Thursday, November 12, 2015

“The Universal Screech”

A prescient snip out of Paula Fox’s excellent novel, The Widow’s Children (1976):
He no longer liked to read. The sight of a printed page filled him with a faint but persistent nausea. He read nothing except the manuscripts for which he was responsible. On weekends, he drove miles from the city, staying at an inn if he could find one, but more often at motels where he watched television programs, or, if there was a bar, nursing one drink for hours, or walking in any kind of weather until he was tired enough to sleep. But then, at least, he was away from the ceaseless din of publishing, out of reach of the culture experts, many of whose manuscripts ended up on his desk, and whose juices flowed, he had come to believe, for no other reason than the excitation of maintaining their names in print, who performed, deaf to their own failing voices so like the voices of aged singers, lest they faint into the sickness of anonymity, who could never be still but must add their own noise to the universal screech of opinion, their oppositions or agreements equally meaningless since both were only advertisements of their will to persist. Yet he knew that they were humble and depressed, too, like eternal suitors. They had entrusted their selves to public keeping, they were dependent on the careless, fleeting attention they got. . . . The public had a mouth so blind and avid it swallowed anything, its jaws frozen open in perpetual appetite. . . . And somewhere, he felt a fugitive sympathy with them, if only because of his lack of any sympathy whatsoever—and his helplessness—with the newer writers, the ones coming up, with their staged outrageousness and their shrewd grasp of business practices.
In an era of relentless and unrestrained “public keeping,” isn’t the pertinent task now one of unflagged—and unflagging—refusal and retreat? “I would prefer not to.”