On John Jeremiah Sullivan and Relentless Curiosity

Posted: February 1, 2012 in Books I Like, Books I'm Reading
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I’ve been meaning to post about this smart collection of essays — Pulphead — from John Jeremiah Sullivan for some time but then I find and read another essay by him and would rather just read him than talk about him–I think I’ve finally exhausted what’s available out there. And now I’m in line behind dozens of other writers and readers who have already championed this guy’s work, someone whose prose is so intimate and immediate that I feel as if we have a relationship.

He writes in the tradition of the “new” journalists, a genre I love and don’t see nearly enough of, especially in the long form. Outside of Harper’s, The New Yorker, and occasionally pieces in GQ (where Sullivan has published many of his) Esquire, and some literary journals, few magazines publish long form journalism. A broad generalization: the contemporary reader has little patience for the 10,000+ word essay. For that matter, most readers can’t get past 800 words, an essay so short as to nearly negate the subject itself by so superficially exploring it (I exclude the compressed, or flash essay which explores a subject “through action, through objects, through metaphor, through inference (Brevity Craft Essays).”)

Sullivan uses long form journalism to explore just about any subject that catches his curiosity. And it’s his exhaustive curiosity, his ability and willingness to come at his subjects from the periphery while also investing himself in his subjects and his piece, that makes his work so goddamned compelling and addictive. Each essay is about much more than the title subject and he manages to make each one compelling. James Wood, writing in The New Yorker, says of Sullivan: “He seems to have in abundance the storyteller’s gifts: he is a fierce noticer, is undauntedly curious, is porous to gossip, and has a memory of childlike tenacity.”

To my writing students: I emphasize that an undaunted curiosity for the world–and not just the subjects we obsess over or that happen to be trending at the moment, but the world at-large–is essential. Never stop looking, wondering, asking questions.

John D’Agata–another favorite essayist–says that the essay is about “human wondering.” It’s this human wondering, this curiosity about the world and an attempt to explore it without the need for resolution, with the very real, even necessary possibility of failure, that makes for an interesting and successful writer. Scott Russell Sanders said: “The writing of an essay is like finding one’s way through a forest without being quite sure what game you are chasing, what landmark you are seeking.” And that kind of writing takes fearlessness and an insatiable desire to know more, more, more.

I also encourage students to read as much and as broadly as possible, a habit that should derive naturally from this need to know. I love this quote from Christopher Higgs in answer to the question “what should young writers today study or do in order to improve their craft?”

Become intellectually polyamorous, cultivate an insatiable curiosity for knowledge and experience in as many different guises as you possibly can, question everything, always challenge, learn that failure and rejection are positive things, subscribe to at least three non-literary magazines in three completely different fields (for me, right now, it’s National Geographic, Juxtapose, and Wine Enthusiast – last year it was Seed, Esquire, and Art in America), forget politics: it has nothing to do with you and any time or energy you invest in it is wasted time and energy you could be using productively to learn and experience and create, do not choose sides, do not agree or disagree, embrace contradiction, watch cinema from as many different countries and time periods as you possibly can, seek out unclassifiable music, spend time in unfamiliar locations, expose yourself to new activities, go to the opera, go to the ballet, go to the planetarium, travel a lot, observe as much as you can, pay attention to the way people talk and the way people listen, eat strange food, watch at least one sporting event but instead of thinking about it as entertainment think about it as narrative, ABR = Always Be Researching, carry a notebook and pen at all times, remember it is more important to ask questions than give or receive answers, seek to open up and never close down, seek to seek, do not seek to find, fall in love with language, think obsessively about language, about words, about sentences, about paragraphs, about the sound of words, the weight of words, the shape of words, the look of words, the feel of words, the placement of words, and most importantly be your biggest advocate, think of yourself as a genius, think of yourself as an artist, think of yourself as a creator, do not despair, do not listen to criticism, do not believe naysayers, they are wrong, you are right, they are death and you are life, they destroy and you create, the world needs what you have to say.

I live by this and remind my students daily. Read. Become readers. Become better readers. Read several new and different things daily–no excuses. The optimist in me remains hopeful.

Because I’ve run out of Sullivan essays to read, I picked up his first book: Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son. It’s ostensibly about thoroughbreds, a subject I would not normally be drawn to–hell, horses, in general, for that matter. But to read broadly, you have to implicitly trust an author up front–which doesn’t always pay off–to make the chosen subject new, to find the strange in the familiar and the familiar in the strange. I’ve only just started Blood Horses but already I feel myself free-falling, curiouser and curiouser, the horse as fascinating a subject as any I’ve ever read.

Finally, check out john-jeremiah-sullivan-and-wells-tower-in-conversation at the New York Public Library (Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is one of the better short story collections in the past few years).

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