The Text is not Sacred
The writing community on Twitter had its feathers ruffled the other week. Someone, somewhere took it upon herself to publicly explain why she dislikes fanfiction: it is indulgent, derivative, and frivolous, she said, and the writing is bad. She suggested that fanfic acolytes were being diverted from the worship of true and worthy literature by the cheap thrills and easy erotica of Harry-kissing-Ron fantasies. She wrote these opinions into her phone, one after another, and Book Twitter objected.
There were countless responses excoriating her “snobbery” and attacking her examples of excellent literature. Some tapped out their own deep-hearted opinions on the wonders of fanfiction: how it serves as an entree into writing, how it can brighten the reader’s day, how it saves lives. The original poster was wrong, her critics insisted, to desecrate fanfiction as she did.
This whole debate, in my opinion, is premised on an error. Those who revere writing for its boundlessness and those who genuflect only before the elegant and profound are both making the same mistake. They think writing is sacred. It’s not. It is profane. It is, after all, human.
People are entirely profane. You are not an ethereal spirit inhabiting a temple. You are the bricks and the mortar. You are fat cells and bone and electrical signals. You have to eat food—mash it up and swallow it into your guts just to keep being who you are. You must fart to stay alive. You must shed skin and avoid getting dirt in the open wounds of your absurdly fragile body. You are base, material, profane, and so is writing. Keats would be ashamed of a fellow poet for saying such a thing, I suppose. But Keats is dead. He got tuberculosis.
Writing is just as fragile as we are, my friends. Made of sounds and letters and the particles of our experienced and imagined lives, it can age, belch, shed, decompose. Haven’t you read words like these? Haven’t you written them? I have written sentences so boring they could stop time, so grotesque that I shudder to face them again. Like any material thing, writing is perishable. I have reread beloved books and found them trite. Writing is corporeal in this way. It becomes decrepit eventually.
And by this same virtue it can also grow. Become aroused. Weep real tears. It can be arrestingly beautiful. But none of this is sacred.
Or, none of it is sacred on its own. The sacredness of writing does not exist in the text but outside of it. For a thing to be holy, it must be set apart. Before you release it or after you consume it, writing is in you, of you, and therefore material, however lovely. Writing becomes sacred only when it is lifted away from us.
I write regularly with a group of friends. We are all conscious, I think, of the baseness of our words as we write them. When it comes time to read what we have written, we laugh at ourselves, make excuses, and shrug. But then, as we read, the writing is lifted for a moment between us. And that liminal space is sacralized by naughty boys who love their father, by a long-ago drive on the Garden State Parkway, by roller skates, by comic misunderstandings and forgotten luggage. The material and mundane things that we are writing about invoke a holiness they do not possess. The stories we tell are not sublime, and neither is the language in which we tell them. We who listen to the stories are not sacred vessels. We misinterpret and misremember what the other said. We are children trading sticky, earthy treasures under the pine trees. There is nothing holy about the trinkets themselves, and yet they are holy, aren’t they? They are like diamonds. If we did not give them to each other and want them from each other, they would be mere rocks.
What a gross sin it is, then, to murder, to cheat, to abuse, to enslave based only on that tenuous worth. Grasp the rock too tightly, and it loses its magic and becomes a weapon. There is writing like that, of course. There are writers who wield the raw materials of their work to dispute and devalue the humanity of other people. There is writing that romanticizes colonialism and makes excuses for racism and greed. This is worse than profane materiality—it is rot and poison—and this, I agree, is worthy of rejection. Anyone who is so sure of their own superiority that they seek to destroy any other claim to sacredness does not understand how sanctity works. They think that it is limited and can be used up by other people. They are wrong. It is not in short supply anywhere else.
Finding such depravity in a text, it is tempting to think that another might harbor holiness. You have felt this too, haven’t you? You may have been the one whose life was saved. But I suggest to you that the sanctity of that moment was not rooted in the magical arrangement of those words that saved you any more than it was in the functioning of your liver that day or the precise rhythm of your beating heart, though all of these things were present and necessary. Go back and scrutinize the text, and you can see its material parts—some of which may still have strength in them, some of which have atrophied—exposed on the page. The text was constructed manually, with the same stuff as instruction manuals and insurance plans. You may find that it has a harsher odor than you remembered or a softer skin. And yet it was capable (may still be capable) of raising up an unrooted holiness like ball lightning that balances between reader and text and then is gone.
Do not try to scandalize me by telling me that a piece of writing is uninspiring. And do not try to amaze me by revealing that it is one of the holy texts. No one can say anything about a book or a poem or a story or any written thing that can surprise me. Of course fanfiction is base and sticky. Of course the Instagram poets are. And of course these same texts are a vector of salvation. Shakespeare’s works are also profane. And so are Toni Morrison’s. And Mary Oliver’s. And Danielle Steele’s. And George R. R. Martin’s. And mine. And yours. And they are sacred, too, for what they raise up in the space between. Say what you will about their particular features, what you like and do not like, but no amount of arguing can change either of these facts.