Honey, Would You Read My Book?

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Honey, would you read my book? More dangerous words have never been spoken. The request sounds innocent enough. But the transaction it initiates is fraught with expectation and fear, hope and anxiety. If it goes well, the gesture adds a deeper layer to an already intimate connection between writer and reader in which each is the beloved of the other. If it goes badly, the simple offer of pages to read can shake relationships, unsettle marriages, and open wide rifts between partners, lovers, friends.

Many of us assume that it is practically a duty of the writer’s partner to read everything in the writer’s oeuvre. It can seem a striking lack of generosity or love if a partner, no matter how encouraging in general, fails or declines to read the actual poetry or prose the writer creates. Readers often want to know: what does your husband/wife/partner think about the book? And writers feel perhaps a little ashamed, hurt, and unloved if they must confess that their significant others have not even read their books in the first place.

That was how I felt when my first novel was published, knowing that my then husband had not read it. But in the year and a half since my book came out, I’ve come to realize that the question of when and if and how the beloved should read is a complicated one. I believe there is no straightforward answer to whether it is right or wrong, a right or a privilege. But I do think a look at our attitudes towards this request can illuminate something about how we view the act of writing itself.

Years ago, I printed out 30 or so pages of the manuscript that would eventually become The Clover House and asked my husband to read them. He agreed and set the pages on his nightstand on top of whatever book he was reading. He got through the first page or two, but the rest of the material sat there unread for what seemed to me a very long time until, hurt and confused, I took the pages back. I felt in a way betrayed, as if my right to a certain kind of attention had been forfeited. I assumed my husband had made a certain promise that he had now broken: the writer’s partner must read the writer’s work. Married, I read her (to mangle Jane Eyre).

He and I could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble if we had agreed on the meaning of my offer of pages. Instead, we were operating under two very different assumptions. He thought I had given him something to read with a critical eye, and he found that at the end of a long workday, he lacked the energy to do so. At another stage, I might have asked for his editorial attention, but then I was simply inviting him in to the intimate world of my imagination where his job was not to critique or correct but to admire and acknowledge. I had made something out of thin air; I wanted him to confirm and share in the existence of my creation.

Curious about how my experience fit in with that of other writers, I asked a few to weigh in on what kind of role, if any, their significant others play in their process. Julia Fierro says that her husband Justin Feinstein, also a writer, will “read a draft of [her] novel maybe once or twice—not over and over like some couples.” In an email, she described how she and Feinstein read their work aloud to each other as they go, a few pages at a time. “Not only is the process helpful,” she writes, “but it is also a wonderful way of sharing not only your work, but also the moment, with your partner.”

For Dawn Tripp, the sharing of work with her husband is similarly a vital part of her craft. “When he works through one of my drafts,” Tripp wrote in an email, “it’s not simply that he comments on what’s on the page; he’ll also point out some aspect of the story I could push deeper into, some risk I haven’t taken yet. He gets the raw vision of what I’m trying to do, and he knows my strengths and weakness, and he’s direct, which has helped me to become more ruthless with my own work. It’s an incredible gift — to have this kind of dynamic tension, that creative intimacy in a relationship.”

Contrast this, though, to Matt Bell’s thoughts on why he doesn’t generally share his work with his wife. “My writing isn’t really her kind of thing to begin with,” Bell messaged me, “and of course she just knows too much about me to read my work in the same way she might see a more unknown author, one who hasn’t shared her house for the last 10-plus years. It’s not a problem though, because I’m not asked to read everything she writes either.” He goes on to say, of his wife’s science writing, “I really don’t understand a lot of it, and I don’t think she expects that I will. In the end, we have different skills, different talents, different interests, and that’s probably for the best.”

As much as readerly intimacy can be an advantage for the writer, then, it can be an obstacle to a useful assessment of the writer’s work. As Bell’s comments suggest, a partner who knows the writer well will be unable to render an objective and, the implication is, valuable judgment. Bell raises an additional question about the writer-reader marriage when he says “It’s not a problem though, because I’m not asked to read everything she writes either.” She doesn’t read his and he doesn’t read hers, and that lack of exchange is not only fair, in Bell’s view, but appropriate. In Bell’s view, it seems, since the work of the writer and of the non-writer are equally non-understandable to the other, none of it is particularly crucial to the relationship. It’s okay not to share.

After my own early attempt to share my work with my husband, my initial hurt gave way to the confidence that not only could we conduct our marriage just fine without that layer of connection (which we could; the marriage ended for different reasons), but also we had achieved an even balance like the one that Bell describes. While I feel sure of this on an intellectual level, I can’t deny that I was missing something — Tripp’s “dynamic tension” that fuels greater emotional and creative intimacy. Jenna Blum observes that her fiancé has not read her novels, and, she says, “it’s a sore spot in the relationship. Ideally, you want those you love to know you best of all — and for writers, what better way to get to know us but through the best of us, our work?” As an actor friend reminds me, given that most creative work depends on an audience, when a partner removes herself or himself from that audience, it can feel like being ignored. Something is lost, I think, when you can’t turn your partner’s attention to some of your most deeply felt beliefs and ideas, when you want to say look, look at what I made and your partner doesn’t mind not seeing.

But I want to try to view this from the non-writer’s perspective — the non-writer who may, in fact, feel that a writer’s writing is not “the best” the he or she can bring to the relationship. It can be said, after all, that the significant others who opt out of reading do so as a way to actually foster intimacy. The musician’s partner who doesn’t hear her compositions is at the same time declining to join strangers in a public act. The writer’s partner who chooses not to read the novel sold in bookstores and consumed by hundreds or thousands of strangers is in a way holding onto a private and personal knowledge of the beloved, one that is not dependent on a commercial apparatus. I’ve heard memoirists report their partner’s discomfort with learning through a manuscript certain crucial elements of the memoirist’s life. This discomfort seems justified, for I think we want our intimate relationships to be created and sustained through direct and directed communication. A memoir — even a draft placed in the beloved’s hands — is addressed to an infinite number of readers. We want the lover’s whisper, not the public announcement.

And then there is the spectre of infidelity. It’s been said that the experience of writing is like that of falling in love. The writer enters an exciting new world in which experience is immersive and vivid, in which joy and despair mingle and everything — every gesture, emotion, event — connects back to a sustaining energy. But really, to write is to have an affair. In creating our narratives, we engage in a kind of seduction; we’re called by a lover’s whisper but it’s the summons of our inventions, not our partners. The writer is spirited away from others, secludes herself with only her new creation for company. She emerges at the end of each writing session a little glassy-eyed, thrilled, and pleasantly weary, or simultaneously anxious and hopeful in the way that love renders a person.

Then she asks her partner to read the pages that bear witness to that deep, meaningful, and thrilling relationship she is conducting with an imagined world. Is it any wonder that a writer’s partner might feel a bit uneasy? Of course the same is true of any activity that seems to exclude the partner in a threatening way. But writing comes right up to that line between private and performative in a way that casts this problem of sharing into high relief. The writer’s partner is just like everybody else, a potential audience member for the work, but also (ideally) must be like no one else. The partner has to negotiate on the one hand the expectation that she will behave like every other reader and on the other hand the need to be unique. Honey will you read my book is an invitation to occupy two very distinct ways of being. It’s not an impossible task, but we writers should be mindful of how difficult it is to achieve.

Image Credit: Pexels/Alina Vilchenko.

The Homeland of Stories: On Lingual and Cultural Identity


I have a vague recollection of elocution lessons in my childhood. I remember — or think I remember — being taken out of kindergarten class or first grade to sit with a teacher who instructed me on the proper pronunciation of English words. I can still picture the oaktag-colored top of the desk and something of the light that fell across its surface. My parents have no recollection of my receiving any kind of remedial instruction. In those days, the school wouldn’t have needed to get the parents’ permission to take a child out of regular classes. And, in any case, my mother and father always insisted my accent was  perfect.

It’s true that I don’t have a Greek accent when I speak English; nor do I have an American accent when I speak Greek. But the very fact of my growing up in a Greek-speaking home, the only child of parents who had emigrated from Greece in their early 30s, calls my linguistic authenticity into question. At least it always has in my mind. I have a sense, as a bicultural and bilingual person, of never quite belonging where I am. To me, it feels as if two languages are always at the ready in my brain, jostling companionably enough, but not ensuring that the wrong one won’t step forward at any moment.

Once, in the Shannon, Ireland airport transit lounge, on the way home from the annual summer’s trip to Greece, I asked the saleswoman how much a Matchbox car cost. With the certainty of an eight year old, I assumed that the airport staff was trained to speak the language of each flight that stopped there to refuel. So I asked the price in Greek. In Irish-accented English, the saleswoman responded to me that, alas, she knew no Spanish, but she would find someone who did. Moments later, I stood mutely, listening as she explained in English to a Spanish couple that I needed help shopping. The Spaniards made no headway with me, and explained, in Spanish-accented English to the Irishwoman, that I must be too shy to answer them.

That day in Ireland, in that stew of accents and languages, I chose the wrong language. And though I got it right before my flight for Boston took off (I still have that Matchbox car), it wasn’t the last time I would make the wrong linguistic choice. Usually, this happens in English, when Greek reasserts itself to send me on a strange syntactical journey, or when idioms baffle me and lead me to inventive new diction — of cats swallowing pajamas or of hatches being buckled down. I did it memorably once in Greek, when I inadvertently swore at my grandmother during a chess game instead of venting a mild exasperation. And another time, when I stressed the wrong syllable in the word for sultan after a visit to an Ottoman museum. My great-aunt still teases me about that, and I hope this means my mistake was so rare that she felt comfortable in her gentle mockery.

I realize that the fact that I can enumerate these instances indicates some deep-seated anxiety on my part. Whenever I have to name my most embarrassing experience, I always go to that episode in the Shannon airport. This anxiety is surely my own concoction, born from experience and psychology and who knows what. Aleksandar Hemon, by contrast, feels no such anxiety about his use of any language — native or acquired. In an email to me, he once said “I own the language I write in. It is not given to me by generous native speakers. I have it and I use it as I see fit.” All the same, to cut myself some slack (I use the idiom with triumphant correctness), my anxiety does make some sense. Speech is the password, the shibboleth. It’s how we know right away whether someone is or isn’t from here. I remain more in line with the Ukrainian-American writer and editor Askold Melnyczuk, who told me once that while speaking English he feels a “pervasive anxiety that [he] will get it wrong.”

While speech that marks you as a stranger can be a curse, it can also be a blessing. Though I’m focusing here on the moments of embarrassment that reveal my outsider status, the truth is that those two languages jostling in my head have made my writing richer. When I’m writing and I’m stuck for a word in English, I think of what I want to say in Greek. Then I translate, sometimes going to my Greek dictionary and sometimes to the Greek-English dictionary that’s left over from a friend’s classes. Either way, I feel I end up linguistically where I want to be, forming a sentence through a detour away from English and back again.

There’s a building-block approach to words at work here — and I would argue that that approach is inherently Greek. Greeks handle their own language like Legos. They break it down to its constituent parts and fashion new words and phrases. They play with the language. Oftentimes, the trending jokes in Greece will be extended word games. There is a longtime favorite that involves coming up with Greek sentences that sound like other languages. If you speak Greek, try it: say “It’s shallow! Come on in!” and see if it doesn’t sound as though you’re speaking German. A more recent linguistic game involves creating fake Turkish versions of Greek words, often using Greek words whose etymology is already Turkish.

Greek makes you aware of its grammatical construction, even as your sentence is under way. This comes in part from the fact that Greek is both conjugated and declined — like Latin and German, to name just two languages — and in part from the fact that the syntax of the language involves, I think, a sort of Brechtian unveiling of its grammatical machinery. There are certain prepositions with which you cannot end a sentence in Greek.

So when you speak or write in Greek, you are very much aware that you are Making Language, in a way that I don’t quite think you are in English. English is the language of craft, of work. Our plentiful Anglo-Saxon derivations give us a vocabulary that can be easily snatched up and dropped into a sentence. And so often, our English words come to us already reduced to their essential form; instead of Legos, they’re more like those smooth wood blocks that would have been scattered through my kindergarten classroom and that are now returning to the curricula of stylish preschools everywhere. You can assemble with them, but you can’t connect them.

Many would argue that English is every bit as plastic as Greek, and that formations like crantastic or frappucino are evidence of the Lego-like possibilities of English words (or of the ingenuity of advertisers). Or that there’s nothing stopping us from attaching old suffixes — like monger — to new words. If there is a fishmonger, why not a shoemonger, or a breadmonger, or a wifimonger? But while such wordplay tends to be the province of a literate and literary demographic in America, in Greece, it is part of the mainstream. I don’t say this to establish that Greek is better than English. The languages are simply different. And I know that when I write, I reap the benefits (or try to) of both the handiness of Anglo-Saxon and the machinery of Greek. Writing affords me the time to make the best of the sometimes fractious linguistic politics in my brain.

I do wonder, though, about that early memory of the oaktag-colored desk and the repetition of certain sounds until I got them right. I wonder if the way I speak now came about because of some teacher’s diligent work to purify (and I use that fraught word deliberately) the sound of my voice. It’s a strange thought, to consider yourself in some fundamental way the product of correction. Then again, is this different from the buck-toothed or pigeon-toed or lazy-eyed child who undergoes a physical correction? I would argue that it is. Because the crooked teeth stay corrected (the drift of all teeth notwithstanding), and the old smile simply becomes the new smile. An accent, on the other hand, isn’t ever completely gone. It reasserts itself from time to time in a stray sound or an errant word or a wandering syntax. You are always aware of that correcting force still at work, its residual energy still applying itself to the bits that need to be made right.

It occurs to me that my English style is in fact a corrected style. I might form my sentences as if I were using Legos, as if I were fishing through a toy bin for the best piece to use. But the language I end up with is not by and large playful. I’m not a writer of experimental fiction. I try to play with form and structure, but I come back to the standard narrative arc. Rather than playful — in the way that Hemon’s work is playful — I tend to write a kind of English that is, if anything, fairly normative. This is because, unlike Hemon who feels that “No writer is a foreigner in literature. All storytelling comes from the homeland of stories,” I write with the zeal of the converted, the zeal of the immigrant trying to pass. This is why a mistake in the airport or in casual speech feels so costly to me, even now.

In my experience of English, the anxiety of getting it wrong and the correcting force push against each other constantly, the errant linguistic behavior always curtailed in some way, marshaled. I admire Hemon’s ability to create an innovative and challenging fusion of his languages, his cultures, his selves in his work. He manages to occupy two spaces at the same time (at least), writing neither Bosnian books nor American books, but books that are both and neither — at once and in alteration. Looking at my own work as objectively as I can, I see that I handle one culture at a time. To question and investigate the issue of bilingualism and bicultural identity, I place a character in the position of choosing between seeming binaries. I explore the problem of holding two ways of being simultaneously from the point of view of a character who prefers to choose just one. That she fails to do so, and that she does by novel’s end discover a way to embrace both ways of being doesn’t alter the fact that the narrative itself works to keep those two ways of being apart.

When I am looking at a map of Greece, or reading an article in English about the Greek economic crisis, or cooking a Greek dish, I will, without thinking, mutter (as one does in those idle moments) in Greek. I don’t do this consciously. A switch seems to flip. All it takes for that switch to toggle over from one language, system of gestures, intonation, body language, personality even, to the other is the sight or thought of something Greek. Every time this happens, I’m surprised anew. And it keeps happening, the Greekness coming at the slightest prompt. It’s as if the force of correction doesn’t have time to notice and the foreign behavior slips through.

In addition to surprise, though, I feel a bit apologetic. It seems a little suspect to me that I would slip into Greek so readily. I am wary of my behavior as I am wary of people who adopt an English accent after mere months of living in the UK. There is an inauthenticity in such actions, and I wonder who is being fooled: the listeners or the speakers themselves. So, too, do I wonder about my own authenticity when I have my Pavlovian Greek moments. Never sure of my authenticity as a speaker of American English, there are moments when, except for the fact that they usually occur when I’m alone, one might say my Greekness is being put on as some kind of show. (I just did it again: taking a break to read an article about the Greek Civil War, I reacted to a disputed fact by wagging my head in precisely the way one does in Greece.)

Perhaps it’s better to say that moments like these reveal the wall between my linguistic identities to be threateningly porous. Growing up, we knew some people who said words like fourkouti as a Greek form of fur coat or carro for car when gouna and aftokinito were the proper Greek terms. I viewed this practice with the scorn of my adolescent self who considered it vital to be at all times culturally correct. But with a deeper fear, too, that if I were to adopt these locutions myself, they would mark me as not belonging.

I think of this as a philosophical question: can an identity that expresses itself in two separate ways — through two languages and in two cultures — be said to be authentic? If your identity flickers between Greek and American, what exactly is your identity, and how do you designate it? Is it hyphenated, to indicate balance and parity? Or is it combined in some other way, represented by some other form of punctuation, like a slash? Perhaps it’s a kind of quantum-level notion of identity in which the self flickers among multiple positions in a way that doesn’t matter until and if one looks closely enough. And even then, that flickering only matters as it affects the unique characteristics of that self.

The notion of linguistic purity is a charged one these days. When the French ban the use of certain English terms, we view it as a risible overreaction to globalism. When our own politicians advocate an English-only America, we consider them motivated by fear and insecurity. Thankfully, it is no longer important, in most places, to pass for American — no longer necessary to conceal an accent or a different cultural background. So why do I care?

I care because I grew up wanting to pass not just as American, but as the only daughter of two happy parents in a happy marriage. I wanted to convince myself and the world that an unhappy home was as foreign to me as another country. Correction was vital — as a force to wield on wayward parents and as a force to wield on the moveable pieces of the facade we were creating. When I write in my fiction about the challenges of assimilation and the difficulty of forming a bicultural identity, I am at heart writing about deception. The deception of others, but self-deception too. I return to this theme again and again in my work, creating characters who wrestle with the lies they tell themselves and the lies they tell the world.

The effort to assimilate creates a kind of lie — a small one for some, a larger one for others. For me, it produced a sustaining lie that enabled me to live in a world of binary distinctions. Inside my family, and the world outside. The turbulent reality and the calm false front. The Greek self and the American self. To blur one of these distinctions would have threatened all of them, and too much was at stake for me to see that project through.

What I have learned, as a person and as a writer, is not to blur the distinctions but to sharpen them while acknowledging the multiple identities they define. What do we do as writers but explore a multitude of selves in order to create fiction we hope will speak a truth? In finding our voices, we gather our own vocabularies, our own styles, and the only measure of our authenticity is whether the story we have put on paper has the power to move others.

I go back to Hemon’s concept of the homeland of stories in which everyone is a citizen, and I see that I was missing the point all along. If all languages are spoken in the homeland of stories, then even my own normative style is welcome. This is no Shannon airport where you can choose your language wrong. You don’t need a visa or a passport to enter. Or, actually, it is the Shannon airport. It’s where you can understand some of what some of the people are saying, and you can speak to some of the people, and, best of all, you can find the right words to get what you want and to say who you are.

Here is My Heart: The Frailty and Hope of William Saroyan

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Love, Here is My Hat: I came across a copy of William Saroyan’s book in a Vermont used book store not long ago and clasped it, rather melodramatically, to my heart. The book itself has hearts on the cover — two red ones floating above images of a man and a woman, and of a cupid and a bed sketched on a pink-ish background. I bought it, forgetting for the moment that I already own a copy of the exact same edition. Even if I had several copies, though, I would have needed to make the purchase that day because my heart needed tending.

I had driven to Vermont to visit a child in college, but most of all to clear my head. A storm threatened to stop me part way, and as I crept along the snow-covered roads, I fought the urge to see the journey as a parallel for that stage in my marriage. And yet, there it was: unseen hazards, poor traction, and a route at times so difficult that it threatened to turn both me and my husband back. I thought of what I could ask of my life, and how happy I could expect to be. It wasn’t a mawkish question, but a practical one: what did I want? I believed I needed answers, that I owed it to myself to ask. But the next day, there was Saroyan’s familiar book and it wasn’t asking a question at all. It was offering.

I have loved Saroyan’s short stories since I first encountered them among the yellowed Pocket and Avon Books of my father’s wartime collection. These were all-American paperbacks, their jacket copy exhorting the reader to support the GIs and their contents full of “See?” and “fella.” That they should end up in a closet in my grandmother’s house in Greece was a large part of their appeal. Inherently nostalgic, describing a period 30 years removed from my teenage life, the books became for me doubly so as they evoked a distant America while the weeks of my Greek summers wound down and the pull of home in New England grew stronger. Each summer, I would tug 48 Saroyan Stories gently from the shelf and flip the brittle pages as if they were rare manuscripts. I would imagine the book in my father’s back pocket as he walked the streets of an Athens newly liberated from German occupation. And I would be carried off to a California of orchards, diners, and flophouses, an America of trains and dirt roads and bellhops looking to make ends meet. In Saroyan’s writing, I encountered a United States that was both exotic and familiar.

Many years ago, I asked my father if I could bring the Saroyan home with me, and I think he was touched that I found such value in this particular souvenir. Together with some Erle Stanley Gardner noirs and Leslie Charteris’s Saint books, these were the stories that had taught my father English. But it was Saroyan in particular who taught him the language of America, the adopted country that he deeply loved, and that he returned to with pride after his own Greek sojourns.

48 Saroyan Stories now sits in a glass-fronted cabinet, separated from the rest of the fiction arranged alphabetically in another room. Over the years I’ve added more Saroyan finds to the cabinet: Love, Here is My Hat; Peace, It’s Wonderful; The Human Comedy; and My Name Is Aram. These volumes sit alongside an early edition of Far From the Madding Crowd and some first editions of W.B. Yeats. The Hardy is leather, softened with the handling of almost two hundred years. The Yeats collections are beautiful hardcovers decorated in classic 1920s style. With their rubbed-round corners and torn spines, the Saroyans are like the interloping distant relatives at the wedding who laugh too loud and don’t know how to dress.

When I saw Love, Here is My Hat in Vermont that day, I needed to buy it again because Saroyan appeals to my heart and not my literary head. I bought it because Saroyan signals the pull of something or someplace absent; because the stories collected there are about people trying to make do, to make simple lives of love and happiness; and most of all because the book and that title I’ve never quite understood represent an offer. Here is my hat. Perhaps it’s a gesture of surrender, or of begging. I’m not really sure, and I’ve resisted researching the phrase to find out what it might have meant in 1938. It doesn’t matter. The book offers a gift of some kind. Here, the writer says. Take this.

It’s important to me that it’s Saroyan himself who seems to be making the gesture. In the title story, which also appears in my father’s old paperback, no one utters the phrase. Nor does anyone in any other story in the book. “Love, Here is My Hat” tells the story of a man and a woman who are so plagued by love for each other that they cannot eat when they’re together. “I can’t live without you,” she says.

Yes, you can, I said. What you can’t live without is roast beef.
I don’t care if I never eat again, she said.
Look, I said. You’ve got to get some food and sleep, and so do I.
I won’t let you go, she said.
All right, I said. Then we’ll die of starvation together. It’s all right with me if it’s all right with you.

He goes away to Reno so they can both choke something down. But she finds out where he is and follows him there. She calls him on the phone.

Are you all right?
I want to cry, she said.
I’ll come and get you, I said.
Did you eat? she said.
Yes, I said. Did you?
No, she said. I couldn’t.

Before my husband and I were married, the rhythms of graduate school kept us apart for two months at a time. As the date of my departure for England approached each cycle, we found it harder and harder to eat. I told him about the story, and though it wasn’t a perfect match, it became, even a little bit for him, a kind of shorthand for how we felt. “Did you eat?” I would sometimes ask over the phone later, and I would think of the stark back-and-forth of Saroyan’s prose, and the barebones matters of love and separation that made his stories and that made up our world.

I bought the second copy of Love, Here is My Hat not really thinking about the title. It was only as I gave the book to my husband, 30 years after our cycles of separation and return, that I realized how I’d been misreading it. Here is my heart. I held the book out with both hands as if it were truly precious, and it hit me. To me, Saroyan’s book and all his stories are imbued with frailty and hope, with the tentative gestures of people who don’t have or expect much, but still offer what they consider basic: their hearts. Love, Here is My Hat. Or my heart. Either way, the phrase suggests an offer with no certainty of acceptance. Like a hat held out, it’s an offer that risks disappointment but still hopes for something in return. We make the gesture all the same — even when we think we should know better.

My husband took the book from me that day and held it just as gently as I had. He listened to what I had to say — about my father and about the lovers who cannot eat and about my heart — and understood. Now there are two copies of Saroyan’s book in the house. Mine sits on my desk beside my laptop, and his copy rests on his nightstand. Not reading matter, it’s more of a reminder, perhaps to both of us, of how important it is to offer without knowing what the outcome will be.

In that vulnerability lies the beauty of Saroyan’s work. It is simple. It is basic. It doesn’t lay claim to any grander place in literature, nor does it deserve one. It is, sometimes, all we need. A little book, an offer, a question. Did you eat?

Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Story Behind the Story: An Appreciation of Authors’ Acknowledgments

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At a reading in Cambridge this past fall, Ann Patchett said in passing that she doesn’t believe in acknowledgements. During the question and answer period, I asked her why. She explained that she feels it’s better to thank the important people in your life by giving them a copy of your novel in which you’ve written a personalized inscription. If nothing else, she added, a private inscription saves the author from the possible future embarrassment of having her book forever tagged with the reminder of a friendship that has faded away. But Patchett’s deeper concern seemed to be that the handwritten acknowledgement was more sincere, free of the performative element of a thank you that will be publicly reproduced every time the book is printed.

Inscribing my own copy of Run that evening, Patchett wished me luck in deciding what to do with “this acknowledgement thing” when it comes time for my own novel’s back page in a little over a year. Indeed, what might have once seemed to me like a purely joyous opportunity now seems like a potential minefield, a hazard of etiquette and emotions. It’s so easy to put a foot wrong. What if you omit a key player in a workshop? What if you go on too long and risk looking like someone who couldn’t have managed without an enormous entourage? What if you feature someone prominently in your list and later have a falling out? Perhaps that last one is among the worst, beaten only by the dedication to an eventual ex-spouse.

There was a time when acknowledgements were brief and rare. There was even a time when dedications sufficed. Charlotte Brontë signed Jane Eyre off to Thackeray, plain and simple, while Anne was even sparer, offering no dedication at all to Agnes Gray. One could argue that the sisters’ need to conceal their identity led them to be circumspect in their gratitude. Maybe that’s why someone as confident in his place among men of letters as Wilkie Collins could dedicate The Woman in White to “Bryan Walter Procter from one of his younger brethren in literature who sincerely values his friendship and who gratefully remembers many happy hours spent in his house.” Or why Collins’s friend Dickens could say that Bleak House is “Dedicated, as a remembrance of our friendly union, to my companions in the guild of literature and art.”

Of course, there’s nothing plain and simple about even the most seemingly simple dedication. Collins’s to Procter can be seen as a strategic move to ally himself with someone whose name hardly made it to posterity but who, at the time, held some reputation in Collins’s world. And Brontë’s nod to Thackeray may have been purely reverential but looked to contemporary readers like proof of a romantic connection. Then there’s George Eliot’s lack of any dedication to Middlemarch. Looking at that unaccompanied title page now, it’s tempting to see her direct stride into the novel as a move of extreme confidence in the masterpiece that follows.

Though novels went along for more than a century without them, acknowledgements have now become an expected part of a novel’s presentation—along with the reader’s guide and the about the author page. Which is why I was astonished to turn to the end of Rosamund Lupton’s Sister this summer and find this: “I’m not sure if anyone reads the acknowledgements, but I hope so because without the following people, this novel would never have been written or published.” She’s a first-time author, but still: doesn’t she know? Everyone reads the acknowledgements. In fact, for many of us, the first thing we do when we pull a book off the store shelf is to flip to the back. The writers among us might be searching for the agent or the editor we can query, or we might be seeking our own name in the list. But we certainly read the acknowledgements for the drama and the human story revealed therein. Some acknowledgements are works of art, expressing with finesse and sincerity the gratitude for a supportive surrogate family, a patient and understanding spouse and kids, a best friend who saw the writer through difficulties hinted at sufficiently so that we can glimpse a bit of the author’s life. At their best, acknowledgements can be finely-wrought short stories with the author as protagonist.

At least one acknowledgements has made me cry. What makes Robin Black’s acknowledgements for If I Loved You I Would Tell You This so moving is the simple fact that she hasn’t let up on the rigor of her prose in writing them. The language is just as careful and precise here as it is in the collection. Black’s thanks run to three full pages and have the narrative arc of a story—fitting for the story collection they conclude. She begins typically enough, thanking her agent, her editor, and her publishers, moving on to the various institutions that supported her, and then to individual readers, friends, and colleagues. Finally, she gets serious, taking in turn her mother, her children, and her husband. Some might say this is a bit over the top, but when you reach this point, you realize that the pleasant bath of thanks you’ve been lolling in contains quite serious emotions. It’s almost like eavesdropping, reading these last paragraphs, and I won’t quote them here out of a sense that to do so would be somehow nosy—despite the fact that every single copy of this strong-selling book ends with these words.

When Ann Patchett speaks about acknowledgements, it’s clear that she’s not opposed to expressing gratitude, but is instead against its public expression. If the gratitude is sincere, convey it directly to the person who deserves it; why does the rest of the world need to know? I can see her point. There is nothing so transparent as the message that hitches the writer’s wagon to a more illustrious star. But I hope this doesn’t mean that writers who choose to express their thanks in public, as I am likely to do, are inherently insincere. Because I imagine that by the time I’m in a position to write up my thanks, I will feel a strong need to shout them from the rooftops.

Every book comes with a second narrative, that of its creation. I keep going to those framing pages to see what that other story is. Sometimes, the discovery is unsettling, as with this eerie dedication to Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs: “To Jon Cook, who saw them too.” And sometimes the discovery is sweet. In the step from White Teeth to On Beauty, Zadie Smith reveals a lovely transition in her own life. In 2000, for White Teeth, Smith says she is “also indebted to the bright ideas and sharp eyes of the following people” and includes “Nicholas Laird, fellow idiot savant” among them. By 2005, she dedicates On Beauty to “my dear Laird.” There are no acknowledgements.

Image credit: Editor B/Flickr

On Bloomsdays Past


When I was growing up, there were few books on my parents’ bookshelves and most of those were in Greek or French, with a smattering of volumes from the Time-Life series (the ones on jazz and opera). But among the very small handful of books in English, there was one with a thick spine of military green and one word printed in a thin, elongated font: Ulysses. When I was about ten, I first took the book down from the shelf. I’d been raised on my father’s bedtime stories from The Odyssey and a family-cultivated belief that the heroes of ancient Greece were my ancestors. I flipped to the first page, but I couldn’t make anything of it at all. That first sentence looked like normal English. It had no words I didn’t recognize. But something about it was off (was “Buck” someone’s name or a noun? And what was a “Stately plump”?). And as I moved on deeper into that first page, I became more confused.

I don’t remember now whether I paged through to the other sections I would come to know as “Laestrygonians,” “Oxen of the Sun,” or “Circe”. If I had, I would most certainly have had even more reason to do what I did then, at age ten: put the book back, shaking my head and vowing to try again in a few months. For years afterwards, I would pull Ulysses off the shelf every few months or so, start reading, become confused, and replace the book, deciding that I was still not ready to understand it.

The funny thing is that the only reason my father owned the book in the first place was that he belonged to the Book of the Month Club and he had chosen this particular tome, instead of his usual crime novels, thinking it was about the Greek hero. Which it is, in a way, but not in the way my father expected. So that made two of us who couldn’t understand Joyce’s masterpiece. My father’s Greco-chauvinistic book-buying was as far as he got into Joyce’s oeuvre. But I eventually went on to study Joyce in college and graduate school, and to spend one summer reading every page of Finnegans Wake, watching the words flicker into meaning every now and then as I prepared to write my dissertation.

For many years, June 16, Bloomsday, found me in cities ranging from Monte Carlo to Milwaukee, at the annual Joyce conferences that were my scholarly bread and butter. The conferences spanned several days, and depending on the calendar each year, it wasn’t always possible to set the keynote address on the 16th itself. This meant that, for all the intense focus on Ulysses and Joyce’s other works during the days around Bloomsday, the day of Ulysses’ narrative often got lost in the more general hubbub of the conference. Someone would invariably exclaim, while in line at the cash bar or to see that year’s Derrida protégé, “It’s the 16th!” and the rest of us would beam with pleasure for a moment.

I never happened to be at a Joyce conference in one of Joyce’s home cities—Dublin, Trieste, or Zurich. Mine were Copenhagen, Venice, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Monte Carlo, a nice mixture of the exotic and the mundane (no offense to Philadelphia or Milwaukee, but Venice they’re not). Monte Carlo is where I missed the sighting of Princess Caroline, but did witness one of the most memorable scholarly Joyce spats of the 90s, over the publication of a new edition of the sacred tome. But the geography never mattered. Even if we weren’t in Dublin where people dressed as Leopold and Molly, Stephen Dedalus, and Buck Mulligan decorated the streets, we brought the world of Ulysses to, say, the Tivoli, or the Grand Canal, or the Art Museum and the Rocky statue. We clambered into a gondola making jokes about Gertie MacDowell’s exposed drawers, and we circled the Tivoli Ferris wheel over and over, commenting on Joyce’s confirmation that there is nothing new under the sun.

Does this mean that Ulysses has a universal reach and a universal appeal? That it applies to all of us everywhere and anywhere? Well, ok. But who makes jokes about James Joyce in the real world, anyway? I mean, you had to be there. But most people aren’t, and with good reason.

The Joyce conferences were, in a way, the wrong way to celebrate Bloomsday, since they required you to be surrounded by people with rarefied intellectual concerns. We were all Stephens then, with not enough of us taking Leopold’s approach to life, mixing rumination and delight. So this Bloomsday, I’ll open one of my copies of Ulysses and I’ll start out with stately plump Buck Mulligan. I’ll touch down briefly in the melodious bar of “Sirens,” and I’ll let Molly’s long sentence carry me from Gibraltar to Dublin to Howth and to that lovely final affirmation that could be in any city at all. And I’ll think of my father, whose loyalty to his country and his culture opened the door for his daughter to enter into a new world.

Ismail Kadare and the Girl in the Bridge

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Ismail Kadare. Honestly. The Albanian author is frequently named as a potential Nobel laureate, and his novel The Accident just appeared in English, earning him additional press and reviews. But this recent press for Kadare is only part of why I’ve been pondering his work.

Kadare represents a bit of a fantasy for me, as a reader and as a writer. When I was a child traveling to my family’s ancestral home in Northern Greece, we would always come to a point in the road where the left went north to Albania and the right went northeast into the Pindus mountains. We went right, but to the left were soldiers manning a checkpoint with military trucks and tanks. Beyond that, a few more miles of disintegrating asphalt, and then the Albania of Enver Hoxha, where few went in and no one went out.

Sometimes we’d stop at the checkpoint and just look for a minute or two. My great-uncle might talk how he helped push Mussolini’s army back into Albania, or he might point out that Hoxha’s communism was proof that the nationalists he’d fought for had been on the right side in Greece’s civil war. Then we’d get back in the car and head up the switchbacks to our house.

Because we couldn’t get in, because there was a fence, I wanted desperately to go to Albania. Years later, reading Robert D. Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, I was perhaps most struck by his chapter on Albania. I remember few specifics now, though it remains one of my most admired books, but I remember quite clearly Kaplan’s description of the crowds outside a soccer match in Tirana. Men with identical flimsy plastic sandals on their feet, restive and straining against the dissatisfactions of the match and of their lives.

When I came across Kadare, I was excited to be reading prose that had come from within that world, even if Kadare had left Albania for France in 1990. (Kadare originates from a town not far at all from that checkpoint: Gyrokaster in Albanian; Argyrokastro in Greek.) I appreciated The Concert, but The Three-Arched Bridge unsettled and chilled me. The novel addresses the intersection of West and East during the final years of the Byzantine Empire as a local ruler organizes the building of a stone bridge. The bridge will open up a trade route for merchants on horseback, opening up as well the village to the oncoming Ottoman forces. Once outside influences are allowed in, it’s the beginning of the end for the crumbling Byzantine rule in the novel’s world.

The chilling part of Kadare’s book, however, has to do with the actual building of the bridge. The master builder gets a certain amount of work done each day, but overnight, the foundations of the bridge are swept away. Every day, the masons rebuild the bridge, and every night, the river destroys it. The solution is clear. The master builder must immure a volunteer in the foundation of the bridge, or else the building will never succeed. Immure: as in build into the wall.

The story of the immured volunteer (it is usually a woman) is not Kadare’s invention. Nor was it even the first time I’d encountered it. Those childhood treks to our family home began with an eight-hour drive from Athens to Ioannina, a city in Epirus which like Kadare’s fictional village was a crossroads between Islamic and Western cultures during the Ottoman Empire. Minarets still rise above the glassy lake at the city’s edge, by the castle of Ali Pasha, the 19th-century ruler. To get there (which was most of the way to our home in the mountains), we had to cross the Arachthos River at Arta. The road ran beside the medieval bridge—where legend has it that the master builder immured his young daughter into the foundations in order to defeat the water’s destructive force.

Hearing this legend when I was young, I was struck by the story’s cruelty, and by the inevitability of that cruelty. No one ever dwelled, in their retelling, on how tortured the masterbuilder must have been, how aghast at his own eventual acceptance of the will of society. To me, the gruesomeness lay in what seemed the ease of the master builder’s choice. And there was the bridge, intact still, a monument to cruelty and, at the same time, to the social good of selflessness.

When I came across the same story in Kadare’s The Three-Arched Bridge, the experience oddly proved the truth of the legend I’d grown up with. It cemented the story as part of a wider Balkan reality. Which in fact it is. The story is known, in folklore studies, as “The Bridge of Arta”—the name for a grouping of tales that originate in Central-Eastern Europe involving the immuration of a virtuous person in order for a society to achieve a common good. There is a Bulgarian version, a Romanian version, and a few modern interpretations besides that of Kadare, including Nikos Kazantzakis’ libretto for an opera called Protomastoras (master builder).

The Three-Arched Bridge isn’t considered one of Kadare’s major works. The folkloric dimension of the narrative nudges it away from standard literary fiction. But for me, it’s a powerful text. Not only because it reworks the traditional tale in a contemporary political and cultural context, but also because it’s a fiction that creates a kind of truth.

The Elusive Omniscient

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As I was taking notes for a new novel recently, I took a moment to consider point of view. Fatigued from working on one manuscript with multiple first-person limited narrators, and then another with two different narrative elements, I thought how simple it would be, how straightforward, to write this next book with an omniscient point of view. I would write a narrator who had no constraints on knowledge, location, tone, even personality. A narrator who could do anything at any time anywhere. It wasn’t long before I realized I had no idea how to achieve this.

I looked for omniscience among recent books I had admired and enjoyed. No luck. I found three-handers, like The Help. I found crowd-told narratives, like Colum McCann’s elegant Let The Great World Spin. I found what we might call cocktail-party novels, in which the narrator hovers over one character’s shoulder and then another’s, never alighting for too long before moving on.

On the top layer of my nightstand alone, I found Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World and Jane Gardam’s Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. The first is a formal experiment in which alternating narratives tell the same story of a marriage—which is really two different stories, their course determined by just one action. The second two give up on shared perspective altogether, splitting the story into separate books. Old Filth tells his story and The Man in the Wooden Hat tells hers. If the contemporary novel had a philosophy, it would be Let’s Agree To Disagree.

It’s tempting to view this current polyphonic narrative spree as a reflection on our times. Ours is a diverse world, authority is fragmented and shared, communication is spread out among discourses. Given these circumstances, omniscience would seem to be not only impossible but also undesirable—about as appropriate for our culture as carrier pigeons. It’s also tempting to assume that if we’re looking for narrative unity, we have to go back before Modernism. We can tell ourselves it was all fine before Stephen Dedalus and his moo-cow, or before Windham Lewis came along to Blast it all up.

No, if omniscience was what I wanted for my next project, I would have to look back further, to a time when the novel hadn’t succumbed to the fragmentation of the modern world.

But try it. Go back to the Victorians or further back to Sterne, Richardson, and Fielding. There’s no omniscience to be found. I suppose I could have spared myself the trouble of a search by looking at James Woods’ How Fiction Works. “So-called omniscience,” he says, “is almost impossible.” It turns out that the narrative unity we’ve been looking for is actually a figment of our imagination. The novel maintains an uneasy relationship with authority—not just now, but from its very beginnings.

Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is often credited with being the first novel in the English language, published in 1719. The anxieties attendant on that role are evident in the way the book is structured. Not comfortable claiming to be simply an invention, Crusoe masquerades as a true story, complete with an editor’s preface declaring the book to be “a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it.” Defoe originates the James Frey approach to novel-writing, using the pretense of truth as a source of narrative power.

He repeats almost the same phrasing four years later, in Roxana: “The foundation of this is laid in truth of fact, and so the work is not a story, but a history.” The words seem redundant now—truth, fact, foundation, history. It’s a protesting-too-much that speaks to the unsettled nature of what Defoe was doing: telling a made-up story of such length, scope, and maturity at a time when doing so was still a radical enterprise.

But the most interesting expression of the novel’s predicament comes one year before Roxana, in 1722, when Defoe opens Moll Flanders with an excuse: “The world is so taken up of late with novels and romances that it will be hard for a private history to be taken for genuine.” It’s a clever move. Defoe acknowledges the existence of enough novels that you’d think his position as novelist would be secure (the more the merrier), but he insists that he’s doing something different—and then in the same breath assumes our lack of interest and then preempts it by setting up the other novels as tough competition.

Defoe’s pretense of editors, prefaces, and memorandums is the first stage of what I’ll call the apparatus novel, followed a decade or two later by its close cousin, the epistolary novel. Like its predecessor, the epistolary novel can’t just come out and tell a made-up story—never mind tell one from an all-knowing point of view. In Richardson’s Clarissa especially, the limitations of the individual letter-writers’ points of view create an atmosphere of disturbing isolation. As we read through Clarissa’s and Lovelace’s conflicting accounts, we become the closest thing to an omniscient presence the novel has—except we can’t trust a word of what we’ve read.

So where is today’s omniscience-seeking reader to turn? Dickens, don’t fail me now? It turns out that the Inimitable Boz is no more trustworthy in his narration than Defoe or Richardson or the paragon of manipulative narrators, Tristram Shandy. In fact, Dickens’ narrators jump around all over the place, one minute surveying London from on high, the next deep inside the mind of Little Dorrit, or Nancy, or a jar of jam. Dickens seems to have recognized the paradox of the omniscient point of view: with the ability to be everywhere and know everything comes tremendous limitation. If you’re going to let the furniture do the thinking, you’re going to need the versatility of a mobile and often fragmented narrative stance.

And Dickens is not alone in the 19th century. The Brontës? Practically case studies for first-person narration. Hardy? Maybe, but he hews pretty closely to one protagonist at a time. (Though we do see what’s happening when Gabriel Oak is asleep in Far From the Madding Crowd.) Dickens good friend Wilkie Collins (who famously said the essence of a good book was to “make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait”)? The Moonstone is a perfect example of the apparatus novel, anticipating books like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, complete with multiple narrators, various types of discourse, and full of statements that successive narrators correct or undermine.

This isn’t to say that there are no omniscient novels anywhere. Look at Eliot or Tolstoy, to jump cultures, or Austen. Sure, the line on Austen is that she could only write about drawing-room life, but she still writes books in which the narrator knows everything that’s going on in the novel’s world. Pride and Prejudice begins with its famous statement about men, money, and wives, and then easily inhabits the minds of various members of the Bennett family and their acquaintances—not through first-person limited, but through the more detached and stance of a true omniscient narration. Doubtless, readers could come up with other works written from an all-knowing perspective. Friends have suggested books as different as The Grapes of Wrath and One Hundred Years of Solitude as omni-contenders.

All the same, what seems key about the novel is that what we think of as a historical evolution—or a descent from a unified to a fragmented perspective—isn’t an evolution at all. In fact, the novel has always been insecure. It’s just that the manifestation of its insecurity has changed over time. At the outset, it tried to look like a different sort of artifact, a different kind of physical manuscript almost: the novel masked as a diary or a journal—because, really, who knew what a novel was anyway? Later, seeking to convey more intimate thoughts, it took the form of letters, acting like a novel while pretending to be something else, just in case. This is a genre that constantly hedges against disapproval. It’s like a teenager trying not to look like she’s trying hard to be cool. (Novel, who me? Nah, I’m just a collection of letters. I can’t claim any special insight. Unless you find some, in which case, great.)

Omniscience is something that the novel always aspires for but never quite achieves. It would be nice to have the authority of the all-seeing, all-knowing narrator. But we are too tempted by other things, like personality, or form, or the parallax view that is inherent to our existence. This is why, I think, when you ask readers to name an omniscient novel, they name books that they think are omniscient but turn out not to be. Wishful thinking. The omniscient novel is more or less a utopia, using the literal meaning of the word: nowhere.

Appropriately, Thomas More structured Utopia as a kind of fiction, an apparatus novel about a paradise whose exact location he had missed hearing when someone coughed. This was in 1516, two full centuries before Robinson Crusoe, making Utopia a better candidate for First English Novel. But that’s a subject for another day.

[Image credit: Tim]