Jonathan Lethem, “Jonathan Lethem on Being a Self-Conscious Writer,” The Guardian (Guardian Review) 10 March 2012
[…] To comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable: what presumption, on the part of the storyteller.
Yet I’ve got no choice, for I am the disturbed I seek to comfort, and also the comfortable I seek to disturb.
What’s a novelist? I remove myself from human traffic to sit in a room alone and make up stories about human traffic that doesn’t exist. For my living I climb into and then punch my way out of the paper bag of my solipsism on a daily basis — and on the days I don’t manage to punch my way out, there is no coach who blows a whistle and tells me to remove myself from the field in favour of a better-rested substitute (“Where’s your Negative Capability today, son?”). This may, in fact, be an act on a par with painting an abstract composition in oils, titling it Giant Octopus, then hanging it on the walls of a public aquarium. All writing, no matter how avowedly naturalistic, consists of artifice, of conjuration, of the manipulation of symbols rather than the “opening of a window on to life”. We writers aren’t sculpting in DNA, or even clay or mud, but words, sentences, paragraphs, syntax, voice; materials issued by tongue or fingertips but which dissolve upon release into the atmosphere into cloud, confection, spectre.
Language, as a vehicle, is a lemon, a hot-rod painted with thrilling flames but crazily erratic to drive, riddled with bugs like innate self-consciousness, embedded metaphors and symbols, helpless intertextuality and so forth. Despite being regularly driven on prosaic errands (inter-office memos, supermarket receipts and so on), it tends to veer on its misaligned chassis into the ditch of abstraction, of dream. That’s to say, abstract paintings of a giant octopus are all we have to put on view in my city’s aquarium.
None of this disqualifies my sense of urgency at the task of making the giant octopus in my mind’s eye visible to yours. It doesn’t make the attempt any less fundamentally human, delicate, or crucial. It makes it more so. That’s because another name for the giant octopus I have in mind is negotiating selfhood in a world of other selves — the permanent trouble of being alive. Our language has no choice but to be self-conscious if it is to be conscious in the first place.