Last Words

June 14, 2011 | 4 books mentioned 14 4 min read

coverA friend of mine told me this story. He was sitting in a medical office waiting to get a CAT scan, trying to read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin. He’d started the book some years before, then lost it, found it again, and started over. He didn’t like it all that much (it wasn’t as good as Lolita or Pale Fire, the novels that had driven him to pick it up in the first place), and as he sat there reading in the waiting room, he thought about the CAT scan he was about to undergo. I may have only a few months to live, he thought. Is this the book I want to spend my remaining hours on?

coverMy friend is fine, it turns out. The CAT scan came back normal. But as he told me this story, I thought back to a recent evening when I lay in my bed reading The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel. Like Wallace’s oeuvre in general, the book has some absolutely stunning sections that command your attention and make you feel intensely alive and aware (see chapters 6, 19, 22, or 46, e.g.), along with some that drive you batty with their dullness and perseverating detail.

I was struggling with the long, tedious section in which “David Wallace” is caught in a traffic jam outside the Peoria IRS office. In the next room, my two daughters, five and seven, were not going to sleep. I was getting more and more irritated with them and their demands for water, etc., which kept interrupting me from concentrating on the book.

Underlying my irritation was another anxiety: my sense that here I was, yelling at my kids to go to sleep just so that I could finish reading something that I myself found incredibly boring, a book that I had no practical need to read, a book whose own author had committed suicide before he was able to finish. A precious, irreplaceable moment of my own life was slipping away. I was declining a chance to interact with my children in a more positive way. And why? To read something that might best have been left on the cutting room floor.

I’ve read a fair number of short story collections. In most of them, there’s at least one and usually several stories that seem so clearly inferior to the rest that I have to wonder, Why is this in here? Does the author know that this story is bad? Is it here merely to serve as filler?

covercoverThese questions remind me of an old Kurt Vonnegut appearance on Charlie Rose in which Vonnegut explains that he has graded all of his own novels. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five received A pluses. Slapstick got an F. The book he was on the show to plug at the time (I think it was Timequake) was a B minus.

Vonnegut’s admirable candor makes me think that writers must have a sense of the relative merits of their works. Indeed, the placement of mediocre stories in short story collections is usually a good indicator of the grade the writers would give them. Such stories tend to be buried in the middle of the second half of a collection, or sandwiched in between two more successful pieces.

But why publish them at all? Why not spare us readers that experience of feeling that we’re spending finite moments of our lives on something that is less than the best?

Zadie Smith wasn’t addressing these particular questions at the time, but she pointed nevertheless to one answer to them when she wrote that “writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.”

If Vonnegut could have written nothing but A pluses, he would have. He couldn’t, however. No writer can. Yet Vonnegut still had contracts to fulfill, bills to pay. He had to publish books. It was in his job description.

Moreover, I suspect that, for Vonnegut and for most writers, there comes a time when they just need to accept that a novel or a story or a song is as good as it’s going to get, even if it’s not an A plus. The book needs to come out. The collection of stories needs to be a certain length. The writer’s time has been spent on the piece, for good or ill. It might as well see the light of publication as long as someone is willing to publish it. Who knows: some reader or critic might actually like it. Even if no one does, the writer needs to move on to the next story, the next novel.

It’s a delicate calibration. When do we, as writers, accept that a piece is as good as it will ever be, even if it’s not that great? When do we decide that a piece will never be good enough to be published? As readers, when do we decide that a book or a story is simply not going to be worth reading? When do we decide to press on in the face of boredom?

The CAT scan might come back normal, but in the larger sense, we’re all dying anyway. Our lives as writers, as readers, as human beings, will come to an end. What we write, what we read, what we spend our time on—these are incredibly weighty choices, though we may fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.

There’s a danger in perfectionism, in the compulsive attempt to make every novel and story and essay an A plus, or to finish reading everything we start. Yet there’s also a danger in easy abandonment, in the lack of persistence needed to push through the slow parts of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, or in the lack of writerly belief in one’s powers of revision and discovery.

In this way, as in so many others, writing and reading are metaphors for living. In the end, you do the best you can, and then, in one way or another, you let it go and move on.

(Image: fading contrail from dnorman’s photostream)

teaches high school English in St. Louis, Missouri. He blogs at Corresponding Fractions.


  1. great piece. i loved it when anne lamott wrote “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people” in ‘Bird by Bird’.

    as an amateur reviewer of books, music, art, etc. (doing it for the love), there are times when i know my reviews aren’t as great as i’d like them to be but need to post and move on. granted, this is nothing compared to writing a novel but there’s that sense of knowing you’re not putting your best work forward.

    as for finishing books that don’t grab you, it’s an ongoing battle–it often feels like admitting defeat. it makes you question your intelligence sometimes, especially if reputable people rave about the book you can’t stand.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful post. It’s quite a lot to think about.

    I tend to blame myself when a book isn’t “working” for me. I’d like to think that if I keep going and try harder, I’ll begin to like it. I agree that readers are sometimes obliged to put in the work and stick with a book even during its slow moments. The amazing, rewarding bits could be just a page turn away.

  3. Lit mags, essays, collections of poems and short storiesy, Important Novels by Dead Writers, best-sellers, a recent Harlequin romance, a thin ESP thriller aimed at 14-year-old girls, a paperback western–my rat’s nest has me, as J. P. Donleavy put it, “riding the melted rails in all directions.” The reader in me wants it that way. The writer in me needs a varied diet. Good, Bad, and Ugly. Yes, the Great stuff also. All of it,, Useful. Thanks, Frank, for another smart can-opener of a column. I could spend all day thinking through the ideas and connections you raise here.

  4. Interesting. I think that if an author cannot at least give themselves a C for a given piece of work then they should not publish it. I am not personally a voracious reader, however I know someone well who is, and I have seen him often struggle though a book looking for the supposed gems that it was purported to have and then be after days of work, finding nothing worth the time and energy he put into it. He spends so much time reading (non-fiction) that for him to waste days on a piece of work that the writer himself would grade less than a C is just wrong. We all have limited time to devote to what we care about. I say if the writer thinks it isn’t good, why waste our time with publishing it? So they spent 1, 5, 10, 20 hours/days/weeks writing it and want to be compensated. That is nothing compared to the cumulative time of all the people that pick it up to read.

    Ok if they spent years writing it I can see that they may want to just push it out the door and make some money, but seriously it should be the exception. Time is money and the rest of us shouldn’t have to waste ours so a writer can get thiers.

    I’m probably in the minority here, but that is my opinion.

  5. Hey, really enjoyed this thoughtful piece.

    One point that stopped me was the idea that, when Vonnegut produced less-than-amazing work, he knew it wasn’t his best while he was writing it. Or at least he knew it before it was published — but he just had to get it out there “to pay the bills” and because it was “in his job description.”

    I’m not sure how the publishing process usually works, let alone how it usually worked in the ’60s and ’70s, but it seems that novelists get a lot more flexibility than most professionals, in terms of handing things in when they’re good and ready. Which made me wonder if Vonnegut’s grading system was more retroactive. In the Charlie Rose interview, he says that he knows Slapstick failed because critics seemed to hate it. Surely this was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it did make me think perhaps it wasn’t until much after he handed it in that he graded it an F.

    Anyway, my two cents.

  6. Do you want to be struggling with Pnin if you are in waiting room for a CAT scan? Absolutely. Nabokov’s sense of humor offers exactly the right nihilistic message for the moment. While not his most well known work, his indictment of Cornell University and Ithaca for their insular academic elitism is a rocking good laugh. You wouldn’t want to be reading David Foster Wallace sitting in that waiting room. But is this unfinished novel poorly written? No. The writing is about the most boring things and he conveys this boredom brilliantly. I think really good writers and authors are their harshest critics. Kurt Vonnegut’s worst writing is better than the most of our best writing. But the essential questions are what makes a book worthy of publishing and when is it ready?

  7. I’m finally old enough to admit that I will *not* get around to reading all the great books before I die. Not even a fraction of them.

    So, I have stopped reading crap – I don’t care if it’s best-selling crap, I don’t care if it’s THE book everyone is reading, if I’m not getting pleasure or edification out of it after 50-75 pages, I am *done.*

    So now, I rotate – I read (or re-read an old favorite) for sheer pleasure, alternated with one I “should” read – a classic I hadn’t gotten around to, a historical biography, a non-fiction book – and if any of them aren’t bringing me pleasure, I *stop.* As far as writing… hopefully my work will amuse and interest readers, and be of high quality. :-)

  8. I’d like to hear Frank’s list (or top of the list) of books that, in retrospect, proved worth the time invested. I’m interested also in whether they all seemed worth the investment during reading. I can instantly think of many books (e.g., Where I’m Calling From, The Rainbow, Middlemarch, Anna Kaarenina, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The Things They Carried, and The Moral Animal) whose worth felt then and feels now completely worth the investment. I can think of only a couple (Sincerity & Authenticity and The Four-Gated City) whose grip on my mind or heart has grown with time. Maybe readers ought to trust their mid-book sense of whether it’s worth going on.

  9. The last words of a person, especially of a person who is aware of their imminent death can resonate deeply with the people who are left behind. For writers as well–their final manuscripts, or the things they say to those near them–whatever you say before leaving forever is what everyone remembers the most. I believe the most interesting question is, what would one say if they knew they were dying?

    Here’s an interesting 60 second activity that might force everyone to think about their own last words one day, and how it shows what’s most important to them. A few of my friends tried the activity and ended up being way more emotional than they thought they’d be–trying to think of what kinds of hypothetical last words they’d say if they knew they were going to “die” in 60 seconds.

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