MY COMMONPLACE BOOK(a diary of excerpts copied from printed books, with comments added by the reader.)
Writers are forever eight, over aware, and indignant.
—Adam Gopnik New Yorker, 3/17/08 in an article categorizing types of artists by mental/temperamental age.
This comment made me laugh, then shrug and agree that ever-fresh, childlike indignation probably drives a writer’s best work.
Of course, we need the skillful writers of escapist slop, that, like literary aspirin, tides us over an especially rough, weary patch. But such relief is best taken only in small doses. (Unless your personal reality is so hard, so threatening, that frequent escape from it into pure fantasy is your only source of relief, hope, and sanity. Example: Sepulveda’s Old Man Who Read Love Stories, a brilliant, intelligent novella that reminds us of our own privileged comfort.)
Our models of undiluted reality need not always be the most vividly polemic, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or 1984.
Very effective (and more re-readable as time passes) are Turgenev and Chekhov, quietly itemizing routine exploitation of the weak by the strong; Wharton and James, exposing the psychological violence at the heart of their rich, polite society; Willa Cather, mourning the cast-offs from Europe, our celebrated “pioneers,” thrown into soul- destroying drudgery on raw, unforgiving land.
I think it was James Baldwin who once wrote that “all novels are protest novels.” Those of us lucky enough to have time to read and books to read should be grateful for writers whose inner eight-year-old never grows less indignant about the suffering of most human lives—as none of us ever should.
(Send the Berkeley Daily Planet a page from your own Commonplace Book)