This week I’d like to take a closer look at something I introduced in a previous article, about how Charles Bukowski uses realism in his prose and poetry to connect to the “average person.” In one of his funniest novels, Post Office, Bukowski uses this method of vulgar realism to showcase the rote absurdity of his day job and its contrast with his down-and-out leisure time lifestyle. However, Bukowski also slips in a few clues as to his own personal value system and his views on literature in the process, for while some peg Bukowski as a "nothing is sacred" kind of guy, he clearly delineates what is sacred and what is profane.
In Post Office, Bukowski writes, “[He] had a young white boy with him – one of the neurotic tribe of the lost – and the kid’s eyes were filmed with wet layers of tears.” This “neurotic tribe of the lost” is not how Bukowski sees his own generation – that of the self-driven, old school – but how he sees the generations after him, the Beats, the hippies, the squares surrendering themselves to a menial job that doesn’t mean anything to them and means very little to anyone else.
Never one to shamelessly dwell on a profound idea in his fiction, he says nothing else about these younger generations; however, his poetic epithet perhaps says more than enough. Bukowski places great stock on his own individuality and on the concept of individuality in general. He abhors conformity, personal weakness, dependency, fear, ass kissing, and any form of human behavior that contradicts individual freedom. This idea plays a large part in Post Office. Even as Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego, works for the Post Office, one never gets a sense that he has subscribed to its institution in the same way as the other workers. He simultaneously derides the Post Office, acknowledges the unfair conditions, the absurd rules and regulations, gives insight to the tenuous race relations between the white supervisors or “soups” and the black workers, and keeps himself grounded in reality with a healthy dose of self-awareness and irony.
This worldview plays its largest part when Bukowski discusses writing. When a postal co-worker brings him a novel he’s written, Bukowski begins by praising it,
It started well. It was about how Janko [his co-worker] had lived in small rooms and starved while trying to find a job. He had trouble with the employment agencies. And there was a guy he met in a bar – he seemed like a very learned type – but his friend kept borrowing money from him which he never paid back.
It was honest writing.
Maybe I have misjudged this man, I thought.
But as soon as he senses the slightest bit of insincerity, artifice, or pretension, he begins to dislike it. “Then the novel fell apart… The thing lost reality.” For Bukowski, writing is a sacred ground, where only the truth may pass. Any non-truth on the part of the author is not only bad writing, but also a sacrilege against the very institution of writing. His reasoning follows that writing offers people an opportunity to communicate a sacred truth between one another over a medium more capable than every day discourse. Any slandering of that medium – that is to say, bad, insincere writing – is a violation of the pact that author and reader implicitly make. The author does his part by presenting his truth. If it is true to the author it will shine through in his or her writing. The reader expects this truth and in turn opens his or her mind to the author with an expectation of truth, of revelation, of epiphany or insight into a previously closed sphere of experience.
It might seems strange to read these kind of literary polemics into a writer as grounded as Bukowski, but it is Bukowski’s stringent adherence to truth, to the sacredness of writing (and consequently, reading) that has sustained his popularity and readability all these years.
Bukowski writes about a woman he’s with and her “writing workshop:”
Some friends of Fay’s had come over and sat on the couch and chirped, how they were really great writers, really the best in the nation. The only reason they didn’t get published was that they didn’t – they said – send their stuff out.
I had looked at them. If they wrote the way they looked, drinking their coffee and giggling and dipping their doughnuts, it didn’t matter if they sent it out or jammed it.
Because these people are insincere in their very behavior, in Bukowski’s estimation, they are incapable of producing anything worth reading, because by extension their writing will also be insincere. Trying to write about something of which you are functionally ignorant never produces a worthwhile result. Bukowski’s criticisms are harsh, but one must assume that he held himself up to at least as high a standard. Ham on Rye doesn’t present a story no one has ever heard before; it tells it in a way that is so raw, so true, that it cuts across the divides and people who have never known child abuse, drinking, bullying, or poverty can relate to it at an extremely intimate level.
Bukowski offers a fundamental writer’s workshop with only a few simple principles: write what you know – this old adage still rings true for writers of today. If you aren’t writing about the truths you’ve discovered in your own experience, why are you the one to write it? Never avoid touchy, vulgar, or sensitive issues out of fear. If one writes for a market, or compromises his or her integrity because he or she thinks it will net more readers, more sales, a greater chance at publication, or anything else – if one corrupts the sacred motivation for creating art in any way, the end product will be diminished. The writer’s goal should be to write the best, truest story he or she can write and nothing besides. Finally, be self-aware. Lack of self-awareness leads to pretension and absurdity. Writers like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett proved that one can write an emotional, sincere story, while still maintaining enough self-aware distance to preserve its grounding in reality. Sentimentality has no place in literature. This doesn’t mean everything has to be ironic post-modern nihilism, only that a careful degree of self-consciousness in writing can prevent one’s cherished ideas from turning into an accidental self-parody.
Regardless of the media, artists reveal truth. Some say beauty, some say a mirror to the world, but in my opinion it can be said succinctly as truth, not in an objective, empirical sense, but self-truth. Only a person who is completely honest with his or her self about the work can produce art. For Bukowski, life is a profane series of pleasures, pains, insults, victories, love, hate, and struggle; but art – in his case literature, is sacred and not to be toyed with by those who lack the fortitude to face or expose their own truth.