I was having a hard time writing. I was sitting at my desk, putting my head in my hands, rubbing my hair, and just generally being unproductive. I have four short stories going at once which may be too much for me. It’s not exactly clear where I should go with each of them. Feels like I’m spinning my wheels on at least one story but I can’t get it out of my head. While fidgeting I decided to watch a 1987 interview of Saul Bellow because surfing the internet is a lot easier than writing.
Saul Bellow was a great writer of the 20th century and perhaps the greatest fiction writer of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, but people don’t tend to read his books anymore, at least not widely. Although art is subjective and it’s impossible to diagnose an exact cause I think I have some idea of why he’s become less popular. I think our sensibilities have changed. It’s hard not to notice this while watching the interview. The type of art a culture enjoys says a lot about who they are on a deeper level.
Beyond the bowtie and the erudition, which anybody can pull off, even today, Bellow was a great generalist – a student of human life rather than a particular field. He had the mental resources to dive into the subtle realities of existence and did not dumb it down for people in order to appeal to a wider audience. He held a higher standard. He refused to condescend to people and instead modeled a genuine and complex curiosity of the human condition.
When I read Bellow’s books I find myself rubbing up against this all the time: I don’t have the patience for his dissection of society, for his portrayal of human life as a bewildering thing, as a thing that is less straightforward than we like to pretend it is. I think his prose is so good that it’s scary. The poetry in his descriptions carries me through his books but I find myself getting bored. Getting bored with the story. Getting bored with the lack of plot. This is a horrific thought. Have I seen so many movies with formulaic, even manipulative plots that I can no longer appreciate the fine touch of an artist? I hope this is not the case.
I believe that human progress is a good thing. Phones are great. I’m glad we have powerful tools like the internet, etc. But if in the process we’re losing Saul Bellow, and the influence of voices like his – subtle, truthful, learned, passionate, calm, dialectic, and above all, humane – at a time when it seems we need this voice the most, I have to wonder if we are doing such a good job after all.
© Daniel Douglas