Kurt Vonnegut is dead. Norman Mailer is dead. David Foster Wallace is dead, and most recently, baseball-lauding American writer John Updike died, leaving us – a generation of readers and writers who experienced the work of these men – alone. Now we stand in the inevitable shadow of literary schools that we, as consumers and creators of art, will readjust, reshape or fully overturn. That shadow itself has influence over what we decide to do.
My fixation on the death of literary greats hinges on personal experience. That is, within the context of my destructive, self-fulfilling prophecy, I believe I am responsible for the death of a handful of artists by way of intersecting coincidence. My lacking, in some way, led to their deaths:
I. Kurt Vonnegut, April 2007.
It is my sophomore year of college. I have two friends. Both of the friends go away for the weekend.
I verbalize to an acquaintance that in their absence, I will spend the weekend reading the full canon of Kurt Vonnegut.
I read part of “Cat’s Cradle.” I spend the rest of my weekend watching television.
I am alerted the next school week that Vonnegut has just died from brain injuries, after falling down a flight of stairs a few weeks earlier.
I talk about how weird this is, saying things like “Everything I touch dies.” People laugh.
CAUSE OF DEATH: My insincere championing of his work.
II. Norman Mailer, November 2007
I am in a seminar focused on the 1890s. We are discussing Oscar Wilde’s “Salome.” I make an ill-conceived comparison between a facet of the work and Norman Mailer’s “An American Dream.”
Later that week, I am buying cigarettes and pick up a Time magazine. The back pages of the magazine include an article on Mailer’s death.
CAUSE OF DEATH: My misinterpreting his art and inadequately exposing it to others.
III. David Foster Wallace, September 2008
“You should really read ‘Infinite Jest,’ ” says a friend.
I go to a party. The friend reads news from his iPhone later that night.
“David Foster Wallace killed himself.”
CAUSE OF DEATH: Going to a party, or something.
The recent death of American writer John Updike was different, though. It was different because there was no easy way for me to attach myself to it. At first reading of his passing, I thought a lot of things. These things were not “Poor Updike,” or “John Updike was awesome.” Rather, I racked my brain for instances in which I may have referenced John Updike recently. There were none. Superficially, I was relieved. Really, though, my lack of coincidental connection to Updike’s death starved me of a base need: to secure importance by association. To be relevant by connection.
As a new generation of writers, we cannot help but to internalize these deaths, some more deeply, or strangely than others. This is because these artists – like my coincidental involvement in their deaths – matter greatly, because we make them matter. We internalized their sense of story structure, if only to reinvent, criticize or recreate what they meant.
“It does have an impact on you [as a generation] that these people are gone,” said GW English professor Margaret Soltan, known for her widely read blog, University Diaries. “They produced a version of the great American novel, but at the same time, it seems to me that you’re from a different world.”
We are from a different world, and our literature – with its adeptness for switching scenery and emphasis on the self-reflexive, reflects this, perhaps best embodied in the work of David Foster Wallace – who I may or may not have killed.
“I would argue that the basic theme of human existence – everyone trying to organize their life so it’s not painful – that theme has been with us since Shakespeare. The basic dilemma of being is not changing,” Soltan said.
Whether we like it or not – personal preferences aside – these writers are important to us, because we have either read them, been influenced by them, or because we were told that they were important. For this reason, we exist in their shadow. To be relevant artists, we are confined to either be influenced by their work or make an informed move away from it.
“The whole question of influence and how powerful you’re going to be influenced is in play here,” said Soltan, adding that the culmination of these deaths lend for more discernible reference points of literary and film schools. Even the notion of artistic trauma is at play, she said.
“Why does an artist’s life seem more difficult, and does that have to continue to be the model?” she asked.
Must future work depend on the trope of the suffering artist? Perhaps not. Or perhaps I’ve killed too many great American writers to know otherwise.