The Queue, Writerly Terror, and Bolaño’s 2666
Jan 23, 2014
by Cornelius Fitzpatrick, Colorado Review Editorial Assistant
Here at Colorado Review, our word for the infinite file of submissions is “the queue.” In my mind the mundane word has taken on a particular meaning, has grown a shadow. Last semester was my first as an editorial assistant here, and I lived in the queue.
This was by choice, mostly. I proofread as well, and I could have asked for other responsibilities, but I was content reading story after story, passing a few on for a second read, turning down the rest.
Part of what I liked about living in the queue was the obvious opportunity for education. The queue gave me a glimpse of what was out there. Reading submissions, you get a feel for the shape of a story, for character, for small experiments people are trying, for what’s possible in story and what is not.
On good days, you are reminded what it feels like to read a story—the personal involvement, the surprise, the sense of your world expanding in a way that can’t be undone. Most days, you might just sniff out a new way to form a sentence. That’s good enough.
But as I mentioned before, the queue also has a shadow. It makes concrete an occasionally disturbing fact: there is a damn(ed) lot of fiction out there.
I say occasionally disturbing because of course there is something heartening in a culture that produces so many aspiring writers of literary fiction. I think there are right and wrong reasons to be in this game, but a mass of people putting their minds to art for very little reward is, if you’ll permit me to be naïve, a sweet thing.
Before talking about the disturbing part—or, rather, as a way of getting to the disturbing part—I want to quote from Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. I’ve been reading Bolaño’s last novel and love it. (I know I love it because I talk about it entirely too much.) There are a few moments in the book in which Bolaño, through his characters, takes on the topics of great literature, of minor works vs. major ones, of poetry vs. fiction, etc.
In the following passage one of Bolaño’s protagonists, a German literary giant pen-named Benno von Archimboldi, is trying to rent a typewriter so he can type up his first novel and send it out. The man renting the typewriter to Archimboldi is the one speaking:
Every book that isn’t a masterpiece is cannon fodder, a slogging foot soldier, a piece to be sacrificed, since in multiple ways it mimics the design of the masterpiece. When I came to this realization, I gave up writing … Play and delusion are the blindfold and spur of minor writers. Also: the promise of their future happiness. A forest that grows at a vertiginous rate, a forest no one can fence in, not even the academies, in fact, the academies make sure it flourishes unhindered, as do boosters and universities (breeding grounds for the shameless) and government institutions and patrons and cultural associations and declaimers of poetry—all aid the forest to grow and hide what must be hidden, all aid the forest to reproduce what must be reproduced, since the process is inevitable, though no one ever sees what exactly is being reproduced, what is being tamely mirrored back … Jesus is the masterpiece. The thieves are minor works. Why are they there? Not to frame the crucifixion, as some innocent souls believe, but to hide it.
In happy arrogance I found myself agreeing with the old man. I spent some time mulling the metaphor of the crucifixion. I liked it. It lent weight to the importance of masterpieces, highlighted the “plagiarism” of lesser writers (thieves), clarified this idea of the need to “hide” great works (why crucify Christ next to a couple of thieves if not to equate him with these petty criminals, if not to hide your fear of him?), and had a taste of the ridiculous.
But as a lit theory professor once told me about reading Nietzsche, the moment you find yourself most in agreement with the man is the moment when you must turn his words in on yourself, on your own behavior; you are not the Übermensch.
If what the old man says is true, shouldn’t I quit writing? Shouldn’t I stop reading submissions for the Review? As a writer studying in an MFA program, what am I running on if not play and delusion, the promise of future happiness?
More importantly, why doesn’t Archimboldi, who upon hearing these words had yet to submit his work, had yet to type up his first novel, quit on the spot? Bolaño doesn’t dip into Archimboldi’s head here, nor does the aspiring writer appear to take any actions based on the old man’s words.
One possibility: Archimboldi ignores the old man, or listens without hearing. This not-hearing is of course an important tool for any writer. How else to face the massive queue every week? The rejections? You’ve got to be independent, inured to rejection.
Another possibility, or the other side of the first possibility: Archimboldi knows what he’s got. We have a glimpse of Archimboldi’s mentality later in the novel, after he’s published two books:
Archimboldi’s writing, the process of creation or the daily routine in which this process peacefully unfolded, gathered strength and something that for lack of a better word might be called confidence. This “confidence” didn’t signify the end of doubt, of course, much less that the writer believed his work had some value, because Archimboldi had a view of literature (though the word view is too grand) as something divided into three compartments, each connected only tenuously to the others: in the first were the books he read and reread and considered magnificent and sometimes monstrous…. In the second compartment were the books of the epigones and authors he called the Horde, whom he essentially saw as his enemies. In the third compartment were his own books and his plans for future books, which he saw as a game and also a business, a game insofar as he derived pleasure from writing, a pleasure similar to that of the detective on the heels of the killer, and a business insofar as the publication of his books helped to augment, however modestly, his doorman’s pay.
The view of literature presented here makes a little more sense to me. It’s a writer’s view rather than a reader’s. It’s the view of a writer, pre-masterpiece, or sans-masterpiece, trying to figure out where he or she stands. Bolaño seems aware throughout 2666 that he is producing something “magnificent and sometimes monstrous.” He knew it was his masterpiece. He knew he was dying when he wrote it, and I wonder if he could have written it otherwise. But of course he had a literary career before 2666. He had been part of the horde, or had marked the horde as his enemies. He had been the detective on the trail of the killer.
What I’m getting at is this: The queue can be discouraging and exhausting (for both the writer and the submissions reader), and I’m trying to find a way to coexist with it. The antidote seems to be great literature, a change of perspective, a belief that if we continue to follow that killer—which we do because, to paraphrase a workshop instructor, we think this is important, because it is difficult and will continue to be so, and because we love it—we might have something to add, if not a masterpiece then at least a few thousand words that are worth the reader’s time.