When I finished the nth draft of my novel I knew that I would need to stop writing and start thinking long and hard about the audience for it. This is not unusual if your writing does not neatly fall into a particular genre; in my opinion this often signals good writing. It was also not a new thing for me as a person since I seem to be in the habit of not fitting in neatly anywhere even though I generally succeed at doing what I am doing.
There are many reasons why I thought I would need to pause and wait for a sign or guidance regarding the novel; I know what a puzzling work it is. But primarily my halting has to do with where I am in my life at the moment – and that is a very exciting if precarious place.
For most of my life I have wanted to be a writer and I have had stories and essays published in respected places, from a literary point of view. Somewhere in between my published works I have kept earning a living as an academic and at times my ambition to do well in academia has got in the way of my writing – but the bottom line is that I have always returned to writing and done my best to work around it. Yet somewhere along the way, as I kept pursuing my goal of being a writer, a shift happened. A shift I could not ignore.
I have read the classics and admire the greatest ones but somehow that was not enough. Somehow they were not enough. Despite the mastery within them, either in the craft of storytelling or experimentation, something was missing for me and I could not ignore it anymore. This feeling was confirmed when I recently read James Salter’s most-read book A Sport and a Pastime with its glowing introduction by Reynolds Price, who wrote 40 volumes of fiction and non-fiction as well. Price’s enthusiastic evaluation of Salter’s novel is in line with other critical acclaim of Salter’s work. Salter is known as writers’ writer, a person whose sentences are read repeatedly by other writers, an artist from whom other writers learn to whom they should bow.
I could not wait to read the book, especially after reading an article in the New Yorker about Salter. I must admit that his good looks (in his day – he is 89 now) had something to do with it as well. His photo in the New Yorker shows him in his early years when he was a pilot fighter. The picture of him standing there with other young, good-looking men in their leather jackets – beaming with that manly charm I have always had a tragic weakness for – made my knees go weak. Immediately I ordered A Sport and a Pastime. This is a book of love, the theme of the book I had just finished writing – I was eager to learn. But as soon as I opened the book and so enthusiastically emerged myself in it, the same ‘not enoughness’, the same Je ne sais quoi enveloped me, and I put the book away – sadly.
Salter’s work definitely has a voice and a style, is definitely an ambitious redoing of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. It has the same driving around and hopping into different bars sense, except that Salter’s hero does so in provincial France rather than in the Paris and Spain Hemingway enjoyed in his book. A Sport is certainly worthy of critical praise … I suppose. But as I was reading it I could feel that that indescribable thing was missing from it; a thing definitely not missing in old papa’s The Sun Also Rises – regardless of whether you are a Hemingway fan or not. Where Hemingway’s book made me dream about Paris and being a writer, Salter’s book saddened me. And it saddened me because of what has been missing for me in literature recently.
This is the grand oeuvre of style (often very self-conscious) over essence. I felt the same old ennui reading Salter’s work that so many other writers have written about, that the French temperament is so accustomed, to that critics so love. I want more. I want more from books now. Perhaps my interest in spirituality has spoiled this for me. It is through books as much as through my own experience that I want to experience the exaltation of being, the ‘a-ha’ moments, the sublime pleasure of learning something that matters to me. This is what is so often missing for me in literature nowadays. I want essence, I want an experience of transcendence.
I am more Iikely nowadays to read about spiritual traditions around the world, especially the mystical and heretical ones as I want nothing to do with organised religion. I am even more likely to read Tolle, Chopra and Castaneda because I feel that they have touched on something beyond the mundane and material existence of our lives. Although I used to worship the great literary works and am well-read, I am just not interested in fantastic styles or experimentation with form anymore.
The opposite happens when I turn to the so-called philosophical tales of Coehlo and his like-minded writing friends. There I get the essence, the insight into our existence that is meaningful, that moves beyond the mundane, that moves beyond my literary ennui. But what I miss in their work is the beautiful style, the artistic form, the intellectual insight that goes beyond the ‘let’s hold hands and sing and feel good’ that so much New Age literature is based on.
So what am I to do? Apart from writing a book with these aims but for that very reason does not fit into either category: a book too literary and naughty to be ‘spiritual’, too spiritual to be interesting to the literary folks? I will work on it more. And as I am doing so I will need to find a way to explain to publishers that my book deals both with sexual desire and the spiritual aspect of it, that it talks about expanded states of consciousness (you can see the literary editors losing interest right at this point) through the sexual practices of tantra, that tantra is not about better sex techniques but about the deeper experience of our being through sexual acts, that my work talks about the dark part of this as well (it is here the spiritual editors lose interest).
The best way to do this is to write it beautifully –I won’t compromise on that. Perhaps I did learn something from James Salter and the other literary writers after all. And perhaps James Salter and I can still be friends – even if I could not finish his book. I will just have to blaze my own trail: writing on things that touch me, even if they do not fit into any category, and doing so beautifully.