Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On Generosity

A lot of writers talk about generosity in writing. I'm not sure, unfortunately, that I've ever totally understood what generosity in writing would refer to. I have an understanding that is intuitive, sure--generosity means giving, and there are many things that writing can "give."

Let's say I'm forced to use the word in a sentence. I might say that a story that carries a sense of full disclosure about its character (I thought of Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) is generous, meanwhile countering that an unnecessary vomiting of information (Franzen's "They were the kind of liberals that...") is not generous but slack. Or I might say that a story or poem that wallows in its language a little, turning and turning and turning phrases round past the point of need till they come out more honest, more meant, is generous; I'd take care to differentiate this from a story or poem that twines its adjectival phrases, its nested subordinate clauses, delicately about to the point of rolling in its own slop. When I examine it this way, I wonder if the difference is really as simple and abdominally visceral as I imagine--is generosity an act of holding forth (and what a weird expression that is--I picture squeezing something tight as you deliver it into another's hands), not to be confused with excess, with indulgence, with binge or purge?

I came across the term most recently not as a description of writing, but as a description of music. My favorite musician, Owen Pallett (who I am going to see in concert tomorrow--I break the ban on Arizona to see this man) tweeted about Sufjan Stevens's new album, The Age of Adz, saying on its behalf, "I'm gonna be interested to see if anybody can give The Age of Adz a negative review and not come off like a complete asshole." Then, "It's like coming home to find that Sufjan's made you dinner, ironed your clothes, washed your car and installed a new hot tub," ending with the hash tag, "#generous." I hadn't realized Sufjan had a new album, which made me feel very stupid; he's rather a hero of mine too. So I went and found it waiting on the NPR site (generously). And I started listening, and obviously within mere moments I felt very stupid again, because I did not realize ahead of time that this album was made pointedly different from his last few, the ones I got to know him by. And so I started looking for that generosity, because in one sense I knew it was there--to explode your style the way Sufjan does here, to both totally unmake it and tease it to its limits, is some kind of generous.

It's been a long long time since I memorized your face / 
And it's been four hours now since I wandered through your place /
I do love you / I do love you

The opening song is incredibly lovely--these little Hauschka-esque plucked strings (I also love Hauschka), the immense overblown echo, the surprising strikes of a very homely piano. I think it's my mother's, which I reached a hand up to play when I was two years old, which I thought all children loved but they don't, which hasn't been tuned since I've been born.

But before long comes Bigfoot stepping through piles of sonic acid, banging trash cans on his way out of the sewers. A sick couple of trombones, eventually, dovetailing pleasingly and grossly into more pancreatic explosions. Flutes and clarinets, the same--trills that could eat their way through the ozone layer. It's kind of amazing, and awfully disturbing. It's the kind of thing I was always afraid I might hear in my head. The kind of thing that, in my deepest trances of composing, I was always afraid I'd make.

When it dies, when it dies / 
It rots / 
And when it lives, and when it lives / 
It gives it all it gots

It's the power of electronics to create worlds that don't exist for sensations that do, to create blight where real instruments and voices can't. You don't hear a whole lot of music that creates blight, that wastes itself. It's something writers don't really have. (Do we?)

It's clearly a work of great musicianship. It seems to fight logic so hard, but it has a vocabulary that can be tracked and made to fit next to the part of the musician's personality we already know. In some ways it's exactly what I always wanted Sufjan to do; I wanted him to yell at me, to break down, to scream. He doesn't really do that here, but he does put something of himself at risk. He risks his own overexposure; there's a quality of self-destruction, but without anger, without full violence. Balanced with it is certainly this quality of Sufjan inviting himself into your house, of playing in your brain--is this generosity? Or is it that he's inviting you into his house, his brain? Because he seems to do both.

Does a generous writer invite you in? Or does generosity impose?

Owen Pallett has a new album, too, to my joy: an EP called A Swedish Love Story. And he's trying new things too--the string arrangements are rickety in places; they strive as they always do, but they also scratch and warble and spread. There's a quality of openness to that--as with Sufjan, it's not a deliberate misplacement of elements, a coy wink at an intentional mistake; it's not an abandonment of craft but a careful deflation of it. Generosity, maybe, breaks the membrane a little to let us all see what'll leak.

Generosity as human stuffing, as life fluid. Generosity as abdominal after all. Generosity as bandage for a suppurating wound.

These are generous people, and maybe it's in part because they perceive a generous world. Just last week came this, too, which is one of the most generous things I've ever read (though I'm not sure it's necessarily generous to share). Generosity, maybe, bleeds. It does more than share. Generosity works glory out of blight.

I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well /
I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well /
I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well /
I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well /
And I forgive you even / As you choke me that way /


  1. I like this post.

    Naturally there's a review at Dusted today where Andrew Beckerman fucks up hugely: http://dustedmagazine.com/reviews/6021

    What can you even say about a guy like him?

  2. Uh. Yeah. That's a really stupid review.

    Generally I think it's a douche move to assume that a musician is producing albums mainly in the name of "futzing around" until they get to the one that was *really* what they meant. Don't worry guys, I'll figure out what I'm doing one day!

  3. I'm not familiar with Sufjam, Tracy, but I listened to some of the tracks you made available, and I found them to be quite interesting...have to think about investing in the cd.