Stephen Wright on Writing (and Readers) and Going Native

Stephen Wright was so discouraged after the commercial failures of M31: A Family Romance, his second novel (1988), and Going Native, his third (1994), that he almost quit writing for good.  In his view, writing is a partnership between the author and reader, and without the latter (or at least enough of the latter), he felt his writing wasn't complete, so why bother continue writing?

Wright's perspective runs counter to what I think is a general perception (or at least my perception I've gleaned from writers over the years) regarding why writers write in the first place; namely, that they write for themselves!  Because they have to write no matter what, right?  Because they wouldn't be happy or fulfilled or complete as persons if they weren't writing.  And that means writing regardless of the reaction of their readers (or critics), and that it doesn't matter whether their books sell more copies than some obscure volume of poetry or not, because the point of writing for them is the writing and nothing but the writing (and not their book sales) right?

Apparently not for Stephen Wright.  Listening to him speak about his novel's "failure" or becoming depressed about just the idea of a possible future bad review (merely hypothetically speaking, contingent entirely upon such a bad review even materializing) in influential book forums like the New York Times, that can kill a book even before it hits the streets, reveals a vulnerability and endearing authorial anxiety that is eye-opening and inspiring in its transparency.  Most writers won't admit stuff like that publicly.  They won't admit that they've quit writing because of bad press or poor sales.  Granted, Stephen Wright, thankfully, didn't quit writing permanently, but he did quit for a time because of the apathetic if not outright negative reception his early novels received.  I've heard many writers admit they've wanted to quit, but few who ever literally quit writing for any extended period of time solely because their writing didn't attract enough readers.

I find what Stephen Wright has to say on the writer-reader relationship in his 2006 interview with Patrick Ambrose in The Morning News refreshing, encouraging even, hearing how honest he is about his despondency over his books finding few fans, stacked instead on the discount remainder tables of bookstores like so much abundant manna from Hell. Read the interview here in "Stephen Wright's Literary Landscape".

I should add that Stephen Wright's Going Native was included in Larry McAffery's The 20th Century's Greatest Hits: 100 English-Language Books of Fiction, in the thirteenth slot no less, one notch ahead of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano.  Heady, complimentary company.  Not bad for a book that didn't sell!  Going Native is my sole Stephen Wright read so far, and even though it's been over a decade since I read it, I'm proud proclaiming without embarrassment that I nearly went native myself reading it (gladly went mad every chapter) and cringed page after outrageous page, it was so good. Sublime satire of the American Dream in all its rugged individualist violent ingloriousness; a sort of over the top, anti-On the Road with carbines; or, one better, a souped-up Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (with Uzis) that makes Kerouac's supposedly ultra-subversive commentary of U.S.A. look like some quaint and cozy Norman Rockwell portrait by comparison, and gives Hunter S. Thompson some stiff competition in the debauched, completely crazed, hyper-Gonzofied, Boys Gone Wild department.

Robert Coover, a book blurber's maestro if there ever was one, says it much better, frankly the best:  "Imagine a pornographic twilight zone of bee bee-eyed serial killers, drug-stunned pants-dropping road-warriors and 'marauding armies of mental vampires,' a nightmarish country of unparalleled savagery, where there is no longer any membrane between screen and life and the monster image feed is inexhaustible and the good guys are the scariest ones of all ...."

William Gaddis had Going Native in his library too.  The only reason I know that arcane fact is because I'm presently engaged in cataloging Gaddis' LT legacy library, with the help of a devil who's also an online bud, and was jazzed to see that Gaddis not only had Going Native on his shelves, but had it housed in the West Library of his estate, where he kept many of his books that were most important to him.  What more of an Independent reason do you need to go read Going Native? Larry McAffery loves it; Robert Coover practically makes linguistic love to it; William Gaddis, in the least, owned it, and Freeque says you'd be a fool (unless you're super-squeamish) not to read it!  So go read it!  Now.  And give Going Native (before I start going native), and Stephen Wright, the additional readers and the love this neglected writer of the most sanely-deranged novel deserves ....


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