Second-rate writing

Simone de Beauvoir, author, essayist, social critic, and titan of feminism, wrote an influential essay in 1951 titled “Must We Burn Sade?” In it the infamous marquis is assessed through the lens of the reputation that he has garnered, and de Beauvoir finds both positive and negative aspects to his work and legacy. It is not my intention in this post to explore in depth any of Sade’s works, rather I want to think about a particular claim that de Beauvoir made regarding him; but prior to that I think that a few short comments must be in order. To begin with, Sade’s treatment of women must really be seen as abhorrent even granting him some leniency for the historical times and aristocratic position in which he was born and which shaped him growing up. Even his strongest female characters, such as Juliette, were heavily masculinized in both behavior and outlook. Nevertheless, and this is a point that de Beauvoir makes too, he was a courageous analyst of the human condition. He forces us to see just what lurks within our species, and he also cast a terribly bright spotlight on the corridors of power. Purely from a literary point of view he experimented and innovated with the narrative forms available to him in quite remarkable ways, but he was also not above using scandalous fiction to chase sales (look at the evolution of the three versions of Justine for an example of this). In all I suppose that we must regard his legacy as mixed at best, and perhaps see in him a particularly flawed but particularly insightful and brave human being. (A historical tidbit here: During his time in the Bastille Sade kept a meticulous record of his daily masturbatory activities and achieved the astounding average of seven times per day – this was a man in his middle years, keep in mind. He had his wife send him a custom made anal dildo to assist in such endeavors.)

The claim then is this: de Beauvoir criticized Sade for being a second-rate writer because he wrote for himself and not for his readers. Is that a fair picture of second-ratism? How might we assess second-ratism and to what extent can a claim like that really be taken at face value? A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on things that we need to keep in mind when writing characters’ perspectives and within that issue is of course another very important perspective to keep in mind: that of your reader even though, at the time of any writing, such people are purely and simply potential readers. We can have no idea who will pick up our books, essays, shorts, etc., what their particular backgrounds will be, or how they will be feeling at that moment when they begin reading (assuming that they do and don’t merely stop at the title). Once that threshold has been crossed, however, and the potential reader becomes an actual reader, then the journey they engage on becomes our doing and our responsibility. How will we structure that? In de Beauvoir’s view Sade did not consider this point (or maybe just not enough) and she may be right in that. How much, though, do we consider that point? Earlier this year I also posted on the question of writing for your audience or for yourself and as it’s a topic that must come up often it’s probably worth revisiting in a few words. There I admitted to leaning towards writing for myself in the sense that I am averse to currently popular modes of writing but that I thought every writer must find a way to balance their own expressive needs with those of their readers’ needs. The effort that a reader puts in must be respected and honored. In thinking about de Beauvoir’s remark on Sade though a new angle to this problem presents itself: Does writing for your reader mean following extant writing customs?

I think that it is fair, given the content of at least his libertine novels, to say that to a large extent Sade did write for himself (although not entirely as his works are filled with political and philosophical commentaries that were clearly addressed to his society at large) in the sense of his expressive concerns. However that does not mean that experimenting with form, style, or content automatically makes a work written for its writer and not readers. If I am averse to mainstream writing concerns, as I mentioned being in the earlier post I referred to, that is not the same as being unconcerned with how a reader interacts with my work. That is something that I now see and which didn’t occur to me before. (Should I thank de Beauvoir or Sade for that?) If an accusation of second-ratism is to be made I think that it must be directed at those writers who do not even approach their writing from the point of view of a reader; that is, from the point of view of initial ignorance regarding the work and what it wishes to relate. To be second-rate in this sense is important and to be avoided (if a writer wants to be read anyway) for it could lead directly to a work that cannot be understood. Ironically this result has sometimes been pursued with the reader in mind, William S. Burroughs might well have written at least some of his works in the way he did in order to confuse the reader. He wrote for his readers to boggle up their minds; was that writing for himself? Would it be if his own mind were boggled up and thus that is what he pursued? If so, can we call him second-rate? The questions keep coming, yet in all of them we are trying to figure out where we stand in relation to our work and where the reader stands in relation to our work, and thus first, second, third, on-to-infinity-ratism seems to fall by the wayside. What is really pertinent is that at all times we are thinking from perspectives, and those perspectives inform how we create.

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