on the page of a book. But it’s not. In fact, the opposite seems to be happening. While the print media is now in its final death throes, newspapers thin as grocery flyers, book publishers wary of publishing anyone not a celebrity or whose prose is even a trifle oblique, independent bookstores eaten by merciless titans such as Barnes and Noble where the writerly, intellectually challenging author has the chances of a proverbial snowball in hell of selling enough copies to prevent all their books from being sent back to the publisher, the e-books and blogs and journals available online are not cultivating a new audience of readers. The medium does not encourage reading. It encourages a fickle, superficial, dilletantish skimming. “Who wants to reread Faulknerian sentences on a Kindle,” writes Chad Harbach, "or scroll back to pick up a missed plot point? Nobody, says the publisher. And the NYC novelist understands—she'd better understand, or else she'll have to move to Cleveland."

Ah yes, MFA programs. Life is weird. Perplexing and contradictory. Why, when books are dying, when literature is dying, are MFA programs doing such a good, profitable business? Damn good question. Which I can’t answer. I don’t get it.

I do know this, that the only audience any writer is going to have is going to be the graduate of an MFA program, or an inhabitant of Brooklyn riding the subway to Manhattan every other night to attend parties and meet literary agents and editors and publishers. The few publishers, that is, who actually read books. The bulk of the mainstream publishers have far more in common with the brokers at Goldman Sachs than a sophisticated man-about-town like Bennett Cerf.

An author’s dream audience is made up of people who love books and have the education and tastes and intelligence of a discerning aficionado but who are not themselves writers. Trust me. That ain’t gonna happen. The literary world is a hyper-competitive arena more vicious and treacherous than the court of Versailles in the 16th century. The audience is invariably made up of fellow writers and close family relatives who have been bribed, blackmailed, coerced and pleaded with to attend.

When I was in my 20s, my every other thought was how to get laid. Now that I’m 64, my every other thought is a question: why, oh why, did I ever want to become a writer? Why not, say, a lawyer? Lawyers operate with language. Had I become a trial lawyer, I would have been guaranteed an audience for my oratories. Oratories gleaned from Emerson and Montaigne and Shakespeare.

Or, at the very least, a journalist. That’s as pragmatic as writing gets. Just the facts, m’am. No embellishment. No literary flourish. Just hard-hitting prose à la Hemingway. But even that profession is dying. If a professed progressive like Ariana Huffington doesn’t pay her writers, nobody is. The precedent has been set. However prestigious it may be to get your article published at the Huffington Post, you cannot support yourself if you are not paid. No support, no journalism. Unless you can somehow support yourself as a hairdresser or court stenographer while moonlighting as a journalist. My advice there is: Dexedrine. Take lots of it. Wash it down with a few espressos. And try not to get too psychotic.

Here is another helpful tip: forget the MFA. Write cute, hip little tales about turds that don’t flush, or long, self-absorbed monologues about your exasperation with drug rehab. I guarantee you will get published. You will do more than that. You will ride to the top of the best seller list. You will be interviewed on NPR.

Why? Because when people read, when they do read, are most apt to read through the words to the content. The words are just there to convey information. Pictures. Do not, under any circumstances, frolic among the words or draw attention to the miracle that is language. Do not wander from your topic, meander into delicate, verbal brocade, or try your hand at sculpting solid lines of literary granite. That is the quickest way to literary doom. To joining the hobos in Bradbury’s sad refugee camps.

As Bradbury himself wrote in the Afterword to my copy of Fahrenheit 451, “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches… For let’s face it, digression is the soul of wit. Take philosophic asides away from Dante, Milton or Hamlet’s father’s ghost and what stays is dry bones. Laurence Sterne said it once: Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine, the life, the soul of reading! Take them out and once cold eternal winter would reign in every page. Restore them to the writer - he steps forth like a bridegroom, bids them all-hail, brings in variety and forbids the appetite to fail.”

No comments: