The Wrong Stuff




This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 18,  Genius

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Back in January the Guardian published a Q-and-A with Zadie Smith to mark the publication of a new book of essays. Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries, asked:

What is your unrealised project, your dream? We know a great deal about the unrealised projects of architects, but almost nothing about those of artists or writers. Doris Lessing once said that besides the unrealised, there are also those projects that we self-censor, those which we do not dare to do.

I was consumed with envy. I can’t do justice to Obrist’s career here; suffice it to say that he is a curator who takes Diaghilev as his inspiration. If only, if only, if only he had asked me!

I could have explained that I had a hundred-odd unrealized projects immured on my hard drive, projects of which agents had said No Publisher Will Allow, projects that could change the face of 21st-century fiction. Projects that were not even books, so no agent or editor would know what to do with them. I would need a week to set out materials on tables, tack papers to walls, and talk nonstop. Surely the Diaghilev de nos jours would like the idea of jumping on the first plane to Berlin.

I could have explained, that is, things that are comprehensible in the art world but the kiss of death in the world of books.

The literary world does quite like the notion of genius, but it has no place for a Picasso.

When my first novel, The Last Samurai, was published, I was distraught at the loss of time because so many other books had been derailed. I went to agents with a postcard of Vladimir Horowitz, arms folded, standing in front of his Picasso. The pianist of genius had used the money he earned with his performances to buy a single Picasso, I explained. But Picasso owned every Picasso that ever existed. When he wanted to see what Picasso would do next, he went to his studio to do the next thing he wanted to do. If he had had to stop for a year to chase sales, what should he have done with the money? Buy a Braque?

Smith’s agent, Georgia Garrett: If you’re not interested in sales and publicity, maybe you don’t need an agent.

In the art world it’s understood that artists get excited by new techniques, new materials. It’s understood that artists get excited by conceptual possibilities. How is it possible for two physically indistinguishable objects to be different works of art? How can one be a work of art and another a mere real thing? It’s understood that process is interesting in its own right (Alain Delon loved drawings, because they’re the place where the idea comes into the world).

A writer who tries to appropriate these paths to ambitious work will make many people profoundly unhappy. There are acceptable ways to be a literary genius; these are not among them.

I’ve been obsessed for years with Edward Tufte’s pioneering work on information design. I was obsessed with games — chess, poker, bridge, scientific whist, the sabermetric approach to baseball, the transformation of football by Bill Walsh’s passing game. I thought Tuftean infoviz could make it possible to show these different ways of seeing action and events in fiction. So I would trundle a little suitcase full of materials to meetings with agents and editors, and the meetings would be converted to drinks, coffee, dinner, lunch, anything that ensured available surfaces were monopolized by food and drink.

A Tuftean approach requires technical support during composition of the book, and publishing protocol enforces the strict separation of writers from the production team. The correct procedure is for the author to submit a finished text that can then be handed over to the team, who must be protected from the pollution of contact with the author at all times. There’s no place for the practices of the art world, in which gallerists, curators, dedicated collectors visit the artist’s studio, in which it’s a mark of engagement to extend the artist’s scope by supporting technically challenging projects.

The disempowerment of the author seems to arise, in part, from the fact that the publishing world is oriented toward derivatives — in the first instance, copies of an object that is already at one remove from the original, in the second transformations of that object into translations, films, and so on. So agents have co-agents in foreign territories, connections in the film business. But there’s nothing comparable for connections with the art world, where financial value derives from the premium on originals. So we don’t, for instance, see the release of a book coupled with a gallery show with original materials. Perhaps it’s not really so interesting to ask how publishing can accommodate a wider range of work; perhaps we need to rethink placing value only in the results of the machinery of legitimacy.

These constraints naturally change a writer’s view of her talent. Perhaps you think of something no one has done before, a hundred things that no one has done before, you leap up and down hugging yourself and howling with laughter. You can’t naïvely assume you’re exceptional. There may be a hundred, a thousand, 10 thousand writers seeing the same possibilities — they will all be told No Publisher Will Allow, they will all be invisible, and so you can’t know how many might be jumping up and down at this very moment. If someone, somewhere manages to break through, it will probably be because they got a meeting with the Diaghilev de nos jours.

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Helen DeWitt is the author of The Last Samurai and Lightning Rods. Some Trick, her first collection of stories, was published by New Directions in May 2018.


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