When I wrote my first book, I thought I knew. I wanted to change literature, or at least change the world. I thought all the books about AIDS were nothing like what I was living through. People with AIDS were dying so pleasantly in literature. My novel was intended to blow up how we were perceived. My seething, righteous rage would infect readers, flow in every vein, and men, women, and genderqueers would rise to demand justice. The revolution would ignite. Not only would my novel knock capitalism to its knees, but the ex who had dumped me would regret his decision and spontaneously combust, and all the kids in kindergarten who hadn’t invited me to their birthday parties would realize the errors of their ways.
Oh, and men would line up outside my door begging for a chance to date me, with a Greek chorus urging them on, of course.
OK, maybe the Greek chorus was a bit much, but what can I say, I was young.
Do I have to tell you, gentle reader, that I failed miserably? My book came out and nothing happened.
This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
I wised up. I understood that neither changing the world nor selling a billion copies of my book was going to happen. After a year of depression, I pulled myself up by the boxer briefs and began to write again. Why, you might ask, would I write? Well, I had matured. I’d reined in my expectations. Changing the world was outside the scope of a novel, but, you know, the purpose of literature is to change lives. Yes, I would change people. Yes, I am a writer. I, like Jesus, like the Church of Latter-Day Saints and the new age movement, would save souls, one at a time.
Do I have to tell you, gentle reader, that I failed miserably again? My book came out and again nothing happened.
I wised up once more, further reined in my expectations. Yet with every publication, I’d spiral the drain of depression before getting sucked down. Then I’d pull myself up by the Calvin Klein underwear, and I’d start writing again. Why? I always came up with erroneous reasons because, for the longest time, I was unable to let go of the romantic notion that art had saved me, that literature could save the world. This horrid world, with its evil politicians, vampiric healthcare system, mass incarcerations, wars, trickle-down economics, golf, you name it, all existed because we weren’t reading enough literature.
I would write to add my mellifluous voice to the healing power of art.
Rabih Alameddine joins the California Book Club on August 18 at 5 p.m. Pacific time.
I began to despair after the publication of my fourth book. Yes, I was getting good reviews, some recognition. My work was being read. Still, I felt my books weren’t saving the world, anyone’s soul, or me. So few of us read books, let alone literary books, books meant to explore who we are, that the whole endeavor of writing felt practically meaningless. My friends and I might think that Proust can transform your life, but there are 7.9 billion people in the world, and if I am giving them the benefit of the doubt, at least 7.85 billion of them will march to their graves without having heard of him.
The sad vanity of those of us who believe in art, of those of us who believe in the power of literature to save humanity from its own catastrophes.
And yet, as time passed, I pulled myself up by my Paul Smith underwear, and I began to write again. This time, though, I wrote about a 72-year-old woman with blue hair who translated novels that no one read, one every year while questioning the point at the same time. “I bet you believe in the redemptive power of art,” she would say. Nevertheless, she persisted.
So did I for a while. I’d write and I’d despair, and I’d stop writing and I’d despair. Finally, my psychiatrist must have gotten bored because he started insisting that I take an antidepressant. Half the prescribed dosage seemed to do the job.
I still think that, most likely, writing is useless, that no one cares, yet I have nothing better to do with my time, so I write. But like my blue-haired narrator, I finally have come to understand that whether the world cares about books or not shouldn’t matter. I write because I care. I write because I care deeply about books. I write because there has always been a hopeful spark alive somewhere in my soul.
And yes, goddammit, I still dream of a Greek chorus.•