Callahan on works in translation and DFW and Bernhard and making good art and stuff

The new Collagist issue that came out today features an alive and thoughtful essay by Jonathan Callahan, a writer whose work I’ve gotten to spend a little time with lately, doing some close readings that get at the ways technical skill serves emotional truth in fiction, reaffirming some things you really can’t hear too many times.

Here’s the second to last paragraph:

What I suppose I discovered in my recent reading of works in translation then is a kind of liberation: These books, in the form in which I read them, struck me as works of Art. They lacked so much of what I’d confined myself to think good writing had to display, that it was a kind of mild revelation to realize something that maybe shouldn’t have been so hard to grasp all along. As a kid I played a lot of guitar, and I naturally entertained notions of putting together a band and ultimately becoming the greatest guitarist of my generation. What started as a pretty fun, not to say cathartic, way to spend the daily several hours away from other people I needed in order not to think hard about swallowing some terminal quantity of pills wound up becoming its own kind of torture, as I stopped listening to music so much as evaluating musicians’ technical proficiency with the guitar. I would decide that I didn’t like a band if I could play (or imagined I could play) most of the lead guitarist’s licks. Eventually, as I acquired a little music theory, I began to disdain recognizable chord patterns, observing to myself with a sneer that I could have written the song in question if I’d wanted to. Things eventually devolved to the extent that I was frequently angry while listening to songs I actually liked, because they were so stupid and simple that I could have written them as many as several weeks prior, or whenever I’d acquired whatever insight I now understood rendered the song entirely without merit. This was a stupid way to listen to music, and I was recently beginning to read books in a similarly stupid way—for similarly stupid reasons, as somewhere along the line the book I hoped to write one day had been transformed in my imagination from a work of real compassion to the greatest novel of my generation. It was only while reading Kafka and Bernhard, and realizing that much of what I’d conditioned myself to respond to in prose was entirely absent here, yet my response was undeniable, that I began to think hard for the first time in a long time about what exactly I’m trying to do when I sit down with a notebook and pen and begin to write. Simply put, I remembered that the mastery I’m working hard to obtain and bring to bear on the fiction I continue to struggle to craft can only ever be a means to the end, if I ultimately really do want to make Art.

For further reading, there’s also a chapter in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics that gets at a really similar point from the vantage of a different art form.

There’s a potentially embarrassing obviousness to the whole thing (which Callahan addresses), but once you fight through it, reading stuff like this feels productive and meditative and not unlike church: The author isn’t telling me things because he thinks I’ve never heard them before, he’s saying them because he believes they’re true.

One thought on “Callahan on works in translation and DFW and Bernhard and making good art and stuff

  1. Gabe Durham says:

    Ps – Just read the David Hollander story–it’s pretty great, and is doing a lot of that good embarrassing truth-pursuing stuff too:

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