The reason this column hasn't existed for the past couple of weeks is complicated, involving a vacation in Europe last month (Amsterdam was distracting), a shortage of space (decks had to be cleared for Jonathan Raban's essay last week on Joseph Conrad and jihadis in the West), and a general disinterest on my part in writing it. The truth is, I've been writing fiction. All I've been thinking about is fiction.
I wrote a story in June, or at least a full draft of a story that may in certain places have some power, which is unheard of for me, and I haven't gone a day since without thinking about it and never more than two or three days without working on it, often for hours on end, throwing away evenings and entire weekends. As the writer Matthew Klam once said in an interview I saw in New York City, working on a short story sometimes looks exactly like lying on the couch. When you are deep into creating something, the actual world goes out the window. Gertrude Stein, in 1935, on the subject of masterpieces, wrote that creators lose themselves in the act of creation: "Think about how you create if you do create you do not remember yourself as you create. And yet time and identity is what you tell about as you create only while you create they do not exist."
The other thing that doesn't exist, as the novelist Mary Gordon reminds everyone in an essay on serious fiction in the Atlantic Monthly's fiction issue, is much of a readership. (I hate the phrase "serious fiction," by the way, because it's starchy and portentous even while a whole lot of "serious fiction" is head-removingly funny. But whatever.) The Atlantic's fiction issue, still on newsstands, isn't exactly full of surprises (Hey everyone! Joyce Carol Oates has a new story!), but Gordon's essay is great: She clears up some of John Gardner's muddy, well-intentioned arguments in On Moral Fiction; shudders at the category "Christian fiction"; admits her disinterest in Hemingway and Updike without denigrating them; aptly describes great fiction as the artistic opposite of great pornography; addresses "the vexing question of charm" in relation to immoral characters; confesses, on behalf of fiction writers everywhere, "We never know what we're doing—not really"; and suggests the inherent ridiculousness of "black marks on a white page that perform the trick of making us believe that people who have never existed are as real as our best friends," which is the thing that always stalls me.
It's a galvanizing essay, and it successfully sidetracked me from my stupid story (and this stupid column) for a while this weekend. (So did buying and unfolding the new issue of McSweeney's, which comes with a comb.) Eventually, steeled and inspired by Gordon's piece, I went back to my story to do some things I'd been meaning to do and a few that I'd just thought of. I went back into my cave. I'll come out eventually.