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What Makes You Guilty?

I have a collection with me at work today called 6 Israeli Novellas. I’m itching to read Benjamin Tammuz’ contribution, but it’s the penultimate work in the collection. The point here? I feel incredibly guilty about skipping around in books. Poetry collections, anthologies, even the damn dictionary. I know this has more to do with my OCD than it does anything else, and sometimes I can overcome it, open an anthology and read only the selections I’m interested in. All too often though I’ve found myself starting from the beginning and reading all the way through. I’m not kidding when I say in college I opened the dictionary because a friend wanted a definition, and couldn’t make myself close the book until well into the F’s.

I’ve never been able to skip around a poetry collection, at least not until I’ve read the whole thing all the way through first.

And, sure, this might seem admirable, reading an anthology cover to cover, but when it happens I am often just as focused on the fact that I want to be skipping through to other stories or poems, as I am on actually reading and digesting the words on the page.

As I sat staring at 6 Israeli Novellas (in which I still can’t make it past the table of contents because of this issue), I thought about the act of feeling guilty as pertained to literature. Maybe because last week I was feeling immense guilt over the two highly disturbing stories I’d been working on.

There are things I feel awful about reading and writing, but I wrote a story dealing with one of them, and though I like the story and think it’s strong, it also disturbs me. And, yes, makes me feel guilty.

So, please, tell me I’m not the only crazy one. Tell me what makes you feel guilty in literature, in reading or your own writing.

  • Ryan W. Bradley has pumped gas, changed oil, painted houses, swept the floor of a mechanic's shop, worked on a construction crew in the Arctic Circle, fronted a punk band, and managed an independent children's bookstore. He now works in marketing. His latest book is Nothing but the Dead and Dying, a collection of stories set in Alaska. He lives in southern Oregon with his wife and two sons.

24 thoughts on “What Makes You Guilty?

  1. As cliched as it may sound, I associate guilt with “guilty pleasures,” more often than not. I feel guilty, for instance, when I give in to the urge to indulge in easy narrative or facile imagery. And actually, more often recently, when I give into a description that is as beautiful (to me) as it is useless. Lately I’ve been awakening from a long dream of overly poetized language, and it’s all I can do to prevent myself from falling back to sleep.

    I don’t often write stories in which some action occurs about which I feel guilt. Can you offer any insight into the cause of your guilt? I mean, are talking about baby-raping, or something more like what I’ve described above–giving into weak or lazy writing…

    1. Rape is exactly what I was referring to in this particular story. There are other things I am uncomfortable with as well, but I have a hard time writing/reading about rape. Same goes for domestic violence. No doubt certain proximities to these issues throughout my life has made them something extra discomforting to me. Not that I think I am more sensitive to them as issues, but simply something I have a hard time digesting in reality, which makes it hard, in turn for me to deal with on the page.

      1. Are you addressing them now out of some kind of therapeutic urge–confronting your fears and all that? If so, what do you hope to accomplish by writing about them?

        1. Actually, it wasn’t a conscious choice at all. The story just turned out to be about that. I realized it was going to be after the first paragraph, it kind of hit me. I stepped away from the story for a few months after that. When I went back to it I decided to forge on, not for therapy sake, so much as I felt it was a necessary story to the collection I’m trying to put together. So it was more about my practical side saying “time to buck up, dude”

            1. I always feel, when reading something that makes me uncomfortable, that the writer has done his or her job well, to make me feel so intimately involved. In my own writing, I guess I feel since I’m the one supposedly in control that I ought to know better.

                  1. i love this exchange. you did a great thing, ryan, looking evil in the eye, so to speak. i think that artists always have a responsibility to work in that mode, fearful yet fearless. i also think guilt is essential to the work of writing. from an interview with bataille:

                    J.: Does the title mean that Literature and Evil are inseparable? B.: I believe yes. Of course this isnt clear at first sight, but I think that if Literature goes away from Evil it becomes quickly boring. It is important to underline that Literature must deal with anguish, that this very anguish is based upon something that goes wrong, and eventually seriously bad. In leading the reader in some unpleasant perspective, I take the example of a novel, Literature avoids to get boring. J.: Thus a writer is always guilty of writing..? B.: Most of writers aren’t fully aware of this, but I do believe in that profound guilt. Writing is basically the opposite of working. It might not appear so logical, although every amusing books are efforts submitted to work.

                    though i think bataille is only beginning to broach the relation between guilt and literature here, i agree with him.

                    i have a story coming out in the next night train that i’m extremely scared of. i only submitted a couple of places, then decided i didn’t want it out in the world so forgot about it (i also considered it unpublishable). but i guess rusty barnes & crew had other plans.

                    1. Thanks, Alec.

                      I think I agree with Bataille there. I am more comfortable working in other realms of anguish in terms of conflict, etc. But I tend to think if I’m not torturing myself as a writer (which I find countless ways to do), then I’m not putting everything I have into the practice.

                      I’ll be looking for that story in Night Train!

    2. I’ve written a couple of stories abt addicted characters who think they are practicing “harm reduction” when really they are just drinking too much, lying to themselves and others and generating convoluted justifications. I have felt guilty because I believe in harm reduction and worry my stories can be coopted by the folks who discredit harm reduction.

      1. Tim, I have felt similarly about writing certain things. Knowing full well that if a story goes out into the world you can no longer control how it is viewed or used can be daunting.

  2. bataille rocks my world. i love him.

    i feel guilt for existing. and for no other reasons. or for all other reasons. which is why i love bataille but cannot go to prostitutes, as he enjoys. among other things.

  3. You’ve never been able to skip around a poetry collection, huh? I’m the exact opposite…even with longer, book-length sequences… perhaps I have too much of a Foucauldian understanding of the “book” as a weak discursive unity.

    1. once i’ve read through the collection as a whole I can skip around, but haven’t been able to make myself do so before. even with things like The Complete Poems of Langston Hughes.

  4. Man! The complete LH? That thing is like a phone book! I couldn’t imagine doing it cover to cover.

    But come to think of it, Hughes is really the master of the tiny, unassuming poem and they really gain force by accumulation– it definitely pays to read a lot of his work straight through.

    1. sometimes this tendency of mine pays off in unexpected ways. Hughes has been my favorite poet since i was 13, i’ve read that book probably a hundred times.

      i was trying to think of some other bulky ones. when i bought Marvin Bell’s Nightworks: 1962-2000, he put a marker about 2/3 through the book and told me to start there. i laughed and told him it wasn’t going to happen like that.

  5. Hi Ryan,

    If you haven’t read it, you might find interesting Wayne C. Booth’s essay “Who Is Responsible in Ethical Criticism, and for What?” in “The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction” (University of California Press, 1988).

    I’m not a philosopher, and I’m certainly not an ethicist. (John can attest to the fact that I’m not good at arguing over responsibility! And I imagine he could talk more coherently about Booth than I can.)

    But I might want to say (following Booth) that you’re taking a very ethical approach as a reader to others’ writing. (I’m not saying whether this is good or bad; it might not be either.) You’re choosing (as Booth might say) to agree to think the thoughts of the author or editor (by reading), and you respect the order in which those thoughts were put down. Not doing so makes you feel guilty because you feel (perhaps) as though you’re violating your ethical obligation as a reader.

    Maybe. Perhaps.

    Or it might be OCD. I don’t know.

    One thing we might consider is whether a work like before. even with things like “The Complete Poems of Langston Hughes” deserves the same kind of respect that a work like “Not Without Laughter” does. Because with the latter, Hughes put the words in a particular order, and had it bound up as a novel. He intended—or at least hoped—that the reader would approach those words in that order.

    But with “The Complete Poems of Langston Hughes,” we might argue that the ordering is more arbitrary. The poems are arranged in the order that Hughes wrote them—which might not be the order Hughes would have preferred us to read them in. It might be the order that the book’s editor would prefer us to read them in—but even here, that preferences is based on something that’s arguably arbitrary. And some scholars, or different editors, might argue that there are better orders for reading those poems, in order to understand things about Hughes and his poetry.

    But then you’d be agreeing to think the thoughts of those scholars or editors…

    Anyway, for what it’s worth. (And I, personally, love reading the last pages of books first.)

    1. Adam,

      Thanks, I’ll be looking up that essay. When I was in school I certainly told people that my compulsiveness regarding books had to do with a respect for the author, but I honestly think I was doing so because it sounded less crazy than telling people the truth. As I’ve gotten older and my pretensions have dropped, I am more willing to be honest about myself. I certainly have a lot of respect for the writer and I try to read their work in a way that exemplifies that. In a similar vein I try to watch the credits of movies, out of respect for all the work all those people put into it. But in that instance I am also able to walk away and not feel guilty, nor do I feel the pull that I feel regarding books, which is why I attribute the book stuff to my other compulsive behaviors.

      I was unsure about writing this post at first, but I’m really glad I did, the discussion it has spawned has been fantastic.

      1. Hi Ryan,

        Booth’s book is pretty phenomenal. I encountered it maybe five years ago (I finally got around to it after being told to read it in grad school), and it slightly blew my mind. In particular, it altered the way I approach my own writing, which is something I will probably post about eventually (applying Booth to one’s own writing).

        I’m a compulsive credits watcher, too. (They’re part of the movie!)

        Have you seen Béla Tarr’s short film “Prologue”?

        Brilliant use of credits. You will not avoid these people!

        On a related note, perhaps: Our current society encourages speed, multitasking, fragmentation, skim-reading, channel-surfing, tab-browsing, parataxis. It also obscures production processes, and the role of labor in those processes.

        I believe that it’s a counterculture decision to slow down, focus, reread, be linear, coherent. And to observe process.

        At one time, fragmentation was a radical response to the dominant culture. But the dominant culture has changed, and fragmentation is now a Britney Spears video.

        Cheers, Adam

        1. Booth sounds cool. I hadn’t heard of him before, but I’ll definitely be checking out that book.

          It’s interesting, too, how society’s tendencies shift. How what once would not be counterculture at all, can become so by the paradigm movement. Although it is interesting how fragmentation in literature is still scene as fairly avant garde, though not so much in terms of film, etc.

          1. Hi Ryan,

            If I wanted to be cynical, I’d say that this is because “no one reads anymore.”

            Or that people are “more invested in movies and music.” And so those art forms are “more sophisticated,” even on a popular level. Or something like that.

            Broad claims, I know, that can’t really be defended. But I do think that a lot of popular films and songs are “more complex” than a lot of popular fiction. Although maybe I’m just biased. I have more invested in fiction than I do in music or film, so I do think I tend to be more cynical about what people are reading (which isn’t me!).

            Cheers, Adam

            1. I am a major cynic, so you’d be in good company.

              I think I am probably equally invested in film and music as I am in literature, maybe because I have dabbled in all three, I don’t know. I think we could probably find examples to support both sides of such an argument, but that sounds like a series of posts unto itself, and would probably need someone far more intelligent than I.

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