I stumbled on the following passage in some old papers from my book publishing days, when one photocopied rather than bookmarked pieces of writing one hoped to return to. It’s Roger Rosenblatt on “culture-writers” (he’s thinking of Ken Kesey in particular) versus “writer-writers” (he doesn’t name any):
A writer-writer writes to be read. A culture-writer writes to be oohed….
…the errors of the culture-writer are more than matters of style. He mistakes invention for imagination, and he adopts craziness as a view of the world. The first of these errors leads him to believe that bizarrerie is sufficient for art. Invent some wacky, improbable, unheard of person, language, or circumstance, and that will do it. (The influence in recent decades of “magical realism” has only made the situation worse.) Think of it this way. Invention in literature is like building a house starting with the porch. Imagination begins at the hearth, usually something quite simple and recognizable in human experience. From that core it may sprout wings, beaks, and flames, but the reader is always drawn to, and by, the core.
The culture-writer’s most serious error, however, lies in his sense of life. He comes to see human experience as essentially wild and crazy. Whether he is led to this view by style and invention, or whether style and invention are the products of the view, the result is a literature that sees the world as purposeless and freakish. This is something much less strict and serious than irrationalism. Of such writing one does not ask, “What is here?” What is here is painfully obvious. One asks instead, “What is missing?” And what is missing are recognizable human conflicts and the thoughts and feelings of people one cares for. The collapse of such writing into mere effects is no surprise: this is literature that has lost touch with everything but itself.
The occasion for this is a 1992 review in the New Republic of Kesey’s novel Sailor Song. The other example Rosenblatt offers of a culture-writer is Norman Mailer in the second half of his career. It’s a little bit James Wood avant la lettre, isn’t it?