I recently read a good definition of literary genius.
Adam Kirsch refers to Proust’s definition in a review of Roberto Bolano’s Slouching Toward Santa Teresa. The irony is that our first reaction to a great contemporary work is that it doesn’t strike us as beautiful, but as ugly. Only minor writers write beautifully, since they simply reflect back to us our preconceived notion of what beauty is; we have no problem understanding what they are up to, since we have seen it many times before.
This reminds me of Harold Bloom’s definition that a truly great work has to startle and jar one’s sensibilities. As he writes in The Anxiety of Influence, most writers are derivative of their precursors and live with the anxiety that they’re not truly writing anything meaningfully different. The small minority of strong writers manage to create original work in spite of the pressure of influence–in other words, they have to wrestle with the startling, or perhaps ugly, qualities of an original vision.
Proust says that when a writer is truly original, this startling leap out of convention, makes us see him or her initially as “shapeless, awkward, or perverse.” It’s a shock to our system until we learn how to read the new work and find the unexpected beauty (or meaning) in the singular qualities of the work.
What’s wrong about the work becomes what is right about it.
When I started Bolano’s first novel, The Savage Detectives, I was swept away for a couple hundred pages. I didn’t think he was brilliant, but he was daring in an awfully pleasing and entertaining way. And then the whole damn work became shapeless and awkward–and although not perverse, boring.
I admit I didn’t have the energy to look for new patterns to emerge, and I quit reading the book. I was puzzled, however, given its critical raves. This is all to say that I’ve turned into a lazier and more conventional reader than I used to be–or that the book did suck. I’ll have to return to the book again to figure out which scenario is true.
In the meantime, how to wrangle with the conventions my precursors have handed down? It is a lot more fun to write, well, with a bit of ugliness.