Saidiya Hartman: ‘I set out to engage the catastrophe’

“I love Ralph Ellison’s definition of the blues as “an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.” I set out to engage the catastrophe and the ways it was performed and articulated in cultural practice. The reckoning with catastrophe and performance required a deeper understanding of the material conditions of slavery and its afterlife. I read Sterling Stuckey’s Slave Culture, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Édouard Glissant’s Caribbean Discourse, and Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death, and there was no turning back.”

Saidiya Hartman, interviewed by Max Nelson, “The Tragic Mode,” New York Review of Books, November 19, 2022

Mary Gaitskill: ‘Writers…sometimes don’t know what this inner force is’

A reflection for today:

“Unless you are a surgeon or are the witness to a horrible accident, you aren’t going to see the guts of the body, but if you touch the person you will feel them beating under your hand — on a hot day you might even smell them. But smell them and feel them or not, they are what is holding the body up. The unconscious and the viscera; each is a fundamental force behind the person you look at. Something comparable to that fundamental inner quality or qualities are what make a piece of writing alive or not. These inner qualities determine what the work is about as much as the plot or the theme or even the characters. Strangely, writers themselves sometimes don’t know what this inner force is in their own work because it is so entwined with our own way of seeing, we barely notice it, any more than we notice our own breath.”

—Mary Gaitskill, “The Deracination of Literature,” Unherd (June 17, 2022)

And another:

“…so overwhelming is our general cultural ignorance that the term “plant blindness” was minted by two botanists about 20 years ago to describe the state of glassiness that results when asking contemporary people to truly see the plants around them — a “chronic inability,” according to the Carnegie Museum, “to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs.” Such blindness is a loss, and for all. It is a loss for people and a loss for the plants, who suffer (with much of the natural world) the burden of human ignorance and disdain through environmental degradation and other species-level insanities. While our interdependence is barely reduced, the daily experience of that interdependence, and the myriad beauties, wonders, and dangers that arise from it, feels very far from the daily life of most of us.”

—Paul J. Pastor, “Healing, Dangerous Wonders: On Sylvia Legris’s ‘Garden Physic’,” LA Review of Books (July 5, 2022)

Charlie Jane Anders: Anger ‘doesn’t really come with a sense of proportion’

Advice on writing fictional characters which I find helpful:

“Often as not, when I have a character who’s not clicking, it’s because I haven’t found what they’re angry about yet.
My favorite fictional characters are the ones who cannot witness evil being done without becoming fired up about it, and I have all the time in the world for characters who will go to the ends of the Earth to right a wrong. But I also have boundless love for characters who hold petty grudges, who are still stewing about something that happened to them in seventh grade, or who are just grumpy cusses. A character who is supposed to save the world, but can’t let go of an incredibly minor vendetta, is automatically fascinating. And utterly believable. That’s the great thing about anger, after all: it doesn’t really come with a sense of proportion.”
—Charlie Jane Anders, Never Say You Can’t Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times by Making Up Stories, Tordotcom (2021), Chapter 12.

Benjamin Cain: ‘Transcend the Medium’

Today’s internet thrives on polarization. Websites profit when people take opposing sides. That’s what happens in what we call “the comments” on just about any article, especially those on websites that are designed to make money for someone. “The game itself is rigged and it deranges the players,” Benjamin Cain says.

There’s no obvious way to respond to online criticism, especially when so much of it is trolling. One type of response works in one situation, another type in another situation. Often, a writer’s best strategy is not to engage the critic at all, especially when the critic isn’t sincerely interested, isn’t informationally equipped to have a real discussion, is going to harass the writer, is backed by an algorithm that will mobilize an army of trolls, or has fled the scene so the writer would be speaking to empty air.

But if he could give one piece of advice, it is to “transcend the medium.”

“…the writer should somehow transcend the medium that encourages or that thrives on cheap conflict.”

— Benjamin Cain, “How Would a Saint or a Prophet Reply to Rude Online Comments?: The dead end of trying to excel on a degrading platform,” 18 March 2022

 I note: He does not say to transcend conflict itself. More specifically, he doesn’t say to transcend the meaningful elements of online conflict. Instead, he says to transcend the medium that is producing unnecessary, ridiculous, unproductive conflict.

Let’s keep that question in mind. What does it mean to transcend the medium in which one writes? How does one do it?