Saturday, March 31, 2012

Chewing the Cud in the Myriad Spheres

The following is an e-mail conversation between Benjamin X. Wretlind and myself between March 6th and March 14th. Both Ben and I thought it would be interesting for readers to see how a couple of Indie writers look at the world. We tried to talk mostly about writing but, of course, it quickly got sidetracked into the meaning of life, what makes for good art and Justin Bieber.

MKR: Ben, we’ve both written about the topic of “legacy.” In your case, you have stated that the reason you write is to leave a legacy (link). I wrote that I believe writers–at least this writer–have an obligation to leave something of value to society, something that enriches our culture rather than cheapens it (link). Do you have any further thoughts on this?

BXW: I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately, although I don’t like to admit it’s because I’m almost 40 and I’m falling victim to that whole “mid-life crisis” thing. I actually spent a good amount of time in the early ‘90s studying philosophy and various religious texts to see if I could come up with an answer to the question that was on my mind: not what the meaning of life is but if it’s a reasonable goal to expect to leave something of value for future generations and if so, what defines value.

I read your blog article on the topic of whether or not a writer has a responsibility to leave a legacy behind, and I thought it amusing that a snippet of Star Trek IV popped into my head after one of your statements. If I may quote your blog:
“Good art has staying power. A work of art may take the nation by storm for a summer–think of films or pop songs or mass market thrillers–but who will remember it a year from now? A generation from now? In two hundred years the works of Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, will still be performed. Adele? Probably not. MC Hammer? Certainly not…Great art has to transcend those boundaries and be as meaningful for a person a hundred years from now and a continent away as it is for those who were around when it was created.”
And now the Star Trek IV banter between Kirk and Spock:
Kirk: You mean the profanity? That’s simply the way they talk here. Nobody pays attention to you unless you swear every other word. You’ll find it in all the literature of the period.
Spock: For example?
Kirk: Oh the neglected works of Jacqueline Susan. The novels of Harold Robbins…
Spock: Ah, the “Giants.”
While amusing, the conversation sort of “fine tunes” your statement that great art must be as relevant centuries from now as it is now. Does this mean that we must–and I stress must–create art that lasts the test of time? Should that be our goal and a good part of the legacy we leave behind? Or should we focus more on art in the now–write that which is fits into whatever Jell-O mold that’s currently in vogue?
Personally, I say screw the Jell-O and write what you want, hoping Spock reads it years from now.

MKR: On that same topic as that Star Trek quote, I personally feel that Catcher in the Rye hasn’t aged well at all. I feel like it’s one of those novels that got onto the high school reading lists because it was about a teen-aged kid and teachers have clung to it ever since based on that alone. Mainly, I think Holden Caulfield’s attitude/personality is not reflective of “the Universal teen,” so to speak. He came out of a very specific Jell-O mold that doesn't play in the 21st century. His particular brand of “angst” just doesn’t seem authentic.

As to whether or not we must leave something that will last the test of time, I think we must at least strive to do it. Ultimately, it’s not up to us. But if we only write books that are in the currently popular mold, it’ll be like disco: rarely spoken of and, when it is, much maligned.

Tell me, when you were studying philosophy and religion did you find the answer you were looking for? It’s actually funny that you mentioned that because yesterday I wrote a blog post about politics and religion in fiction (link). I’ll probably post it sometime today. And while we’re on it, do you feel there is one specific “meaning of life?”

BXW: I think there is only one meaning, but it’s different for every person. For me, the meaning of life, the universe and everything is 42. Or was that the answer?

No, I didn’t find what I was looking for in those religious and philosophical texts, and although this sounds like a U2 song, I still haven’t found what I was looking for. I think, like you said, it’s reasonable to strive to leave a legacy–and for those who have the gift of storytelling, perhaps leaving a legacy might even be considered a responsibility. However, there are those who want to leave their mark and, believe me, the mark they leave doesn’t have the impact they hoped it would.

I’ve been tossing around a blog post on literary fiction, what defines it and how it can be marketed well. Not that I have any idea how to market anything (see here), but it’s been an interesting research topic. Part of the Wikipedia article on literary fiction (link) contains an interesting line, especially in light of our conversation here. “Literary fiction may also be characterized as lasting fiction–literature which continues to be read and in-demand many decades and perhaps centuries after the author has died.”

MKR: You say the meaning of life will be different for every person. But wouldn’t you say that there are some things that definitely aren’t the meaning of life? For example, can desiring to die a millionaire be a valid meaning? True, if one has children that will leave them in good shape financially but what if one neglected his children during life to amass that fortune? I guess my point is I reject the idea that anything can be meaningful–truly meaningful. What if someone sees it as their life’s goal to build the ultimate Justin Bieber fan site? That may be the meaning of that individual’s life but is it valid and valuable to society as a whole? This also gets back to my art vs. great art discussion. I am very liberal in what I will call art. If fact, the only criterion I have is that it must have been intentionally created as art. Now, it may be created to serve other purposes as well–religious or architectural, for example–but there is still an artistic desire in the heart of its creator. But just because I will call something art does not mean it is great art.

So, I think the meaning of one’s life–whatever it may be–must have meaning to society as a whole. And for that meaning to be great it must endure, as we’ve talked about. In a hundred years Justin Bieber will be dead and his music will be largely forgotten. If that fan site exists at all it will be rarely visited. What will that person’s life work have amounted to?

How many millions of lives have been spent worrying about ultimately inconsequential things? How many billions of days were wasted on idle frivolity? It’s kind of a depressing thought but the overwhelming majority of humanity is destined to be forgotten. Once we are dead and everyone who knew us personally is dead we will be nothing more than unvisited gravestones, ghosts in photographs and meaningless names. I think that the meaning of life–my life–is to avoid this fate. I probably won’t have children so I won’t leave a genetic legacy but I hope that I can leave a lasting literary legacy. Which is why I like that definition that you provided for “literary fiction.” It is exactly what I hope to accomplish.

If one considers one’s own life, it can be largely broken up into three pursuits, each occupying about a third of our life. The first third is occupied by work, the second third by sleep and the last third by everything else. It is in that last third–unless one is fortunate enough to have a job that allows one to work toward one’s legacy–that one must accomplish all of this. Eight hours a day–perhaps six or even five, when one takes out time spent preparing for work or bed, commuting, taking care of the necessities of life–are left to us to achieve our dreams. It is ironic that such little time is given to us to work toward immortality. Even eternity has an expiration date.

BXW: Sorry for the delay in responding. I got stuck on the Justin Bieber fan site.
You say that eternity has an expiration date. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

MKR: Simply that if we want to be remembered for eternity we have a very short time in which to accomplish that. As a self-professed idler, I am guilty of this myself, but how much time do we spend watching television, surfing Justin Bieber fan sites, oversleeping, playing video games, etc., when we could be working toward immortality? Of course, there are things we have to do and things we do because they bring us pleasure; this is understandable. Human interaction is important, maintaining good mental health is important, having some form of release is important. But I think that the vast majority of us here in the Western world (I won’t pretend to presume what the lives of those in developing countries are like) seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on frivolities. What are your thoughts on it?

BXW: We do spend a lot of our time on frivolities, but perhaps some of life should be spent that way. In my own world, I write early in the morning before anyone is awake. In the free time I have after the day job, I usually paint, read or sing poor karaoke tunes with the significant other. I think it’s necessary for a writer who has the ultimate goal of immortality via art, to work at it as much as possible. However, as James Howell told us in 1659: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

Of course the addition to that proverb as written in 1825 by Maria Edgeworth warns us that “All play and no work makes Jack a mere toy.”

I guess, in that respect, life must be balanced appropriately with the pursuit of immortality.

MKR: You are, of course, correct. As writers we place upon our shoulders the task of revealing the world, revealing life, in a unique way. To do this we must, of course, live life! A writer who attempts to separate himself from the world so that he might work at his art is doing himself a great disservice. I think that the important thing is to spend a good portion of your time doing things of value, things that will strengthen your craft as a writer or improve and enrich your life–or the lives of others–in some way.


Benjamin X. Wretlind is the author of the literary horror novel Castles: A Fictional Memoir of a Girl with Scissors as well as the ongoing Sketches from the Spanish Mustang.

If you've enjoyed our conversation, feel free to add to it in the comments section below! Look for to a continuation of our ramblings over the next month or so!

A Conversation with Benjamin X. Wretlind - An interview I conducted in January
Chewing the Cud with Author Michael K. Rose - An interview Ben conducted in February

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