This morning I was listening to a Big Think interview with the novelist Martin Amis and when he and the interviewer got to talking about the novelist James Joyce, and Finnegan’s Wake in particular (the massive novel on which Joyce spent fifteen years and which is, for most of us, unreadably puzzlesome and complex), Amis said that a good writer needs to have ambition and anxiety: Joyce, he said, had plenty of the former but none of the latter.
The balance it strikes, ostensibly, is that it makes you wanna try ever-better things while, at the same time, your anxiety reigns you in from going too far in your own direction, lest you estrange the reader.
And yesterday, coincidentally, I was listening to an interview with Benjamin Moser, author of the new Susan Sontag biography, and in talking about how Americans are obsessed with this idea that we all need to chill out, to relax, he said that artists, and maybe writers in particular, kinda feed off of their anxieties. He cited a German writer named Elias Canetti who prompts us to imagine somebody saying to Shakespeare, “Hey. Relax.”
What Amis also talks about, though, in The Rub of Time, his wonderful book of essays, is the type of young writer who champions and cherishes and savors his isolation, his weariness, his dejection. Those who cling to their anxiety as like a badge of authenticity. Amis’s point is that, for all that these young angsty writers claim to lament and hate the world, they also clearly kinda love if it’s making them sit down and write every day. Maybe it’s a perverse love, a carnal one, but he’s arguing that you don’t accord a ton of energy to the description of something if you don’t also kinda love it.
I’m not sure I agree with that, though. Like if I look back at my essay about the argument I had with a bartender at Monty’s Raw Bar a few nights ago (still unpublished)–there’s no love in that. I’m prepared to say in a decisive way that I don’t like that fucking bartender and to posit that the spectrum of his douchery has more shades than the eye can perceive. I was really mad all night because of that guy, and well into the next day.
What I think I kinda love, though, is the anxious anger. Something annoying will happen, I’ll get really worked up, and the first thing that always comes to mind as like a palliative thought is the idea that this frustrating event will ultimately make for good material. That it’s something to write about.
Which then makes me wonder if there’s something of a chicken v. egg situation about what came first, the anxiety or the writing.