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A cantankerous praise of tradition

Books, TraditionThe scene is familiar to most educated Italians, but one might as well quote it in full when addressing a more general public. In a spell of political disgrace, one of the most brilliant minds of the European Renaissance is describing his rustic exile in the Tuscan countryside in a letter to a friend:

«When evening falls, I return home and step into my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and don the garments of the court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where I nourish myself on that food which alone is mine and for which I was born. […] And for four hours at a stretch I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified of death»

The year is 1513, the man is — of course — Niccolò Machiavelli.

I have no way to know for sure, but I suspect that the aura of quiet dignity and solemn absorption radiating from this old page, in turn, has been and will be of great comfort to the younger generations of Italian intellectuals and literary men facing exile home and abroad. A lover of books partakes of two worlds: one that is bound by time and space (and money), and one that knows no such boundaries; a daily routine of low wages, uncertainty and social humiliations on one hand, and a dimension of exalted communion with one’s predecessors on the other. To put it more explicitly, tradition is not just a burden and a menace, as Harold Bloom and others have maintained, but also a priceless resource. It can be experienced as a constraint, of course, but at the same time it provides a much needed relief from contingency, a buffer against the crushing pressure of reality. It is not so much a clamp on freedom as a space of individual liberty, a reservoir of options. Dead authors don’t mangle originality: the book market does.

It takes no Sartre to tell you that the opposite of freedom is «facticity», the way things happen to be. What are intelligence, abstraction, culture and imagination if not attempts to push the world back, to distance oneself from immediacy, to fight for a margin? Granted, when you are the poorly educated wife of a mediocre doctor in the French countryside, reading too many novels might put you in a tight spot, but in general there must be a reason why “book” and “independent” are spelled the same way in Latin. Even at the worst of times, conversation with the “ancients” (to each his own) is liberating, empowering: things don’t need to be the way they are, conventions are less unquestionable than they seem, there is plenty of room for you to be your own man. Hanging around with dumb people, says a proverb, will make you dumb, but the reverse is also true: the critical appropriation of tradition is how individuality is socially mediated. An “idiot” is not defined by his poor intellectual performance, but by his inability to partake in a shared heritage of words, concepts and representations (look it up: in Greek idiotes is anything between a yokel and a solipsist).

Defined as creative distance, culture ceases to be culture when it falls captive to the here and now, when new books are facsimiles of barely-less-new books and younger authors look no farther than slightly-less-young authors. When critics cease to be critic for lack of a third thing, a tertium comparationis. That’s how teenage vampires come to breed teenage vampires and poorly researched historical thrillers beget poorly researched historical thrillers. I am not saying that older books as such are better, or that we need more clones of War and Peace. Older books are something else, that’s all. Except that difference is the mother of choice, and choice is the twin-sister of freedom (which in turn is first cousin to good literature). The classics are no old geezers at a toga party: they are the badass guardians of decency, the Mr. Miyagi of creation, they are a roundhouse-kick in the groin of mediocrity. Nobody says that you cannot contradict them, mistreat them, disrespect them: just keep in touch with the boys.

I don’t know how long this complaint has been around, possibly for quite long, but of late I hear it so often that things may really have got out of hand: «There are more aspiring authors than readers», agents and editors will tell you, «people write more than they care to open books». We all know the tune: novels and abstract paintings, as opposed to piano concertos and skyscrapers, are things anybody could try their hand at (if they had time). Sadly, many do act on this assumption, and that’s how bad things happen: vanity press, pushy debutants jostling for attention, a fever of cheap Facebook glory, an appalling misperception of one’s value as an author.

What happened? How did people get so unrealistic about books? Not only are aspiring writers graphomaniacs, but they are positively frantic about getting published at all costs, they are more insistent than panhandlers, and keener on their rickety body of work than a young mother on her firstborn’s gurgling. No amount of bad grammar, faulty syntax and ludicrous plotting seems to get in their way. They appear to be in a frightful hurry.

Much of this can be accounted for in terms of sociology of the book market: a general decrease in average quality spawning delusions of grandeur among puzzled consumers; plenty of new channels; the spectacular ritual of literary debut, where utter strangers with no special credentials are catapulted into glory in the space of a week (authorship as a lottery); the postmodern conflation of serious literature and entertainment, which has done a great deal of good to entertainment but not much to literature,  etc.

The saddest thing about it all is that Amateur Hour authors, in a sense, are right: it does get easier and easier to be recognized as an acceptable novelist. The reason why it looks like a few old concepts glued together with spit would be enough to make a best seller is that many best sellers are made that way. You can’t blame a sucker for trying… «Those other guys who are making plenty of dough out of lycanthropes don’t look much smarter than me, do they». Bad mistake! A true writer’s career is like a platform videogame from the 80’s: most of the time is spent fighting puny creatures that die when you jump on their heads, but before you can move on you have a huge and nasty boss to defeat. You can jump on the heads of Rowling clones all you want, but show me how you tackle Thomas Mann.

Books, TraditionApart from talent, critical awareness, decent spelling and general culture, the two things many wannabe writers seem to lack the most are patience and humility. We all heard about the guy who refused to correct his manuscript to keep it “spontaneous”, or the other guy who tried to secure a contract before he wrote a single line “‘cuz it’s all in my head”, or the girl who wishes a general readership to be aware of her shopping patterns. Instead of polluting the web with banners urging you to print whatever you just wrote just on account of its being written by you, why not bring back the age-old rule of Pythagoras’s school? The one that said: you can’t talk unless you shut the f… up for five years first. Five years make for a decent amount of reading up.

When did the notion that writing novels is easy come into the world? Writing literature is not easy, it’s excruciatingly hard, and the better you know your classics, the harder it becomes. That’s why all good writers are slow and patient. The less they think about book charts, the more they care about intrinsic quality, the more they feel answerable to their predecessors, to their craft, to literature as a concept, the more they feel that their work will be measured up against incredibly good novels (as opposed to cheesy best sellers) — the more humble and patient they become. The present ceases to matter so much.

The freedom to be oneself is the most dreadful and solitary of gifts, but authors writing at the diapason of tradition “feel no boredom”, “do not dread poverty”, “are not terrified of death”. As a bonus, they also leave their Facebook contacts alone.

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