Two miles from my childhood home in Burke, Va., is a slice of shoulder along the Fairfax County Parkway. It’s an unassuming patch of asphalt, easily overshadowed by the sports fields stretching behind it, the recreation center in the middle distance where I first learned how to swim, how to keep my head above water without drowning. Still, every time I pass that simple strip of earth on the way to visit my parents for dinner, I slow down as much as traffic will allow. I look for the ghost of a busted brown Buick and, in the backseat, the ghost of a boy who’s just told his father he doesn’t believe in Hell.
Ours was a multi-religious household, which meant Sundays were often split between the area’s community churches (Methodist, Unitarian) and the Islamic community center to which my father, a Muslim who nevertheless wanted his children to think of all religions as inherently the same, was especially dedicated. It was, after all, his culture. I loathed these trips: how he’d make me—never my younger sisters—recite Quranic verses in Arabic; how he’d lecture about God, about prophets and angels, about devils and Hell, as if we were students in a seminary or madrassa. I wanted nothing to do with these conversations, not out of some fervent belief in atheism (that wouldn’t arrive until college) so much as resentment that my other friends, from whose lives God seemed absent, never went anywhere on Sundays.
On one particular drive, which my poor memory can only consign to sometime in the early 1990s, I interrupted my father during one of his talks and told him, apropos of nothing other than to see how he would react, that I didn’t think Hell was real.
The car rushed off the parkway. We jerked to a stop on the shoulder. My father turned around to look at me (it was my youngest sister’s turn in the front passenger seat). He aimed his index finger, raised his voice to tyrannical levels. He screamed my name and asked whether or not I wanted to go to the mosque.
It was, of course, a rhetorical question. The answer was no, but I didn’t say that. I was no Miltonian Lucifer; I had no romantic verses prepared, no winged rebels to back up my proclamation of non serviam. I was just a pre-teen boy churning the waters typical of bi-racial, bi-cultural children in America. So I said yes: yes, I did want to go to the mosque; I did believe in Hell. We lingered on the parkway shoulder in the silence my father used to express his anger, like the terrifying calm between two claps of thunder. Then he checked his side mirror, slipped back out onto the road, and we continued on to the Islamic community center where I’d spend the majority of Sundays until my senior year of high school.
Hell was both the most terrifying and most fascinating aspect of my religious education. Good people went to Heaven; bad people went to Hell. Heaven was clouds and wings and relatives; Hell was fire and monsters and Adolf Hitler. These were simple, obvious truths, tailor-made for a child’s mind.
It was the fire that stuck with me most. The “unquenchable fire” from the Book of Luke, the “lake of fire and brimstone” from the Book of Revelation, the “companions of the Fire” in the Quran’s seventh surah. The relationship between fire and Hell added a strange weight to the fires of my everyday life. I couldn’t help but think about Hell every time I saw a crackling fireplace, every time I heard the scratch of a match over unlit birthday candles. What would it be like to burn forever, with no reprieve? Would it feel like a melting marshmallow? Would it feel like my father’s pizza crust blackening on the grill? Eternal conflagrations—how could one stand to think about it? How could one stand not to think about it?
Then, in fourth grade, I learned it wasn’t fire I should be worried about but nothingness. I was in my first year at a public school after three years at a private Islamic academy. My two new friends were both Italian, both Catholic, both adamant that, because I wasn’t baptized as a child, because a priest had never poured holy water over my forehead, I wasn’t even worthy of Hell. Unbaptized children went to a place called Limbo. I had no idea where they’d learned this and, as a nine year old with a fertile imagination, I didn’t think about asking. The terror was enough confirmation for me.
Soon, baptism became a necessity. Not out of a desire to embrace Catholicism but as an insurance plan for my soul. I asked my parents if I could get baptized (though I didn’t say why). My father shook his head; my mother laughed. I wasn’t going to Hell, they said. Or Limbo, for that matter. I was a good person. And I think I knew I was.
Still. It was impossible for me not to stare sometimes at my friends’ foreheads through their fangs of red and black hair, cleaned of something mine wasn’t. Imagining roaring fire, hot pits—that was taxing enough. But Limbo? A place of nothingness, outside Hell proper? All I could think of was a cold, lightless room in which I was stuck, out of sight and out of mind.
Years later, well into high school, I’d encounter Limbo again through the imagination of a Florentine poet with his own peculiar obsessions about the mechanics and bureaucracy of Hell.
By this time, my fear of eternal punishment (whether through fire or total absence), had mutated into a voyeuristic love of violence. I was slowly growing more dubious about Hell’s literal existence—but more engrossed by the spectacles of violence it suggested. Violent comic books (Sin City, Preacher), violent films (Se7en, Pulp Fiction), the violent short stories I’d co-author with a friend on my parents’ basement computer: there was a perverse exhilaration in these new preoccupations. I wish I could say that my intentions were noble, that I was on a mission to expose and critique humanity’s capacity for cruelty; in truth, I just wanted to bathe my imagination in blood and guts.
With this same friend, I’d often cull online encyclopedias for strange and interesting stories and facts (the more violent the better). It was in this manner that we discovered Dante’s Inferno, and there it was, what Virgil refers to (in Robert Pinsky’s 1994 translation) as “the sightless zone”:
…Here we encountered
No laments that we could hear—except for sighs
That trembled the timeless air: they emanated
From the shadowy sadnesses, not agonies,
Of multitudes of children and women and men.
Beyond Limbo, I was astounded by the awful poetry of these punishments, at the gore of the medieval imagination. The twisted necks of fraudulent sorcerers and diviners in Canto XX, their bodies “so grotesquely reshaped, / Contorted so the eyes’ tears fell to wet / The buttocks at the cleft.” The prophet Muhammad in Canto XXVIII, “split open from his chin / Down to the farting-place, and from the splayed / Trunk the spilled entrails dangled between his thighs.” And, of course, the culminating image of horror: Satan himself, a multi-faced, multi-winged beast at the bottom of Hell munching Judas, Brutus, and Cassius as if they were sticks of celery.
To say nothing of the illustrations in the various translations I browsed through at the public library and online, giving weight to my own imagination. The muddy nightmares by Michael Mazur. The graceful etchings of Gustave Doré. The bloodless (and therefore, to my teenage self, boring) watercolors of William Blake. There was also my own embarrassing contribution to this visual canon, in response to an assignment for a young-adult class at the Islamic community center for which we were asked to draw something from the Quran: a cartoon man bracketed by flames, mouth open in agony, eyes near to bursting with terror.
A fear of Hell isn’t innate. Rather, like other destructive social ideas, it’s something we’re groomed to believe in from an early age. While I’d slowly begun to realize this, to weigh Hell’s contradictory descriptions against one another and find them wanting, the idea sharpened when I encountered, in 12th-grade honors English class, the third chapter of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Father Arnall’s seemingly interminable sermon to Stephen Dedalus and the other boys during a religious retreat shocked me with not just its horror but its fanaticism. In excruciating detail, Father Arnall lays bare the sensory details of Hell’s torments:
Every sense of the flesh is tortured and every faculty of the soul therewith: the eyes with impenetrable utter darkness, the noise with noisome odours, the ears with yells and howls and execrations, the taste with foul matter, leprous corruption, nameless suffocating filth, the touch with redhot goads and spikes, with cruel tongues of flame. And through the several torments of the senses the immortal soul is tortured eternally in its very essence amid the leagues upon leagues of glowing fires kindled in the abyss by the offended majesty of the Omnipotent God and fanned into everlasting and ever increasing fury by the breath of the anger of the Godhead.
One can almost envision Father Arnall’s teeth gnashing as he speaks, froth bubbling at the corners of his lips. It’s a moment that strikes me now as bordering on the epileptic, the orgasmic. Above all, it’s about fear as a teaching tool, as a way to regulate moral behavior. It is, as Christopher Hitchens describes it in God Is Not Great, “one of the great instances of moral terrorism in our literature.”
Father Arnall would undoubtedly find much in common with the very real (and appropriately named) John Furniss, a 19th-century Catholic priest whose pamphlet, The Sight of Hell, explicates the sensations of Hell for the instruction of young children. (Some chapters: “Where Is Hell?,” “How Far It Is to Hell,” “The Smell of Death,” “A Bed of Fire,” “The Dungeons of Hell.”). For precocious children wondering what an eternity of punishment feels like, Furniss has surprising first-hand information:
Think that a man in Hell cries only one single tear in ten hundred million years. Tell me how many millions of years must pass before he fills a little basin with his tears? How many millions of years must pass before he cries as many tears as there were drops of water at the deluge? How many years must pass before he has drowned the heavens and earth with his tears? Is this Eternity? No.
I can’t imagine what it would have been like to read Furniss’s words as a child, back when I was susceptible to taking such images, such ideas seriously. Like many childhood preoccupations, my terror of Hell strikes me now, as a 36-year-old atheist, as mind-boggling. After decades of encountering Hell and its ilk in everything from the “house of dust” of the ancient Mesopotamians to the blasted landscapes of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the place has become nothing more than a curiosity, a place of imaginative exploration no more real than Narnia. The punchline to a cruel joke.
It was with this mindset that I recently indulged in The Penguin Book of Hell, in which Scott G. Bruce excerpts Western visions of punishment stretching from the days of Hesiod and Plato to the Hells of our own making in the concentration camps and rendition sites of the modern world. I read the book with a palpable sense of nostalgia for my own innocence, my old voyeurism. I made a point to do the bulk of my reading on Sunday mornings when, as a child, I would have been trapped in a Buick on the way to an education I didn’t have the words or courage to protest. This is the dark side of wisdom, I suppose: that the knowledge gained often comes too late to change the past when it mattered most.
I’ve long since made my atheism known to my father, who’s mellowed in recent years. I fling casual arguments against the existence of God at him like confetti. He shrugs them off. Perhaps he’s that unwavering in his beliefs. Or maybe he’s given up trying to mold me, now that I’m at an age where I decide whether or not I want to get into a car, where I get to choose how to spend my Sundays.
And the Catholic kids from elementary school with their cautionary tales of Limbo? I don’t think about my forehead, or theirs, any longer. One of them has gone off to his own life; when we reconnect, none of our conversations revolve around anything so serious. The other one died in 2002, hit by a car on his college campus. We weren’t close, but it was the first death of someone I knew and so it lingered with me—and sometimes still does. Did that water poured over his head as a baby save his soul? Did it ensure his entrance into a better place than this world? I imagine his family thinks so. As for me, I don’t know where he is. But I know where he isn’t.
Reviewing John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries (2015) for an Irish newspaper a couple of years ago, I found myself wondering: why are the titles of novels by fictional novelists always so mysteriously unconvincing? The protagonist of Avenue of Mysteries is Juan Diego, a globetrotting writer of Irvingesque stature; his most famous book is called A Story Set in Motion by the Virgin Mary. Encountering this, I thought: No commercial publisher would ever append so clunky a title to a popular book. My suspension of disbelief was shaken. Why, I wondered, couldn’t Irving—the man responsible for titles as instantly memorable as The World According to Garp (1978) and The Hotel New Hampshire (1981)—come up with something better?
It was a feeling I’d had before. Novels by fictional novelists (and there is, as we know, no shortage of fictional novelists) always seem to be saddled with ersatz, implausible titles—so much so that I find myself doubting whether such unhappily-titled books could ever actually exist. Frequently—to compound matters—we are supposed to accept that these books have been bestsellers, or that they have become cultural touchstones, despite their awful titles. Take the case of Nathan Zuckerman: in Philip Roth’s great trilogy (The Ghost Writer , Zuckerman Unbound , and The Anatomy Lesson ), we are asked to believe that Zuckerman has published successful books entitled Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions. Reversed Intentions! What a terrible title!
You find similar clunkers popping up all over the literary map. In Martin Amis’s The Information (1995), the narcissistic litterateur Gwyn Barry has achieved bestsellerdom with a book unconvincingly entitled Amelior (and his rival, Richard Tull, has published novels with equally shaky titles: Aforethought and Dreams Don’t Mean Anything). In Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (1951), the fictional novelist Maurice Bendrix is supposed to have published novels called The Ambitious Host, The Crowned Image, and The Grave on the Water-Front: all of which sound like the titles of Graham Greene novels that didn’t quite make it out of a notebook. In Claire Kilroy’s All Names Have Been Changed (2009), the legendary Irish writer P.J. Glynn has published a novel with the discouraging appellation of Apophthegm. In Stephen King’s The Dark Half (1989), the haunted writer Thad Beaumont is the author of The Sudden Dancers, a title so prissily literary that you can imagine finding it on the contents page of an anthology of work by earnest high-school students (but not, surely, on the cover of a book from a major publisher).
King, in fact, is a repeat offender: Ben Mears, in ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), is allegedly the author of a novel called Billy Said Keep Going; Mike Noonan, in Bag of Bones (1998), has given the world The Red-Shirt Man and Threatening Behaviour; and Bobbi Anderson, in The Tommyknockers (1987), has produced a Western entitled Rimfire Christmas, which is my personal nomination for worst fictional title of all time—although another close contender must surely be Daisy Perowne’s imaginary collection of poetry in Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005), which is called (oh dear!) My Saucy Bark.
Even the imaginary writers created by Vladimir Nabokov are not immune to the terrible-title virus. Sebastian Knight, the elusive protagonist of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), is responsible for books entitled The Prismatic Bezel and The Doubtful Asphodel (although Success, the title of another of Knight’s fictional books, is so good that Martin Amis stole it for one of his own actual books). The bibliography of Clare Quilty, in Lolita (1955), boasts, beside The Enchanted Hunters, an unappetizingly-titled play called The Strange Mushroom. And in Look at the Harlequins! (1974), the Nabokov-avatar narrator counts among his backlist Esmerelda and her Parandrus and Plenilune—titles that a real-life publisher would surely blue-pencil the instant the manuscripts landed on her desk.
There are, of course, honourable exceptions: fictional writers whose fictional books are so convincingly titled that you can imagine chancing upon tattered mass-market paperback copies of them in the dusty corner of a used bookstore. Take Henry Bech, the self-tormented writer-protagonist of John Updike’s wonderful Bech stories. Bech’s first novel, a ’50s motorcycle epic, is called Travel Light. His second is called Brother Pig (“which is,” Bech tells a Bulgarian poet in “The Bulgarian Poetess,” “St. Bernard’s expression for the body”). And Bech’s blockbuster bestseller (Updike’s alliterative Bs are contagious) is called Think Big—a title so punchy it’s practically Presidential. In the Bech books, Updike, characteristically, pays scrupulous attention to recreating the textures of the real. The appendix to Bech: A Book (1970) supplies a complete bibliography of Bech’s published work, including such echt-realistic entries as “”Lay off, Norman,” New Republic, CXL.3 (19 January 1959), 22-3.”
In general, though, it seems as if the titles of imaginary novels will inevitably tend towards the offputtingly cheesy (Billy Said Keep Going), the ludicrously recherche (The Prismatic Bezel), or the embarrassingly portentous (like the novel embarked upon, and abandoned, by Anna Wulf in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook , which bears the dubious moniker The Shadow of the Third). It sometimes feels as if all of these novelists are writing stories set in the same alternate universe, the distinguishing feature of which is that all novels have terrible titles. What is it with this world of imaginary writers and publishers? Why can’t its inhabitants come up with better titles for their books?
Perhaps it’s simply the case that novelists greedily reserve their most inspired titles for their own actual, real-life books—which are, after all, far more important than any works ascribable to fictional characters within them. Why go for The Grave on the Water-Front when you can have The Heart of the Matter, or, indeed, The End of the Affair? Why call your book Dreams Don’t Mean Anything when you can muster a title as good as The Information? Why settle for The Shadow of the Third when you’ve got The Golden Notebook? A successful title—and all novelists know this instinctively—does much more than simply name the finished product. A successful title seduces. It creates a mood. It stakes a claim. A great title (Pride and Prejudice; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; A Clockwork Orange) will seem to have been around forever. No novelist, I suspect, would happily waste a great title on a book by an imaginary writer—even if they’ve dreamed that writer up themselves, along with all the ghostly volumes on her nonexistent shelf.
Or perhaps a certain ironic distancing is at work, when it comes to imaginary novels. In many cases, I think, we are given to understand that a fictional novelist may be perceptive, responsive, and strong-willed–but not quite as lavishly gifted as his or her creator. Clare Quilty, for instance, is hardly meant to be a genius on the Nabokovian scale (although he does collaborate with his creator’s anagrammatic alter ego, Vivian Darkbloom, on a play called The Lady Who Loved Lightning—and look at that! Another lamentable title!). Poor old Maurice Bendrix, in The End of the Affair, is certainly meant to be a second-rate novelist, and his dud titles confirm it (you can easily envision finding a copy of The Crowned Image, falling out of its old-fashioned binding, in a charity shop or hospital library: unreprinted, unread, invisible to posterity). And Thad Beaumont, in The Dark Half, doesn’t begin to tap the wellspring of his talent until he forsakes the bland lit-fic of The Sudden Dancers and gets his hands dirty writing the Stephen-King-like Machine’s Way (now that’s a title). There is also, of course, the limitation adduced by Norman Mailer, in his marvelous book on writing, The Spooky Art (2003): “Jean Malaquais [Mailer’s mentor] once remarked that you can write about any character but one. ‘Who is that?’ ‘A novelist more talented than yourself.'”
But none of these theories really offers a satisfactory explanation for the badness of so many imaginary titles. Looking more closely at some of these spectral designations, I think we can often discern a profoundly literary reason for their terribleness. The titles of Nathan Zuckerman’s early novels—Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions—not only camouflage Philip Roth’s own early books (respectively, Letting Go  and When She Was Good ); they also summarize a recurring theme of the Zuckerman novels themselves. Writing out of mixed emotions, Zuckerman frequently reverses his intentions—although by the time he does, of course, it’s generally too late to undo the damage his fiction has caused. Similarly, in Look at the Harlequins!, each appalling title parodies an actually existing Nabokov novel: Plenilune (i.e. a full moon) conceals The Defense (1930), and Esmerelda and her Parandrus (a parandrus being, in medieval bestiaries, a shapeshifting beast with cloven hooves) surely encodes Lolita. (Perhaps the wittiest of these parody-titles is The Red Top-Hat, which mocks Invitation to a Beheading ). These titles, in all their awfulness, alert us to fictional strategies. They invite us to examine more attentively the texts in which they appear.
Comparably, in The Golden Notebook, the title of Anna’s novel, The Shadow of the Third, points us towards one of Lessing’s central thematic concerns—the hidden ethical quandaries that bedevil any monogamous sexual relationship between a man and a woman. The titles of Richard Tull’s novels, in The Information, offer clues to his revenger’s nature, and to his eventual fate: Richard plots the destruction of Gwyn Barry with aforethought, and by the end of the novel, he has come to believe that dreams, in the sense of hopes, don’t mean anything. And the phrase “a story set in motion by the Virgin Mary” exactly describes the plot of Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries: in the form of Juan Diego’s imaginary title, this phrase lurks inside the primary text, as if to remind us, periodically, of precisely what sort of novel we are reading.
Titles of imaginary novels, then, aren’t called upon to perform the same tasks as titles of real novels. They aren’t intended to seduce, or to stake a claim. Nor are they designed, generally speaking, to be “realistic” (in the sense that Henry Bech’s book titles, in Updike’s stories, are designed to be realistic). Imaginary titles, more often than not, are items of fictional furniture, like characters or leitmotivs or symbols. They do double-duty: they name the works of a fictional writer, and they illuminate the narrative in which that fictional writer appears. For a novelist, the chance to create an imaginary title is another chance to be witty, or inventive, or amusing; more importantly, it’s another chance to enrich the texture of the work at hand.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a moment, every now and then, to be grateful that we don’t live in a world—the world of Thad Beaumont, the world of Nathan Zuckerman—in which everyone seems to think that The Sudden Dancers, or Reversed Intentions, is a perfectly acceptable title for a novel. Now—has anyone seen my copy of Rimfire Christmas?
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
“Hell is other people,” according to the three characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit. In Sartre’s vision, eternal damnation is mental, rather than physical, torture. Inez, Garcin, and Estelle have been selected to antagonize each other. Stuck in a gaudy, cramped room without any glass, they become each other’s mirrors. Inez is cunning and abrasive. Garcin is pensive but frail. Estelle is vain. They are terrible people, but terribly entertaining characters.
Sartre uses each character’s anxieties as weaknesses. Inez hates Garcin because he is a coward. Inez lusts for Estelle, but Estelle only has eyes for Garcin—merely because he is the only man available. Garcin is too busy thinking about what is happening on Earth to pay attention to Estelle, and she loathes being ignored. Their methods of torture are simple, cyclical, and eternal.
Each time I read Sartre’s claustrophobic play, I wonder: who would be my torturers? I won’t admit the two actual people who would vex me in a Sartrean Hell, but I will admit the two characters in literature who would annoy me forever: Stephen Dedalus and Anse Bundren.
If I were stuck in a Second Empire drawing room with no exit for all eternity, my torturers would definitely be Stephen and Anse. I love both A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and As I Lay Dying because I detest the central characters of both books.
Since A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man traces Stephen’s development, the text hews to his melodramatic sense of self. James Joyce’s method is sound—Stephen’s acquisition and mastery of language, as well as his skepticism toward his surroundings, are captured in the novel’s narrative style—but Stephen is taxing on the reader. He’s a jerk. He writes a noxious villanelle (“Are you not weary of ardent way, / Lure of the fallen seraphim.” Really?). Each prosaic moment of his existence must reflect some ancient Irish myth.
What irks me most is his glib disbelief. I’m a Catholic who knows that doubt is endemic to faith, but Stephen’s rejections—“I will not serve”—are couched in language that elevates his importance. He renounces God because he thinks himself to be God. He has become his namesake, the great artificer. Like many lapsed Catholics, Stephen is—in the words of his friend Cranly—“supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” But Stephen dismisses that belief as a stepping stone toward his real goal: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode or life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.”
I can’t stand him.
This was all Joyce’s intention, of course, but that doesn’t diminish how much I hate Stephen. I imagine him leaning against a bookcase, arms crossed, huffing well actually forever and ever while the door to my Hell remains shut.
Anse Bundren is also terrible, but for different reasons. He’d sit in the center of the only couch in Hell, and spread his knees so that nobody else could fit. He’s selfish, lazy, and a hypocrite. His inert state is such a perfect contrast to William Faulkner’s profluent story in As I Lay Dying—a tragicomic journey story. He begins the book sitting on his back porch, “tilting snuff from the lid of his snuff-box into his lower lip, holding the lip outdrawn between thumb and finger.” Behind him, his wife Addie is dying. In front of him, his son Cash is building Addie’s coffin.
Anse is full of excuses: “he tells people that if he ever sweats, he will die.” He’s also full of complaints, calling himself a “luckless man.” He promised Addie that he would bury her in Jefferson with the rest of her family, but it soon becomes clear that he has other reasons for making the trek. His children don’t respect him because he doesn’t deserve it. And he’s quick to offer empty religious intonations: “The Lord will pardon me and excuse the conduct of them He sent me.” Get over yourself, Anse—and quit jabbering about your new teeth.
Certainly the central traits of Stephen and Anse that I most detest—self-importance and selfishness—are the two traits I pray that I never hold myself. Great literature has a way of making us recognize our own faults after we’ve first criticized them in others.
Who would be your literary torturers in Hell?
Image Credit: Pixabay.
Stefan Zweig — the renowned Viennese writer who, in the 1930s, chose exile over Adolf Hitler — adored his books. As he moved globally among temporary residences, the collection followed, providing an anchor of stability in a world gone adrift. “They are there,” he wrote of his volumes, “waiting and silent.” It was left to him, the avid reader, to grab them, feel them, and make them speak some measure of sense to his unhinged experience.
Books offered Zweig, in part, a predictable form of comfort. “They neither urge, nor press their claims,” he observed. “Mutely they are ranged along the wall…If you direct your glances their way or move your hands over them, they do not call out to you in supplication.” In his thoughtful and often riveting book, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, George Prochnik quotes the author describing how it felt to approach a full bookcase: “A hundred names meet your searching glance silently and patiently…humbly awaiting the call and yet blissful to be chosen, to be enjoyed.” No matter where he lived — New York, London, Rio — Zweig maintained access to this form of bibliophilic bliss to the end.
Anyone who relates to such an attraction will understand it as an intellectually unique, often aesthetically sublime, experience. And now, according to two Italian economists, it might also be financially beneficial. As reported by one of the weirder studies undertaken last year (focused only on men between 60 and 96), growing up around books — simply existing in their physical presence — corresponded to higher income over time. “Those [kids 10 or older] with many books,” the authors write, “enjoyed substantially higher returns to their additional education.” The media, as you might imagine, feasted on the news. Headlines went from “Books You Should Read to Get Rich” to “Boys Who Grow Up Around Books Earn Significantly More Money.” Who cares if Bill Bill Gates reads 50 books a year? Now all you needed to do — according to the new research — was to put on display at least 10 of them. Ka-ching.
Zweig grew up around books — more than 10 — and, incidentally, he became rich. His novels — Amok, Confusion, The Royal Game, to name a few — and biographies — on Marie Antoinette and Erasmus most notably — flew from the shelves. He was the most translated German-language writer before World War II. His 1941 autobiography, The World of Yesterday, was recently translated into English and continues to sell at a brisk pace (not everyone is happy is about that). That’s good for Zweig, his legacy, and his fans.
But there’s a distinction to draw here. The economists who conducted the “books make you wealthier” study were merely confirming the point that cultural capital corresponds to book ownership. It’s a point so obvious it’s almost meaningless. Any family who owns books, and considers books to be even symbolically significant enough to display them, is a family that nurtures the educational ethos required to make money. But none of that concerned Zweig. Zweig courted (and carted) his books not for the cultural capital they represented; he did so for their imaginative fertility, their ready source of escapism, the touchstone they offered to an inner reality. Speaking about a room full of books, he once said, “How good it is there to create and be alone.” Their decorative presence took a back seat to their seminal emotional power. It’s what they did for him — his imagination, his sense of self, his rampant curiosity — that mattered most to Stefan Zweig. The wealth was incidental.
Zweig’s love of books, considered against their supposed wealth-generating capability, presents a compelling dichotomy that’s quite relevant today: Books as remunerative symbols of educational attainment versus books as objects that allow us to drop out and delve inwards. This dichotomy is relevant because, for one, it fundamentally alters the big question everyone keeps asking about the book as a physical object. No longer is it “will the book endure?” Instead, it’s “why will the book endure?”
Yes the book will endure. Of course the book will endure. You’ve likely heard a million people rhapsodize about the alluring physicality of books. They’re correct to do so. You’ve also likely heard the news that independent bookstores are making a comeback. This is also as it should be. As an empirical matter, reading on a tablet cannot remotely approach the sensual literary experience offered by an old-fashioned book. The latter is, I’d venture, intrinsically more pleasurable than the former, not unlike the intrinsic difference between high quality toilet paper and the sandpaper stuff used in bus stations. And while it’s true that Socrates expressed grave concern that the written word would erode memory and storytelling, his distinguished descendant, Cicero, had it exactly right when he said, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”
Of course, a room stuffed to the rafters with books can also be as soulless as a tin can. These days, if our Italian economists are right, books are often nothing more than decoration for social strivers. The fact that cultural capital can evidently be correlated with actual capital is another way of saying that a wall of books has nothing necessarily to do with the literary ambitions of the resident reader. Consider the “books by the foot” trend — that is, the option of purchasing random books in bulk for the singular purpose of showing them off rather than reading them. This commercial genre is exceedingly popular with interior decorators, so much so that, as if to stay a step ahead of the skepticism, bulk book suppliers have specialized by tailoring books for the client’s purported general interests (to make it really seem like this is a library reflecting the owner’s personal literary tastes), while still color-coordinating book covers to match the pillow slips. In this respect, the purchase and display of books becomes a conspicuous example of what the late French literary critic René Girard, in Mimesis and Theory, calls “external mediation” — the process whereby a person’s displayed tastes and desires influence those of others — resulting in the cheapest and least meaningful form of imitation.
If this is how we’re going to save the book — decorative mimicry — well then, forget it. True believers know that a room with books should accomplish something altogether more subversive and selfishly edifying — that it should foster radical internal mediation rather than decorative inspiration. Books should conspicuously confirm the persistence, in the face of so many competing (and lesser) forms of distraction, of a fierce dedication to promiscuous reading, the kind that requires — a la Zweig — that walls of literature be constantly approached, scanned, and chosen from. And then — the part that we rarely talk about when we talk about books — a roomful of books must be allowed to exact a cost. The thing about a room full of books is that conquering it, living within it as a real reader, treating it as it should be treated, means making sacrifices that deeply effect other human beings — and not always in a good way. The refraction of personal experience, when pursued through a physical book, is ours alone. As Emma in Madame Bovary knew very well, reading was a venue for the most satisfying selfishness. The “reality of experience,” as it’s noted at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is forged in the smithy of a single soul. When we read we become our own wistful Emma, our own self-absorbed Dedalus. You are with you. That’s it. And people might get annoyed by that.
I had to laugh when I read that being around books makes you more money. At the beginning of 2015, I started a well-paying freelance research gig. On paper, it was ideal: I worked from home, I made my own hours, I kept my day job teaching undergraduates, and the topic was interesting enough. The problem was that my home office, where I was to do my research, contains nearly 2,000 books. Many of them I have yet to read. Just as many I want to read again. After a day and half of working in my office, sitting amid these book-lined walls, I was broken by environment. Their visual allure and the promise of what they contained was too much to ignore as I did my official job. My letter of resignation followed. I remember that when my (dumbfounded) employer responded (he said I was “impetuous” and “foolish”) I was reading Middlemarch. A lot of people around me have paid a price for my choice. But Zweig, I am sure, would have approved.
Gerard Manley Hopkins burned all of his poems before becoming a priest. He called his act the “slaughter of the innocents.” Jesuits begin their study with a two-year novitiate period, during which Hopkins did not write a single line of verse — in fact, he would only write fragments for the next seven years.
Hopkins struggled with the divergent pulls of poetry and prayer. That tension coaxed his best and most unique material. A sensitive ascetic with a wild soul and progressive syntax, he praised God by finding the divine in all things. The burning of his verse was not the end of his poetic life, but a cleansing and rebirth by fire: the start of a long, imperfect struggle.
We burn old love letters and photographs to be reborn. The action of burning is often a process. Find a match or a lighter. Put the papers in a container or can or shove them in a fireplace. There are so many moments along the way when we can have second thoughts, when we can decide to put memories in a drawer rather than reduce them to ash, but it is so tempting and comforting to watch the flames swallow our pain.
Hopkins is not the only writer to set fire to his creations. According to his biographers, Franz Kafka burned nearly 90 percent of his life’s work—and requested that more be burned upon his death (it wasn’t). Sylvia Beach, who later published Ulysses, claimed that James Joyce tried to burn his manuscript for Stephen Hero: “When the manuscript came back to its author, after the twentieth publisher had rejected it, he threw it in the fire, from which Mrs. Joyce, at the risk of burning her hands, rescued these pages.” The book would later become A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which Stephen Dedalus burns his poems because “they were romantic.”
Writers’ manuscripts have notoriously been burned by other people. Thomas Carlyle wrote a history of the French Revolution, and gave it to John Stuart Mill for comment. Mill’s maid had charred the manuscript by mistake — she thought it was wastepaper, which is quite the burn. Sir Richard Francis Burton’s wife Isabel torched over a thousand pages of his translation-in-progress of The Scented Garden. V.S. Pritchett’s father made him burn a partial novel that he’d written as a child and “mocked my use of pretentious words.” Lord Byron’s memoirs were burned a month after his death, never to be published for fear of what they would do to his already controversial reputation. Ted Hughes burned a journal that contained “the last months” of Sylvia Plath’s life so that her children would never find the pages. There are numerous examples of governments and institutions putting books into bonfires, but they are still actions of external protest and censure. When writers burn their own manuscripts, they are destroying their own words. Cathartic, but also a bit sadistic. Burning is a slow, ritualistic death. Why not simply throw away a manuscript?
Writers are nothing if not melodramatic. Nikolai Gogol asked Leo Tolstoy to hold his manuscript for the second Dead Souls, but Tolstoy refused. Gogol had already burned a copy of it in 1845, and ultimately burned the rest in 1852. Eudora Welty said she would “burn everything up” to stymie potential biographers—everything as in personal correspondence, not manuscripts. Daniel Alarcón would burn his diaries as well: “that’s the space where I criticize people and am totally inarticulate.” Kenzaburō Ōe said he wanted to burn all of his unfinished manuscripts before he died, but there is no sign that he burned finished ones.
Umberto Eco said “later in life good poets burn their early poetry, and bad poets publish it.” Poet Karl Shapiro put all of his notebooks “in the furnace” when he was 23. Who among us doesn’t wish that we could incinerate some of our early publications? Ottessa Moshfegh was at her family’s summer home in Maine when she ran out of newspapers for a wood stove fire and burned some of her writing, “which put me in a dark philosophical place.”
I’ve only burned one manuscript — the first draft of my first attempt at a novel. I had kept the printed pages in a cardboard box in the garage, deluded that I might return to them years later and finally discover why agents weren’t interested. Instead the pages sat there and collected sawdust and grass clippings. When my wife and I bought a new house, I decided to get rid of the box. I took the first twenty or so pages to the fire pit in our backyard. That night we roasted hot dogs and their oils dripped on my first chapter.
That was years ago. Now, like so many writers, most of my manuscripts live exclusively on my computer screen. Burnt manuscripts seem outdated. They belong in the days of typewriters. Yet writers are no less wracked with self-doubt, anxiety, and frustration than they were in earlier generations. We might not tear our terrible pages out of the typewriter, but we are still often unhappy with what we create.
The emotions that have led writers to burn manuscripts will never disappear. All that has changed is our medium. When I hate a story that I’ve written, I move it to a folder labeled “Writing” on my desktop. Then I drag it to a subfolder labeled “Old Work,” and let it sit there. Grow digital moss. Become forgotten. Yet that action is like stuffing old sneakers into a closet rather than throwing them in the trash. Part of me hopes that the story will be recycled; that a character or even a sentence will migrate into some later work.
If you burn your only copy of a manuscript, you are making a statement: it’s over. There’s simply not as much drama moving a file to the trash bin of your computer as there is watching a conflagration smother your words. So here’s my advice to contemporary writers. Print a copy of that story you hate. Drag the file to the trash bin and make sure the file is permanently deleted. Then take that printed manuscript to a fireplace, or better yet, a bonfire. Set it aflame. Watch the paper blacken and wrinkle. Sometimes we need to burn our pasts, literary or not, to move forward. Trust that your words and secrets are safe, clouded in smoke, soon to become part of the sky.
Image Credit: Pexels/Movidagrafica.
Part Into the Wild, part Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Howard Axelrod’s The Point of Vanishing is the story of his two years spent in profound solitude in the Vermont wilderness. Called “torture” by prison rights activists and “a threat to mental stability” by psychologists, Axelrod’s decision to sequester himself from society was nothing if not extreme. Alexander Supertramp would be proud.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend
Townsend died this year, aged 68, and in order to write her obituary I re-read the books I’d loved as a child: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 and The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, now together in one volume as The Adrian Mole Diaries. Despite my distress at her death, I was howling with laughter within three minutes — if possible, these books have become even funnier since the mid-80s, when they sold 8 million copies, and span off into a TV series.
Mole is a 13-year-old working class boy who is convinced he’s an intellectual, believes he’s destined for better things than everyone around him, writes poetry, and is obsessed with masturbation. In many ways, it is exactly like James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — but with the benefit of being 100 pages shorter, and screamingly funny. You can quote almost every line:
“I used to be the sort of boy who had sand kicked in his face — now I’m the sort of boy who watches somebody else have it kicked in their face.”
“There’s only one thing more boring than listening to other people’s dreams, and that’s listening to their problems.”
“I was racked with sexuality — but it wore off when I helped my father put manure on our rose bed.”
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As usual, you’re talking with your friend about books. “Have you read it?” she asks. “No,” you say, “but it’s on the nightstand.” It’s on the nightstand. That’s code for, I’ve made mental note of it. Or It’s on my list but not a priority. Or even, I actually own it, and I’ll be reading it next. Regardless, for me, It’s on the nightstand has always been metaphorical — an abstract and elastic category of Books I Hope To Read.
That is, until recently.
You could call it an “alcove,” but it’s not big enough for a queen-sized bed. The full-sized has worked just fine, but the piles of unshelved books — on the floor, on the dresser, on the dining chairs, in the bathroom, on top of the puppy crate for godssakes — haven’t. I wanted a nightstand.
And so, an end table was repurposed. Finally, I have an actual nightstand.
What’s on the nightstand? Suddenly the question is not so abstract. Of the mess of books that has been unsystematically scattered throughout my home, and my life, which ones will make it to the nightstand? In what order will they be stacked?
Perhaps most importantly: how will I decide?
A mini-debate recently bloomed among colleagues at the college where I teach, after the department administrator sent around a brief and innocent-enough email: would we please send changes or additions to the attached post-grad Suggested Reading List? The list, she reminded us, would be distributed to graduating seniors; a deadline was specified.
“Are the students asking for this?” Professor B wrote. Was it perhaps odd to foist such a list on departing students, “a noodging sort of gesture from teachers who can’t let go?” Professor H concurred, quoting Professor L: “Why ask for a booklist now, dear graduates? We’ve given you the tools to read and to make discriminations among the various books you encounter: So feel free to fly away from the comfortable nest of your undergraduate English Department and read what you want and when you want.”
Off-line conversations ensued. Professor H came back with an idea:
“[O]ne of my main goals in the classroom,” she wrote, “is to teach students to go from one book to another all by themselves; I am never so dejected as when seniors complain they have no clue as to what to read next…What if we encouraged our seniors to put together a list of books for the rest of our majors?” A week later, Professor H further articulated her thinking: “It won’t be enough, of course, to ask the grads what books they recommend. The real question is how they found them.”
To go from one book to another all by themselves. It sounds simple enough. As a young person just entering the world of post-academy literature, the challenge may be discerning “what’s good.” In youth, there is a blessed naiveté about this, a hunger for objective, definitive recommendations from an authoritative source. In graduate school, when a professor first challenged me to “create your own map of literary influences,” it was indeed a revelation: the image I remember conjuring was of lily pads — each of us in our own deep black pond, bug-eyed and hopping from one pad to another. Sometimes just one pad over, sometimes a greater leap to the far shore. Apparently random, and yet mysteriously considered.
As we get older — as the nature of our work and passions specifies, as our aesthetic palates grow more particular — we understand that, given the sheer number of artful and compelling books in the world relative to the time we have on the planet, “good” is more contextual than absolute. Deciding what to read next is thus as much about Knowing Thyself as Knowing Literature. School attempts to teach the latter; it’s the self-knowledge that we must develop on our own, over time.
And so, in my humble opinion, the process by which you decide what to read must not be outsourced — to your professors, to reviewers or awards, to online algorithms. An external source can’t tell you what you need to read next any more than a spouse can tell a pregnant partner what she’s craving to eat; what will satisfy. Read what you want and when you want. Choosing what to read is about attuning yourself to what it means to be nourished. By this I mean confronted, changed, filled, emptied, engrossed, surprised, instructed, consoled — all these. You. At this moment in time.
What should I read next? It is not a casual question. We are not frogs. We are chasing something more profound than flies. Every time I finish a book and consider what to read now, it feels…important.
Since I am not so much looking for a foolproof test of a book’s “objective” quality, my decision process is no more suitable for you than my nightstand list. Nevertheless, here it is — my provisional, evolving list of the (sometimes absurd) ways I decide/have decided what to read next:
A. The 25-Page Test
Standard trial run. I bought the book on impulse; it’s been lying around for a while. I pick it up and start reading. Am I eager to read page 26 (even better: did page 26 come and go without my noticing)? Am I stopping to scribble in my notebook because the book is sparking responses that matter enough to write down? Or — have two paragraphs gone by and I don’t know what I just read (in which case something is evidently not clicking).
B. The Three-Book Shell Game
Okay, the truth is, I bought three books on impulse. I lay them out side-by-side. I stare at them. Which one should get the trial run first? I stare some more. I pick up each one, feel it in my hands — heft, cover material. I look at the cover for some time. Sure, there is that two-second impression; but there is also the three-minute study and consideration. The emotions and ideas it evokes. I skim the jacket copy but not too closely. I am not interested in the publisher’s sell job but rather words or phrases that resonate, with me, right now, for whatever reason. I lay them out again. I wait. I swear to you, one of them starts to levitate.
C. Narrative Point-of-View/Voice
As reader, writer, and teacher, for me, narrative POV is perhaps the most intriguing, and most important, feature of any work of fiction. Usually, I am primed for something specific: first person or third person; omniscience or (in James Wood’s terminology) free indirect style; vernacular or formal, contemporary or non-contemporary; verbal density or spareness (the author who achieves these simultaneously always wins). When narrative voice is a driving factor, three or four pages is usually enough to determine Yay or Nay. Do I want to hear this voice speaking for the next two days or two weeks? Do I need a voice I can “trust,” insightful and articulate? Or something less stable, a wild and deeply subjective ride?
D. Bookshelf Staring
I’ve just finished a book, and I’m on a reading roll. I stand in front of my bookshelves. Like yours, mine are “organized” in a particular way that would make very little sense to anyone else. I change up this organization from time to time, and sometimes this staring prompts reorganization. Sometimes the reorganization becomes part of the process of choosing — handling the books and moving them around as a way of reorganizing my mind. At the moment, there is the not-yet-read section. But I stare at the whole canvass of books, not just that one section. The book I’ve just read is still buzzing in my mind; if it was great, it’s buzzing in my body, too. I want more of that buzzing, but differently. The last book did X so well, so interestingly. I’m intrigued by X’s impact and also interested in how X would read if it was plus Y and minus Z.
I step back, lean in, repeat. I swear to you, one of the books starts to vibrate.
E. Loved This Author, Want More of Same, Read Everything in the Author’s Oeuvre
This is the most exhilarating — like falling love. The last book did X. I want more and more and more of X. I am learning something here, seeing something new, growing intimate with characters and ideas. Maybe I haven’t identified what, exactly, was so captivating, so I read on to find out. More, more, more. Sometimes I’ll read them in order of best reviewed to worst reviewed; sometimes vice versa (reading the supposedly minor works of a favorite author can be particularly illuminating); sometimes chronologically; sometimes via the three-book shell game.
I do keep wishlists, haphazardly. Or, I used to. When I’m stumped, I’ll log on to Goodreads or Audible and see what, at some point in time, I decided I might someday like to read. Then I proceed with Item D above, the online version of bookshelf staring. With audiobooks, a two-minute sample is usually available — the audio version of the 25-page test combined with the narrative voice test.
(As I write this, I am reminded of the usefulness of online wishlists. It’s a place to be impulsive about books, without opening your wallet. And looking back on your wishlists is such an interesting journey in itself: Vasily Aksyonov? Dorothy Day? Suttree. I craved these books enough to click them. What was I thinking about at the time? Hmm…)
G. The “Should” Lists
I really should read Thackeray. I really should read Vollman. I really should read The Goldfinch. Well, maybe. I was glad I pushed myself to read Faulkner and Proust and To the Lighthouse; less so Philip Roth and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I’m still pushing with Thomas Mann, the verdict is out. It’s good to ask yourself why you should read it. So you don’t feel stupid in a workshop or at a cocktail party? Or maybe because your favorite author from Item E above was deeply influenced by it. There are better and worse reasons for force-reading.
If you are a professional literarian of some sort, there are more “shoulds” to contend with: you must teach, review, converse about certain books. I’ve been fortunate to “have” to read Jean Stafford, Esther Freud, Henry James, Carson McCullers, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Steven Millhauser, Miranda July, Sherwood Anderson, on and on (in the cases of Lampedusa and McCullers, it led to Item E). In other words, there is certainly such thing as benevolent authority, and required reading can be a blessing (that is, when it’s not a curse).
H. Recommendations from Friends
This, I confess, is one of the least successful categories. It’s not that my friends don’t have good taste. That many of them are thoughtful and discriminating readers may be the very problem: their passions are as contextual and idiosyncratic as mine. It would be, in a way, a little weird if the books they raved about were books that I would rave about, at the same moments in our lives. (Recommendations seem to work better, I find, when a friend talks about something he read some time ago, within the context of current conversation — as opposed to, “I just read this great book!”).
My shameless plug. When Lisa Peet and I started writing about “post-40 bloomers,” there was a sense of mission, of trying to bring an alternative perspective to the table. Little did we know how many important writers — important to us personally — we’d discover along the way. For me, to name just a few: Harriet Doerr, William Gay, Spencer Reece, Shannon Cain, Edward P. Jones, Virginia Hamilton Adair, W.M. Spackman, Robin Black. And don’t get me started on Jane Gardam (I cannot stop talking about Jane Gardam — Item E bigtime).
J. The Dessert Selection
Sometimes reading is about imaginative and intellectual expansion, the difficult pleasure that is, in the end, transformative and satisfying. But sometimes you have a reading window in which you want to treat yourself to an easier pleasure. Life is hard; you want to be carried away, both far and deep. As with physical nourishment, occasional dessert is as important for your health as kale. Endorphins or something? But let me be clear: a truly pleasurable dessert is still made of excellent ingredients, not junk. Me, I’ve been working pretty hard this summer; for this last week, I’m delving into Bring Up the Bodies.
So, go throw darts at your bookshelves. Read 10 pages aloud. Stack up your wishlists. Read what you want when you want. If you don’t have one, get yourself a nightstand.
Image Credit: Flickr/seanfreese.
I am a writer because, as a married man, I cannot become a priest. Fittingly, I first met my wife at a priest’s rectory. Father Joe Celia made dinner each Sunday for student parishioners of St. Pius X church at Susquehanna University. Twenty students lined two tables that stretched out of the dining room and into the living room. I came for the gravy, meatballs, and garlic bread — authentic Italian cooking was in short supply in this pocket of central Pennsylvania — and for the friendship of Father Joe. I quit the college’s basketball team when I didn’t land the starting point guard spot as a freshman. My coach told me to have patience; Father Joe added that I could benefit from some humility. I didn’t listen to either of them, and would live to regret it. So goes Catholic guilt.
Father Joe reminded me that I was in college to study, not dribble. He was a patient mentor, and a saint for his willingness to read my terrible first drafts. In one story, I spent thirteen pages going step-by-step through the celebration of Mass. Father Joe gave that one back to me and said he had enough of that each weekend. Summary is sacred.
I missed my family back in New Jersey, but Father Joe’s dinners helped ease the distance. Most of the students at those dinners were weekly regulars, but one Sunday I noticed a beautiful girl sitting with friends in the living room. My first words to her were the less-than-smooth “dinner is ready.” We grew up a half hour away from each other. My AAU basketball practices and home games were played at her Catholic high school. She would run sprints for winter track while I fronted a full-court press, but we never met. It was not yet our time. But it was our time that afternoon. I did not simply fall in love; I collapsed and keeled. After dinner I told my roommate that I would marry Jen. It was an accurate prediction.
Only a few months earlier, I had made another prediction to my roommate. I was going to enter the seminary to become a priest. More specifically, I wanted to become a Jesuit. And by “entering the seminary,” I meant beginning the discernment process that preceded the long formation period. It can take nearly a decade to be ordained as a Jesuit, but they seemed like the best fit for me. They were priests, but they were also lawyers, teachers, and writers.
When I met my future wife that Sunday afternoon, I did not hear thunder. I did not shudder at betraying God. Rather, I recognized that my belief was not meant to develop into ordination. I was not meant to become a priest. I was meant to become a husband and a father. I should have trusted in my family’s history. My own father, while a student at Holy Cross College, was preparing to enter Jesuit discernment when he met my mother. Thankfully, they chose each other.
So much of faith is a matter of similar pivots and choices. Late in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus is confronted by his friend, Cranly. Dedalus does not want to attend Easter Mass, upsetting his mother. Cranly quips that it “is a curious thing, do you know…how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” Dedalus, ever sensitive and defensive, stands his ground, stating that he “will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church.” James Joyce’s entire canon is steeped in the Catholicism he rejected. For Stephen, and for Joyce, the poet replaces the priest. Dogma gets in the way. Transcendence is found in art. Although young Stephen dreamt of standing before a congregation, as an adult he would rather be God on the page. I love Joyce’s work, but disagree with his conclusions. He was a shrewd enough Catholic to know that Stephen’s words reflect Lucifer’s, but more importantly, they reveal a dual rejection of servitude to the Church and priestly service to the flock.
Like Joyce, I am a cradle Catholic. I have known no other creed. My childhood was suffused with rosaries, missals, crosses on chains, books about saints, nightly prayers, reflections on the pain and power of the Passion and the Resurrection, and Mass, but it was also saturated with watching the Boston Celtics and taping Hot 97 on both sides of cassettes until Biggie blurred into EPMD. New Jersey is a synthesis of Philadelphia and New York City, of Newark and the Pine Barrens. Mexican, Spanish, Italian, and Irish immigrants have created a folk Catholicism that begins in our cities but bleeds toward the suburbs, where each small parish has its own culture. Here in Jersey, The Exorcist still wounds us, but we return to it, like paying respect to a warning. Weird NJ is not simply a regional magazine; it is a way of life. The Garden State is a mixture of the real and the supernatural. We often cannot tell the difference.
Even as a boy, I knew that most devout Catholics did not enter the clergy, but I was always interested in the vocations of priests. They were very much regular men. My priest joked with parishioners after Mass, gave us pep talks before CYO games, and ate French onion soup at Houlihan’s. My interest in the vocation began with those observations, but evolved during college. I moved from studying astronomy, a theology of the stars, to literature and creative writing. Comparative literary analysis fits Catholicism well. Catholic thought is diverse and deep, from Thomas Aquinas to Jacques Maritain, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Simone Weil, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, Walter Ong, SJ, and G.E.M. Anscombe. For me, the Bible was the ultimate text: an amalgamation of literary forms, a work that demanded attention, elicited contrasting reactions, and always seemed to reveal fresh meanings after re-readings. It was that intellectual pull, coupled with the beauty of ritual and the opportunity to offer spiritual support to a community that made me want to become a priest.
When I say that I cannot become a priest because I am married, I do not mean to simplify that statement, or to offer it as a complaint. If I were able to become a priest now, that decision would not be my own; it would belong to my wife. And that is one tremendous hypothetical. Catholics know Pope Francis is brilliant, compassionate, and not interested in changing doctrine. My personal desire to become a priest does not alone warrant revision of clerical celibacy. But I remain a practicing Catholic. You might call me an elapsed Catholic, to satisfy the jokes of my lapsed friends. My doubts have never been about God, but about the mechanisms of the Church, the institutional sins. Yet I have been blessed with the acquaintance of wonderful priests like Father Joe. Perhaps I am spoiled, but I have seen priests live as writers. The novelist Ron Hansen, while not a priest, is a deacon in the San Jose diocese. A lifelong Catholic who attended daily Mass, Hansen’s earliest novels were historical westerns, including Desperados and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He explains that his earlier subject matter was the result of following T.S. Eliot’s critical precept of the “wholesale subtraction of my own personality and the submersion of my familial and religious experiences.” “Frustrated” that his fiction “did not more fully communicate a belief in Jesus as Lord that was so important, indeed central, to my life,” Hansen wrote Mariette in Ecstasy, a novel about a stigmatic seventeen year-old woman who enters a convent in upstate New York. Ever since, Hansen has not shied from engaging the mysteries of faith, but believes that fiction writers “can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists.” I appreciate that sentiment. I have never hid my belief, but do not compel others to follow my faith. Like Luke Ripley in Andre Dubus’s wonderful “A Father’s Story,” I “have no missionary instincts.”
Contemporary priests who write recognize they must pass the highest stands of craft and storytelling before engaging the spiritual. I think of the excellent writing by priests at The Jesuit Post, the sharp cultural work of Fr. James Martin, SJ, known by many as the “Colbert Show chaplain,” and the fiction of Fr. Uwem Akpan, SJ. Born and raised in Nigeria, Fr. Akpan earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. His short fiction appeared in The New Yorker before being collected in Say You’re One of Them. He has noted that while not all priests are writers in the traditional sense, “there is no running away from the poetic and creative side of carrying the Word of God to His people.” Echoing Hansen, Fr. Akpan is drawn to fiction because it is “exploratory” and “not doctrinaire.” His description could apply to Outer Darkness, a “grounded take on exorcism . . . exploring everyday evil in an idyllic Midwestern town.” The show is currently in development from AMC, and is written and co-executive produced by Fr. Jim McDermott, SJ. These contemporary priest-writers follow in the lineage of 19th century British Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose groundbreaking poetry intrigues believers and non-believers alike.
This cross-appeal may be why priests make such complex characters in fiction. Consider the priests in The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, and Silence by Shusaku Endo, not to mention the novels and stories of J.F. Powers, Flannery O’Connor, and Erin McGraw.
Priests and writers have much in common. Priests need to craft homilies that connect with an audience. These audiences range from the standing-room holiday crowds to the handful of daily congregants. A homily must simultaneously inform, entertain, and most importantly, serve as spiritual guidance and replenishment. Priests modulate between abstractions and specifics. They reach for the didactic without becoming pedantic. The celebration of Mass can be a grand ritual, the perfect antidote to a prosaic week, which makes poorly organized liturgical celebrations and flat sermons so obvious.
Even the most dedicated Catholics become uncomfortable in pews. Some are waiting to bring their daughters to soccer games. Others pine to watch football or stream Scandal. They have good intentions, but they offer both subtle and obvious cues when their attention is strained. A good priest will know the limits of his audience; a great priest will help them transcend those limits. He will show them the joy of this time spent together. As Thomas Merton said, “the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion.”
I write for many of the same reasons that I wanted to become a priest. I want to bear witness to a sacramental vision. I want to admit my life as a sinner. Rather than judge others, I want to use empathy to sketch their imperfect lives on the page, and find the God that I know resides within them. Similar to the life of a priest, there is a space for silence in my writing life, but also a time of engagement with both reader and place.
I write from a Catholic worldview, but don’t often write about clergy or Catholic schools. Father Joe taught me that lesson, and thankfully, I listened. For me, writing is a form of prayer. I recognize that time spent at my desk can devolve into hours of selfishness, so I need to earn those words. Good fiction can be a form of good works. As a Catholic, I recognize that life is a story of continuous revision, of failure and unexpected grace, and of dogged hope. I am comfortable with the white space of ambiguity and mystery. I have faith, not certainty. To approach God in any other manner deflates the divine. I write and I believe in order to better see the world. Now, more than a decade after I left that rectory convinced I was meant to become a father and not a Father, a writer and not a pastor, I finally realize that I have not traded one vocation for another. I have discovered their common source.
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Literature fans have doubtless heard about the three unpublished J.D. Salinger stories leaked online last month. A scanned manuscript entitled Three Stories in a style reminiscent of the Bantam Salinger editions surfaced on a torrent site in November, and the stories, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” “Paula,” and “Birthday Boy,” were previously kept under wraps in the research sections of the Princeton and University of Texas libraries. The most viable theories say that the manuscript was photocopied in the years before the libraries cracked down on security, or that someone surreptitiously copied it in longhand when no one was looking.
Though “Birthday Boy” and “Paula” are rougher, less succinct drafts with typos and cross-outs, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” will hold the most interest for readers, as it contains a young Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye and shows the death of Holden’s younger brother, an incident only alluded to in the novel. The story is memorable, insightful, and funny, and easily ranks among Salinger’s best. So why did he insist it not be published until 50 years after his death?
When Salinger was writing Catcher, he was also writing short stories about Holden Caulfield and his family. Some got published, and some didn’t. Like “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” some of them are narrated by Holden’s older brother Vincent, an aspiring writer renamed D.B. in Catcher, where he’s off “being a prostitute” of a screenwriter.
Vincent Caulfield’s status as narrator evokes Buddy Glass from Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour — An Introduction, two of Salinger’s interconnected stories about the Glass family of child geniuses now grown up. With Vincent, we can imagine Salinger as a young writer playing with themes and relationships he would develop more fully later on. Salinger also does this with two early stories narrated by Holden Caulfield himself, “I’m Crazy” and “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” in which readers will recognize events from Catcher. Check your copy of the novel: the title page says that incidents from the story previously appeared in Collier’s and The New Yorker, and these are the two they’re talking about.
So where does the hidden story “Bowling Balls” fit in? In Catcher, Holden talks about his younger brother Allie, who wrote poems all over his baseball glove and died of leukemia in Maine when Holden was younger. We don’t hear much about Allie, except that he “was about fifty times as intelligent” as Holden, and after he died Holden was so upset that he slept on the garage floor and smashed all the windows with his fist. The scene comes early in the novel and shows a lot about Holden through his childhood trauma.
In “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” we see the day Allie died — except here, his name is Kenneth; the family’s in Cape Cod, not Maine; and Allie dies of a heart condition, not leukemia. Vincent Caulfield narrates Kenneth’s last day, and we hear the precocious Kenneth chastise Vincent about a clichéd story he’s written and share a cynical letter from a young Holden that shows Salinger’s ability to capture childhood grammar and misspellings. Salinger fans will also recognize a girlfriend of Vincent’s who keeps her kings in the back row when they play checkers — a bad sign for their sex life, but a charmingly naïve observation coming from Kenneth. The climax comes when Kenneth suffers heart failure during the stress of an ocean swim, and Holden pauses in his nose-picking to scream when he sees his brother passed out.
“Bowling Balls” is certainly as good as any of Salinger’s Nine Stories, but aside from its continuity issues, it shows a version of Holden Caulfield far tamer than the one in Catcher, weakening the character mythos the novel creates. Holden’s letter home — albeit clever and funny — shows signs of, but doesn’t quite match the voice that gives Catcher its distinction. One can forgive this difference by arguing that Holden is younger and less misanthropic than in Catcher, though there’s no disputing that the story’s end does little to show how Kenneth’s death has affected him. Aside from the aforementioned scream, Holden’s reaction to the death fails to match Catcher’s angst, and the story’s final, mournful reflection belongs only to Vincent. Compare this with Holden’s version of the incident in Catcher:
I was only thirteen [when he died], and they were going to have me psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage. I don’t blame them. I really don’t. I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it. I even tried to break all the windows on the station wagon we had that summer, but my hand was already broken and everything by that time, and I couldn’t do it.
What readers can infer as a violent, emotional scene reads as more subdued through Holden’s distance from the event, but its severity remains vivid. Holden tells us everything we need to know before filing the incident beside his reflections on Stradlater’s razor and Jane Gallagher’s checker-playing habits, though generations of readers have used it in their own attempts to psychoanalyze Holden.
Do we really need Allie’s death played out in a separate story, to know any more about it than what Holden tells us in Catcher’s one and a half pages? Do we really need the scene filtered through a narrator we don’t know very well or have as much invested in? The answer to both is a resounding no. To see Allie’s death as it happens removes the mystery that Catcher lends it, and detracts from the raw power of Holden’s window-breaking.
Writers experiment with ideas when they’re writing novels. When these ideas don’t work, the writer throws them away. When they kind of work, the writer reshapes them into something that does. Vincent Caulfield is a likeable, well-developed character, but he doesn’t narrate nearly as well as D.B. Caulfield listens in Catcher. “Bowling Balls” would work well as a stand-alone story with different characters, but the story as is has no place in an official Salinger canon. Readers should approach it not as a prequel, but an instance of a young writer figuring out how one character’s death fits into a larger story, a curiosity for those interested in how Catcher came to be.
Maybe Salinger kept “Bowling Balls” hidden because he knew readers would try to fit it into a Caulfield saga, and would inevitably emerge from this quest confused and frustrated by their attempts to reconcile its differences from the novel. If that’s the case, he was right to preserve the integrity of his canon so the Caulfield family in Catcher would feel as consistent as the Glass family does in his novellas. How would we view A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man if one of Joyce’s early stories showed Stephen Dedalus as a contented extrovert?
However, those interested in Salinger’s early work and the development of his characters can still seek out his other published stories about the Caulfield family: “Last Day of the Last Furlough,” “This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise,” “The Stranger,” “I’m Crazy,” and “Slight Rebellion Off Madison.” All of them appeared in magazines in the 1940s, and all are available online. Though these Caulfield stories don’t fit into the family canon any better than “Bowling Balls,” they’re different in that they’d already been published before Catcher came out. Salinger couldn’t keep people from tracking them down in the library storage room, but he could stop them from mass market re-publication. With “Bowling Balls,” his task was much easier. Readers will no doubt gain enjoyment from reading the leaked Three Stories manuscript, but they would do well to partially respect the author’s wishes by viewing its stories as experiments from an earlier time.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was correct: Catholicism is made of “all things counter, original, spare, strange.” In 1968, almost a decade after graduation, my father’s college roommate called. Charlie said he wanted to visit. My parents were raising my oldest brothers in Dover, New Jersey. Crucifixes hung on some walls, but this was not the seminary my father imagined he might join after studying at Jesuit-staffed Holy Cross. Charlie and my father played football there, and went together to daily morning Mass. Afterward they walked across packed snow to the mess hall. Fed by the Eucharist, and then fed with scrambled eggs.
Charlie waited until after dinner to speak candidly: he had become an atheist after intensive, personal study of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He did not have his two youngest children baptized. He was finished with the Church. Then he left, as if he had only come to make that pronouncement. At this point in the story, my father always shares the Jesuits’ advice: never study the Bible on your own. Reasonable translations of the Judeo-Christian Bible are a patchwork of literary forms, written and revised in specific contexts and for specific purposes. Their literary construction does nothing to lessen their efficacy as spiritual texts, but that literary construction must be historically and aesthetically acknowledged. My father would augment my necessarily simple CCD lessons with brief explanations of context and contour: he claimed that a thinking Catholic was the best kind of Catholic.
Yet I am equally drawn to the strange corners of Catholicism, where, again, my father was my guide. In one apocryphal tale, while lifeguarding at Bertrand Island Amusement Park, my father watched a man fall from a roller coaster. Mid-century coasters were wooden and clunky, and the man’s limp body dangled from the rails. My father rushed down from his high-dive perch, but stopped to see a man dressed in black climb up the boards, his preconciliar cassock flapping. A priest, determined to give the dying man his Last Rites a hundred feet in the air.
My Catholicism has been defined by these intellectual and ritual modes, a dialectic of mind and soul. Unlike Charlie, the deeper I wade into Biblical and theological scholarship, the stronger my Catholic faith becomes, and the more willing I am to negotiate and accept ambiguities and paradoxes. Through liturgical celebration, adoration of saints, and celebration of sacraments, Catholic ritual is a complex interaction between the prosaic, the palpable, and the metaphysical. In the Gospels, as well as in canonical and lay writings, those dialectics become dramatic through narrative. In both classic and contemporary Catholicism, story matters.
I was surprised to read Robert Fay’s 2011 article here at The Millions, where he claims a “literary vacuum” of contemporary Catholic writing. While I strongly disagree with Fay’s overall thesis that postconciliar liturgical retranslation led to a decline in Catholic art, his short essay introduces important points. Fay writes elegiacally about the postconciliar shift from Latin to English, or local, Mass: “what for centuries had seemed eternal, mysterious, and rich in symbolism — the very marrow that feeds artists — was suddenly being conducted in the same language as sitcoms, TV commercials, and business meetings.” Was Fay’s observation convenient hindsight, or lived reality?
I needed Fay to ask the implicit question, and in the past year I’ve attempted to provide the answer in The Fine Delight, my new book on American Catholic writing after the Second Vatican Council. My conclusion: Catholic literature is thriving. Postconciliar Catholic literature is full of nuanced representations of faith by a litany of writers with varying Catholic identities: Ron Hansen, Andre Dubus, Paul Mariani, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Brian Doyle, Salvatore Scibona, Kaya Oakes, J.F. Powers, Paul Lisicky, Joe Bonomo, Mary Biddinger, Patrick Madden, Amanda Auchter, Jeffrey Eugenides, Alice McDermott, John Reimringer, Erin McGraw, Tom Bailey, and Anthony Carelli. Some are Catholic, some write about Catholic themes and characters, and some react against Catholicism. As I was not writing an encyclopedia, my book coverage required abbreviation, but the list of necessary postconciliar Catholic writers is even wider: Noelle Kocot, C. Dale Young, Sarah Vap, Richard Russo, John L’Heureux, William Kennedy, Andrew McNabb, Mary Gordon, Mary Karr, Daniel Berrigan, Thomas McGuane, Annie Dillard, David Griffith, Robert Clark, Franz Wright, Jon Hassler, Luisa Igloria, R. A. Lafferty, Tobias Wolff, Ai, Jim Shepard, T.A. Noonan, Jamie Iredell, Joe Wilkins, Brian Oliu, Joseph Scapellato, Matthew Salesses, Sam Ruddick, Richard McCann, Matthew Minicucci, Mark Jay Brewin, Jr., and more, including writers who represent Catholicism on the page in sharp, brief glimpses, or whose literary and personal faiths are lapsed. I would have to take another year to build an international list. And these are only writers; consider the important work done by Gregory Wolfe at Image, and the new writing published in Dappled Things. Plus the curiously intersecting, artistic and intellectual Catholic faiths of Marshall McLuhan and Andy Warhol, as well as Andrew Sullivan’s current cultural commentary, which often returns to his Catholic faith. Add to the list Tim Padgett, Garry Wills, George Weigel. It is refreshing that I am unable to document all the variations of literary Catholicism.
How to account for any possible perceived dearth of contemporary Catholic literature and art? I have learned the problem is one of definition. In the same way that paradox is endemic to Catholic doctrine, and that postconciliar Catholic writing is wrought with personal and parochial tensions, Catholic imaginative literature remains a conundrum to many critics, both Catholic and secular. In Commentary, D.G. Myers prefaces his recent meditation on “The New Catholic Fiction” with a disclaimer: “As an Orthodox Jew, I have no qualifications whatever to speak of Roman Catholic fiction,” admitting elsewhere that he knows “just how easy it is to miss the emphasis, the tone, the undercurrent, in fiction that is written from a religious perspective that is not your own.” Myers posits that this new Catholic fiction is exemplified in recent novels by two lapsed Catholics: William Giraldi and Christopher R. Beha. Their literary Catholicism is concerned with “sick soul[s]” who are “unreconcilied to heaven and grace.” The emphases of their novels are “not on the mystery and beauty of God’s creation, but on the difficulty of the skirmish with ordinary evil.”
Myers ends his essay with the observation that although Giraldi and Beha “will not welcome being identified as Catholic novelists…they may speak to a new generation of Catholic readers…[and to a secular] generation of readers who never would have thought that Catholic novelists might be a serious force in literature again.” Such defining does not only occur from the outside: Catholic literature is marked by the act of self-definition. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, and The Moviegoer by Walker Percy all dramatize central characters who define and redefine their personal Catholicism. These novels are not aberrations; rather, nearly the rule. Catholic literary self-definition is even more complicated in the postconciliar era, where contemporary writers investigate Catholic ritual and culture through sometimes more jaded lenses.
These considerations are applicable to dynamic, imaginative works, not devotional writing. Ron Hansen has lamented when Christian writers mistake their form: proselytizing does not belong in fiction. Dramatic tension requires action, not argument. The stereotype of simplistic Catholic-themed or influenced writing is often earned by one-note spiritual narratives with no basis in the hard work of real faith. Have writers forgotten the narrative arc of Luke, the complexities of John? Christ suffered; salvation requires sacrifice. No easy redemption in life, so why expect it on the page?
Paul Elie has considered the curious absence of a contemporary Catholic critical aesthetic, which should not be confused with an absence of Catholic literature. Unfortunately, the perceived absence of the former often results in skewed discussions of the latter. The Catholic Writers Guild, an Indiana-based nonprofit founded in 2006, is “a professional group of writers, artists, editors, illustrators, and allies whose mission is to build a vibrant Catholic literary culture.” I think such a culture already exists, but can recognize the desire for artistic fraternity. What confounds me, though, is the organization’s “Seal of Approval.” A member-writer “can get your book evaluated and approved for its Catholicity with the Seal of Approval… [which] is meant to be a signal to Catholic bookstores that they can carry the book without concern about its content.” They admit the seal is simply an observation that “neither the work nor its author go against the Mageristerium (sic) authority of the Catholic Church”; the seal is not an evaluation of the work’s “writing style or quality.” Once gained, seals can be ordered in groups of 25 for 10 dollars and are affixed, by the author or publisher, on the covers. For the first half of 2012, many books receiving the group’s seal were self-published. Undercover Papist, one title that received the approval, was written by Christian N. Frank, a composite of a “team of young Catholic authors.” From the book’s synopsis: “So you’ve just been sent on Mission Impossible, to get the most popular girl in your school to come back to the Catholic Church…Brian goes to Bible Camp undercover to rescue Allie, but it looks like a lost cause. Allie seems to be getting on just fine: helping her new Christian friends love God, and dating the camp’s hot worship leader.” I am not sure whom to pray for: Brian, Allie, the world entire.
The Catholic Writers Guild also sponsors the Catholic Arts and Letters Award, an annual prize given for a work of fiction that represents Catholic tradition and values. A laudable idea, yet the award is only given to work that has the “CWG Seal of Approval or an Imprimatur”; that latter, ecclesiastical distinction is given in the form of a nihil obstat, a note declaring the text free of doctrinal or moral error, a pronouncement rarely, if ever, given to a work of fiction.
Certainly any writing organization is welcome to cultivate its own aesthetic. But for an organization that bills itself as “the Rebirth of Catholic Arts and Letters,” some Christian humility is needed. I must have missed the funeral for Catholic literature. The Catholic Writers Guild’s tone is merely a symptom of a larger concern, something strange occurring in Catholic literary culture. Many have taken the fragmentation in postconciliar Catholic identity to mean an absence of that identity; somehow coloring has been mistaken for blanching. Paul Elie’s recent essay, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?”, appeared in The New York Times to much fanfare. While Elie’s essay is concerned with generally Christian writers, his Catholic lens is unmistakable. Elie’s nuance has been lost on some readers: his lament “is how Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time.” This is an extremely narrow critical focus. His concern is one genre within one writing mode, and his language intimates a proactive faith. Elie’s elegiac tone is admittedly hyperbolic. Like a good Catholic, he prefaces his words: “Forgive me if I exaggerate.” Curiously, Elie folds Catholicism into a general Protestant literary aesthetic while identifying Flannery O’Connor as an axis point. His worry that contemporary novelists are “writing fiction in which belief acts obscurely and inconclusively” is to be expected when O’Connor is the contrast. Elie prefers stories like Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”: fiction that “suggest[s] the ways that instances of belief can seize individual lives.” It sounds as if Elie is less lamenting the dearth of Catholic or Christian literature and more the cultural conversation that might provide the intellectual architecture to locate and revere such work.
“Whispers of Faith in a Postmodern World” is a nuanced response to Elie’s thought-provoking essay. Gregory Wolfe notes that such “lament[s] over the decline and fall of the arts” have become an almost annual ritual. Wolfe explains that “faith takes on different tones and dimensions depending on the culture surrounding it.” There is no need for a rebirth of Catholic literature. Thankfully, it has never died. But there is a need for a wider swath of reasoned, Catholic-informed literary critics to articulate that literature to the reading public. To explain Wolfe’s observed truth that “today the faith found in literature is more whispered than shouted.” Thinkers like Denis Donoghue, Mark Bosco SJ, James Martin SJ, and Peggy Rosenthal, who allow the beauty of Catholic literature and artistry to shine without buffing away “all things counter, original, spare, strange.” It is time to be catholic in consideration of a literary Catholicism: such paradoxical inclusivity is in concert with the life, and mystery, of Christ.
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When author Pauls Toutonghi set out to write his first book, he made himself a promise: he would not be another stereotype of “the debut novelist writing about his life.” So Toutonghi penned a “really terrible” World War Two novel followed by a cringe-worthy attempt at experimental fiction—a choose-your-own-adventure rip off. He never wrote in the first person, lest readers assume he was writing about himself. He didn’t sell either book; his career—or lack thereof—was a disaster.
Eventually, Toutonghi gave up on his rigid strategy of avoidance and did what any smart writer does: he let the story and characters lead him, instead of the other way around. Toutonghi is half Latvian, half Egyptian and was raised in the U.S. He sold Red Weather, a coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old Latvian-American boy, followed by Evel Knievel Days, about a young Egyptian-American man in search of his father. Toutonghi wrote both books in the first person. And yet, he considers this less than a complete success: “I was reading Dickens,” he wrote in a recent essay for Salon, “who kept himself away from the page…and I can’t help wondering if anything is lost in the frank disclosures of our modern, first-person, memoir-driven fiction.”
This is perhaps the greatest hang-up of the modern novelist—that fiction is somehow unsophisticated or inherently cliché if it is rooted in the writer’s own life, and that writers should be creative enough to invent entirely new worlds and find drama only in the unfamiliar. None of that is true, of course: Bookstores are full of beautiful novels like Toutonghi’s, and reviewers often celebrate autobiographical debuts. And yet this fear of self-reliance can be limiting, almost crippling.
But if you talk to writers who have taken the autobiographical plunge, you’ll hear an almost universal relief—that writing about yourself allows you to follow your best instincts. Patrick DeWitt, author of The Sisters Brothers, spent a long time writing books that even his wife was unimpressed by. His problem, he decided: He was too afraid of seeming like “the white guy feeling sorry for himself.” But hey: in some way, that’s what he was. “I needed subject matter that was familiar to me if I wanted to go the distance.”
So where does this fear come from? Today’s literary criticism, for one. Laura Miller, who reviews books for Salon, is often turned off by coming-of-age debuts, particularly from writers who have just come of age themselves. She has some words for, say, white girls from Connecticut: “Your book could be really well written,” she says. But “you feel like you’ve read a million of them. It’s the story about this person growing up and learning to live and to love and whose parents get divorced and the mom dies of cancer. It feels like watching an episode of Law and Order—but that’s not really fair, because Law and Order is reliably entertaining.”
Even the New York Times can be dismissive like this. In 2005, when Deborah Solomon wrote about Jonathan Safran Foer, she praised him for avoiding “the usual rites of first-noveldom. He never wrote a tremblingly sensitive account of his adolescence, a novel featuring toxic mothers and passive, gone-to-sleep fathers, a novel abounding with malls and S.U.V.’s, and suburban anomie. Instead, he found his inspiration in the darkly fragmented masterworks of European modernism (Kafka, Joyce, Bruno Schulz)…”
But do not be fooled: Everything Is Illuminated is a wonderful book, both highly innovative and emotionally powerful, but it is also a coming-of-age, semi-autobiographical story about a young white man coming to understand himself. Solomon would never belittle Foer’s book by writing in these exact terms, but when she speaks of “the usual rites of first-noveldom,” she’s not making a neutral statement. She’s making a derogatory one. She’s throwing all of these other books—and which books, by the way?—into the dustbin, castigating them all as navel-gazing and small-minded.
And you wonder what kept Toutonghi and DeWitt from writing about their own lives.
Some writers were fortunate enough to begin writing before reading much literary criticism. “I felt free to take from personal experience,” says Justin Torres, author of the critically acclaimed and heavily autobiographical debut novel We The Animals. After the book, he says, he’d often meet writers who came out of MFA programs and seemed to believe he’s navel-gazing. “You’re mind-gazing,” he corrects. “You’re turning yourself outward, challenging your own assumptions and trying to make meaning out of life. I love Dickens, but thank god not everyone tries to write like him.” (In fact, Laura Miller cuts Torres a break here because We The Animals is based on Torres’s experience growing up gay and underprivileged in upstate New York. “To be crass,” she says, “his book was unusual in the type of people it was about. That was refreshing.”)
When writers ask Torres, “Why write fiction if you want to write about yourself?”, he tells them there’s a magic in translating personal experience into make-believe: “The composites become characters, and the scraps of lived experience morph, so that what you end up with is wholly transformed.”
And the transformation is key. There are a finite number of experiences in the world and the trick is how to present them in a way that is both relatable and unique. It would be idiotic for a young author not to write a book based on her adolescence in Connecticut, if that’s what she’s compelled to write. And if her protagonist has a toxic mother or hangs out at the mall, it would be disingenuous not to include those details. But including them doesn’t necessarily mean you’re painting by numbers or writing a story that is narcissistic. “You just have to ask yourself, ‘What can I bring to literature by writing about this?’” Torres says. To him, authors who write outside their own experience have the exact same challenge as those writing close to the bone: how best to say something valuable. “There’s a lot of people writing formulaic gunslinger Cormac McCarthy fiction,” he says.
The literary world didn’t always dismiss autobiography. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway are all rooted in their authors’ lives. It’s impossible to trace this hang-up back to its origin, but Toutonghi has a suspicion of what triggered it: a resistance, especially prevalent in the MFA world, to the commoditization of fiction.
Literature is an art, of course—though like in any art, there are those who hate to also think of it as a business. Writers who are overwhelmingly focused on craft and style might believe that writing the story of one’s young life is too crass, too obvious, and, god-forbid, too sellable. “Writers see that autobiographical work is more marketable, so many move in that direction,” Toutonghi says. And the purists do the opposite.
Whether the market is really dictating authors’ subject matter is debatable, but it’s certainly true that right now mainstream publishing will unabashedly use an author’s back story to sell his or her book. Two recent debut novels that share similarities with Everything is Illuminated—The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht and No One Here Except For All of Us by Ramona Ausubel—have been marketed with the author’s life as a selling point, as if biography is the ultimate “truth” of their stories.
That’s certainly news to emerging authors. “I didn’t realize my life would be the thing I’d be talking about in the interviews,” Torres said. Patrick DeWitt told me that most interviews about his novel Ablutions revolved around parsing the imaginary parts of the book from the real ones. “It became sort of a drag,” he said.
But there’s an upside to this marketing hook, at least for me, as I shopped around my own debut: a semi-autobiographical, prep school novel called The Year of the Gadfly. Editors clearly saw the autobiographical material as a positive thing, and a potential way to market the book. Until then, I’d been so embarrassed about writing from my life that throughout my three-year MFA, I never told anybody where the story originated. I was just another white girl from Connecticut after all (well, actually, Washington DC, but same difference), writing about a young woman coming of age. I spent years feeling like a failure before I’d even started writing, all because I was terrified of producing a cliché. If only I could have written a World War II epic with a chose your own adventure twist.
But I never would have finished writing that sort of book. The Year of the Gadfly took me seven years from conception to publication. And my personal connection to the story was a key part of my stamina. It’s what fueled me to work so tirelessly in pursuit of truly unique characters and a compelling plot. My editor bought my book because the manuscript kept her reading all night. To her, to me, and hopefully to my readers, that’s all that really matters.
When I was 17, I registered my first copyright. Unofficially. My three dearest friends and I were ready to share the recordings our rock band had made, but had some reservations about uploading them to the social media sites which were just then being retooled for independent musicians to self-market. Naïve about the system — and hopelessly naïve about ourselves — we expected that, without precautions, rogue musicians could present our songs as their own and claim for themselves the glory we were due.
It turned out that we owned the copyright to our songs when we wrote them, but had to register that copyright in case of dispute. So I did what is called a Poor Man’s Copyright: I self-addressed an envelope, placed one of our CDs inside, mailed it and, when it came back to me, put it away, unopened, for safekeeping. This document proved that we had created what was sealed within before the postage date.
I still have that envelope stashed away, and under current US law, that copyright will likely endure well into the 22nd century. And yet, it is hard to say what “copyright” will mean by then. Intellectual property is a dynamic concept, legally and culturally, one that is always being reshaped on one hand by changing methods of creation and distribution, and on the other by markets scurrying to catch up. The abstract line between public and private ideas — the line that intellectual property tries to police — is the very same line the Internet blurs so well.
This January, copyright witnesses a simultaneous push and pull, a drive for greater stricture on one end, and a graceful unknotting on the other. While Congress resumes deliberations on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) — the latest legislation meant to address the rise of social media, streaming services, and file sharing — scholars in the UK and most of Europe are rejoicing the entry of James Joyce’s corpus into the public domain. Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man have been in the American public domain for many years, but due to differing laws, certain editions of Ulysses and the entirety of Finnegans Wake remain protected for nearly another quarter century in the US. Hypothetically, under a SOPA regime, European websites publishing text of these newly public later masterpieces could find themselves dropped off of American search engines, or starved for funds if they rely on American companies like Google’s ad service and PayPal to generate revenue.
The copyright status of Joyce’s work has been of particular interest to scholars and fans on both sides of the Atlantic, due mostly to the stubborn and sometimes egregious permissions policies set forth by Joyce’s sole heir and executor of his estate, his grandson, Stephen James Joyce. But this month, the Joyce copyrights enter a new twilight period made all the more striking by a history of differing national laws. In the 1970s, the US went from a publication-based copyright system to a European “biological” one, with a copyright term of the author’s life plus an additional 70 years in most cases. But the US Copyright Office set up certain benchmarks by which older works would be grandfathered in. Works published before 1923 would be in the public domain, while those published in the window between 1923 and 1978 would enjoy up to 95 years of copyright protection from the date of publication. And while the first edition of Ulysses dates back to 1922, the 1934 Random House edition (the first officially published in the US) enters the public domain in 2030; and Finnegans Wake in 2035.
It is likely that the American copyright in the Wake will outlive Stephen James, an old man now without an heir of his own. And yet, despite the recent lapse of the copyrights in the EU, it is just as likely that Stephen James will fight to enforce that remaining American copyright to the very last. In 2006, D.T. Max profiled the heir for The New Yorker. In the brilliant piece, Stephen James revels in his antagonistic execution of the estate, believing he is complying with Joyce’s wishes: “I am not only protecting and preserving the purity of my grandfather’s work but also what remains of the much abused privacy of the Joyce family,” he once said. “Every artist’s born right is to have their work . . . reproduced as they want it to be reproduced.” For Stephen James, great works of literature (even those as dense as the Wake) are meant to be enjoyed singularly, without critiques, analyses, or guides. He has used his rights to the fullest in preserving his grandfather’s integrity and deterring the academy, which for too long, he believes, has piggybacked on Joyce’s genius. He once requested a $1.5 million permissions fee from a scholar hoping to make a multimedia version of Ulysses. When the scholar refused, Stephen James told him, “You should consider a new career as a garbage collector in New York City, because you’ll never quote a Joyce text again.”
It is not easy to say what exactly Joyce would have wanted to happen to his work. He was at times an eager self-promoter, asking friends like Samuel Beckett and William Carlos Williams to write essays in support of the unfinished Wake and admitting to filling his books with enough puzzles to keep professors busy well into the 21st century. But he was also, throughout his life, strapped for cash, and spoke out for “Author’s Rights” when American publisher Samuel Roth began circulating unauthorized copies of Ulysses (the book was originally deemed obscene in the US; Joyce could claim no copyright in it, since it had been “stricken from the mails”). Indeed, with the Internet reshaping how we think of intellectual property, we might learn a lot from Joyce’s ambivalence, as his body of work begins its march into the public domain.
In many ways, the attitude of Stephen James Joyce resembles that of the Stop Online Piracy Act, stodgy and clinging to old ways. Introduced last fall, SOPA would have expanded the arsenal of cease-and-desist tactics that the entertainment industry has been deploying ineffectively for the last 15 years, starting with the crackdowns on file-sharers. Copyright holders would have been able to create an embargo against websites allegedly violating their copyrights by compelling payment processors and ad networks to suspend their services, with very little recourse for contesting the accusation.
Congress was set to vote on SOPA before the end of month, but shelved the legislation last week following an internet-wide protest that included daylong blackouts of sites like Wikipedia, which opposes any restriction on the flow of information. Google and Facebook, also in protest, would have been asked by the attorney general to redirect users away from sites (particularly foreign sites) engaging in “piracy,” a policy that The New York Times, in a recent editorial, likened to China’s policing of the Internet. Besides, there is little reason to believe that outwitting the SOPA measures would not have become standard behavior for many Internet users, just as torrenting and streaming have.
So how is it that we are not finding more secure ways to remunerate artists and thinkers? This is after all the most benign reason for reinforcing intellectual property laws. It seems to me that since the veritable explosion of the Internet, and since the economic collapse of 2008, the dialect movement of culture and economics has been accelerated and re-codified, plunging people on both sides back into an age-old confusion about art and money.
In November, I attended a panel discussion on the “Creative Economy,” a concept elaborated over the last decade by such economists as John Howkins and Richard Florida, who argue that knowledge will become an increasingly important economic resource in the 21st century. At one point, a woman from a major media conglomerate spoke approvingly of the imminent crackdowns and lawsuits SOPA would have brought about. I was so irked when the rest of the panel agreed that, during the Q&A, I posed a troublemaking question:
The internet is an incredible force for creativity, allowing people to share work freely, outside time and space. And yet the rhetoric around this exchange is extremely negative, invoking piracy and theft. To what extent, then, is the creative economy just another name for the capitalist economy?
That last part, of course, was meant to inflame. But it didn’t. It was evident to one gentleman, a city official, that “creators” should be compensated: “How else are they supposed to make a living?”
The Internet is at once one of the greatest products and one of the greatest drivers of a creative economy, though probably not the one that the panelists had in mind. Given the activities that it enables, it promises to drastically change the way culture is produced and consumed.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Imitation is also how we learn, and how we align ourselves with the styles and ideas we find meaningful, and thus build community. Innovation for Joyce lay precisely in imitating the “open-source” texts available to him: his access to the public domain and his ability to play with the ideas and language he found therein allowed him — at the height of modernism when art was meant to be self-referential — to wink at the knowing reader with a spoof of Homer, Vico, or Shakespeare, and to change that same reader’s conception of all the great works that came before. The difference is, without web access, Joyce had to go to the library or bookseller for his material; and Joyce had to fund the publication of his books.
But the Internet also threatens to do away with those terms (production, consumption) and the commodification of culture entirely, and this is where it gets tricky. Proponents of SOPA need only point to the act’s subtitle to defend it: “To promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property, and for other purposes.” All the buzzwords of creative economics are there. And yet the concerns of Stephen James Joyce (propriety and privacy) are not.
It feels like the “Creative Economy” encapsulates two opposing economies, creativity and consumerism, and copyright law is the locus where the conflict is most evident. And yet, this conflict is more than one between abstract entities: it’s a practical and emotional dilemma for any writer who has ever tried to make a career of his or her craft. Even Joyce, who borrowed famously, claimed his work as his own, and expected due compensation.
The conflict between the openness of the creative process and the restraint of good business acumen is one embodied by Shem the Penman and Shaun the Post, the sons of HCE and ALP in Finnegans Wake. In the “Shem the Penman” chapter, Shaun scolds his brother for squandering all of his good stories in the pub:
Comport yourself, your inconsistency! Where is that little alimony nestegg against our predictable rainy day? Is it not the fact […] that, while whistlewhirling your crazy elegies around Templetombmount joynstone, […] you squandered among underlings the overload of your extravagance and made a hottentot of deulpeners crawsick with your crumbs? Am I not right? Yes? Yes? Yes? Holy wax and holifer! Don’t tell me, Leon of the fold, that you are not a loanshark.
According to Shaun, Shem will inevitably go broke because he was too much in love with telling stories, gave them out for free, has made people almost sick of hearing them. And yet Shaun senses that Shem is not naïve. He may in fact be something of a loan shark, and by giving easily up front, Shem can demand more later, when selling his book to the very people who have long enjoyed his yarns.
Joyce was commenting on a very real and persistent phenomenon, one that even my friends and I in high school had some inkling of when we thought it wise to “register” our songs: it is necessary to self-promote up until the point where one is entitled to charge admission to one’s work. The Internet illuminates this threshold between ruthless self-promotion and entitlement, while greatly enabling the former and destabilizing the latter.
None of us today will ever live to see our creative work become public domain, but Joyce lived in a time when his books were not guaranteed legal protection. In a speech he gave to the International PEN Conference in Paris, summer of 1937, Joyce reflected on the Ulysses piracy debacle and the successful international protest he organized against Samuel Roth:
It is, I believe, possible to reach a judicial conclusion from this judgment to the effect that, while unprotected by the written law of copyright and even if it is banned, a work belongs to its author by virtue of a natural right and that thus the law can protect an author against the mutilation and the publication of his work just as he is protected against the misuse that can be made of his name.
Joyce had a sense of propriety when it came to literature, that even if writers could not make their work lucrative, their visions should be respected. It’s true this did not always extend to the texts he spoofed and lifted from. And yet, author’s rights are an idea on which many of us would think favorably. This should by no means be interpreted as a mandate for his grandson’s obstructionist policies, nor for greater policing of the Internet. Rather, we are going to need a completely new online framework for supporting creators, and to get there, we might have to move beyond a tired notion of “copyright” and towards “author’s rights.”
Image Credit: Flickr/Horia Varlan
The single greatest panel in the long history of Batman comics does not feature Batman or contain any reference to him. In Batman #406 (on newsstands April ’87), the third issue of Frank Miller’s classic Batman: Year One storyline (and the basis for the 2005 Batman movie franchise re-boot Batman Begins), Batman, on the run from a crooked Gotham police force, finds himself cornered in an old abandoned apartment building. The mayor (a large, pockmarked man who is always depicted wearing a Mickey Mouse pin on his lapel), desperate to capture or kill our hero, orders an extensive bombing of the building. Over the next two pages there are explosions and quite a bit of fire. A SWAT-like group of well-armed officers inspect the remnants, ordered to shoot on sight: “go for the chest, we’ll need his face for identification.” Naturally, he picks them off one by one, finally managing to escape under the cover of a flock of bats (summoned by a mysterious button on the bottom of his shoe, of course). Standard superhero fare for the most part – except for one startling and unsettling moment on the bottom of the sixth page.
The SWAT-like team is scavenging the building, and a group of them stumble upon a plain room in the basement. There’s a sink, a toilet, a stripped bed, and a table. The few personal effects are religious in nature: a “God is…” poster, a “Honk for Jesus” bumper sticker, two crucifixes and a medallion affixed to the wall, a statue of the Virgin Mary, and an open Bible on the table. “Super must’ve lived here,” one of the officers comments. “Nobody home now,” muses another. “Nothing here, men. We’re coming back up,” a third says with finality. They leave. We will not see the room again. We will never hear from the super. If he exists, it is only in the spaces afforded between the relics of his room. If he exists, it is only in our imagination.
This tradition of the tragic super (this irony should not be lost on anyone) stems all the way back to one of the first graphic novels, Will Eisner’s seminal 1978 A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories, a collection of four stories set in the Bronx of the 1930s. The third – titled simply “The Super” – focuses on the life of a large, surly, old super named Mr. Scuggs. He has one true friend, his dog Hugo; he has a tattoo of “mom” inscribed inside a heart. The hot water is broken; a woman named Ms. Farfell complains that her niece can’t take a bath in ice-cold water (she’ll catch new-monia). She appears wrapped tightly in a towel, wearing an expression that would have caused Humbert Humbert to violently convulse. The super’s eyes linger on her before he leaves.
Instead of fixing the hot water Scuggs heads into his room, a small basement affair much like the one in Gotham City. Pornographic pictures cover the walls of his room. We see him feed his dog and then proceed to drink a beer and flip through a handful of dirty pictures. There’s a knock on the door – it’s the beautiful young niece from before, and she offers him a “peek” for a nickel. He accepts. She flashes him, and then gives his dog a piece of candy. While his back is turned she grabs his moneybox and runs. He yells for Hugo – Hugo is dead; the girl’s candy was poisoned. He chases her, cornering her in a crowded tenement alley. He is powerless to do anything for no one would believe him – cries of “murderer!” and “animal!” follow him as he stumbles away. Dejectedly, he stokes the flames of the hot water heater before slumping into his room. Crying, he kneels to hold his dead dog. The police knock on the door. He gets a gun and shoots himself in the temple. The last page shows the girl sitting on the stoop, counting her money, and humming. A sign in the basement window reads “super wanted.”
In How Fiction Works, James Wood characterizes a “true” detail as one possessing a quality he terms “thisness,” part gravitas and part insight: “By thisness, I mean any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability, any detail that centers our attention with its concretion.” He goes on to cite examples from the usual stalwarts: Emma Bovary fondling a pair of satin slippers in Flaubert, the “Kendal green” of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, Mr. Casey’s permanently bent fingers in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. These details are great, he argues, because they are able to exist within themselves, able to expound upon a mostly scattered notion of “reality” in a way that somehow seems truthful. The open bible sitting idly on the table, an inconsequential nugget in a genre not known for reflection is as well placed as anything Joycean; Mr. Scuggs “mom” tattoo as heartbreaking as anything Flaubertian.
That Miller’s panel appears in a super-hero comic is almost some kind of glorious joke, like a Kerouac reference on the Disney Channel (Selena Gomez’s boyfriend on the hit show Wizards of Waverly Place is named Dean Moriarty). It’s the kind of detail that one can easily miss, and one would imagine most did. That’s certainly not a knock on the comics; no one buy’s a ticket to The Fast & The Furious for wry poofs of background detail, just like you wouldn’t purchase a Batman comic in hopes of spotting something so elegant that it could bring you to tears. You and me and everyone we know just want to be entertained, and that’s all well and good, but just because something so beautiful appeared in something traditionally not is no reason to overlook it – if anything it is all the more reason for commendation.
Things in mainstream comics are changing. The next Spiderman (in Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man series) will be a half-black, half-Hispanic teen named Miles Morales, and in September DC comics is rebooting their entire franchise, dialing every issue back to number one and sweeping decades worth of continuity under the rug. Batman is an American icon, as much as George Washington or Coca-Cola, and next month he gets to start over (which is nice – a lot of shit has happened to him in the last twenty years). When Bruce Wayne looks in a mirror he might just see Jay Gatsby staring back, except Jay will never get a do-over (there will always be another Great Gatsby movie, but the ending will always be the same). It seems obvious to say, but wouldn’t we all like that chance to start from issue one, with a whole slew of villains and love interests and story arcs to cover? The tragedy, and beauty, of life is that we can’t. Our redemption lies not in our pasts but in our futures, much like the faceless super in an abandoned tenement in Gotham City.
Note: The above images first appeared in Batman #406, written by Frank Miller, illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, colored by Richmond Lewis, and lettered by Todd Klein, and A Contract With God, and Other Tenement Stories, written and illustrated by Will Eisner.
Many of my favorite books – Dracula, The Rings of Saturn, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – came to me as assigned reading. Even more than specific titles, I inherited my favorite authors from professors: Nicholson Baker, Harryette Mullen, Turgenev, George Saunders.
This literary bestowal carries on into adulthood as I seek my favorite authors’ favorite authors. At HTMLGIANT, Blake Butler started a broad compendium of David Foster Wallace’s favorite works, encompassing books he blurbed, books assigned on his syllabus, books mentioned in interviews and in passing. It is a nourishing list, a place to turn when I think about what I should read next.
But my road with the recommendations of my favorite authors has been unpaved and rocky.
I devoured U and I, Nicholson Baker’s endearing, humorous volume on John Updike. I loved that he read the copyright page of each Updike book, tracing where essays or excerpts had been previously published. U and I is about Updike, yes, but it is more about Baker wrestling with Updike’s impact on a personal level. Early in the book he lays it out: “I was not writing an obituary or a traditional critical study, I was trying to record how one increasingly famous writer and his books, read and unread, really functioned in the fifteen or so years of my life since I had first become aware of his existence…”
Because the book is about Baker not about Updike, I found it easy to like. Baker recounts the 125th anniversary party for The Atlantic where Tim O’Brien tells him that he and Updike golf together: “I was of course very hurt that out of all the youngish writers in the Boston area, Updike had chosen Tim O’Brien and not me as his golfing partner. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t written a book that had won a National Book Award, hadn’t written a book of any kind, and didn’t know how to golf.”
And so, under Baker’s tutelage, I read John Updike. More accurately, I tried to read Updike, tried and tried. Rabbit, Run. Pigeon Feathers. The Poorhouse Fair. I didn’t finish any of them, I barely started them. I would have scoured Couples for the passage where Updike compares a vagina to a ballet slipper – which Baker mentions – if I could have gotten through the second chapter.
After quoting his own mother and Nabokov, Baker tells me, “There is no aphoristic consensus to deflect and distort the trembly idiosyncratic paths each of us may trace in the wake of the route that the idea of Updike takes through our consciousness.” Updike is not an idea that is tracing its way – neither trembling nor idiosyncratic – through my consciousness. There is no Updike boat leaving a wake in the waves of my mind like a yacht leaving Cape Cod for the Vineyard.
Rather than accept that Baker and I – being of different eras and different genders – have different taste, I concluded that I must be intellectually and creatively deficient; I am a bad reader. I was disappointed in myself for disappointing the Nicholson Baker in my mind, shaking his bearded head, tut-tutting at me: Poor girl, she’ll never understand.
A few months ago I picked up The Anthologist and started it, in the midst of other selections. (When the book came out last September, I actually drove twenty miles to Marin to see Baker read. I was the youngest member of the audience by thirty years. But I am afraid to buy a book at a reading, and petrified of the prospect of having an author sign the book. I could make a fool of myself as Baker did when asking Updike to sign a book in the early 80s.)
Then a couple weeks ago I received a mass email from a writer I know about how he was reading The Anthologist, and I felt the urge to pick it up again. He even said, “I’m really loving The Anthologist.”
I haven’t read everything by Baker, but I’ve read a bunch and enjoyed it on my own; yet, his authoritative praise weighs more than my own evaluation.
Recently in Maine in a used bookstore (that was also the bookseller’s refurbished garage), I stumbled on three of Carson McCullers’ books for $1 each. (In case you are wondering, and you should be wondering, I was not close to Nicholson Baker’s home in Maine, but further up the coast near E.B. White’s former home, near the county fair where Fern bought Wilbur.) The cover of the tattered McCullers paperback proclaimed “One of the finest writers of our time” from The New York Times. I couldn’t recall exactly where I’d heard her name, but it was vaguely familiar. I bought all three.
I started The Ballad of the Sad Café and she drew me into her vivid, textured Southern world. Her descriptions are precise ideas: “The hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes.”
She commands the reader and directs me what to do: “See the hunchback marching in Miss Amelia’s footsteps when on a red winter morning they set out for the pinewoods to hunt… See them working on her properties… So compose from such flashes an image of these years as a whole. And for a moment let it rest.” This second-person imperative jumped out of the smooth, poetic narrative, but it fit like a nest on a tree. McCullers is unafraid to acknowledge you and make you do what she thinks you should. Yet she maintains authorial distance and control by refraining from the first person while directing your attention like a gentle guide: “Now some explanation is due for all this behavior,” she opens an aside on the nature of love. She then elides authority by saying, “It has been mentioned before that Miss Amelia was once married.”
Even before I’d finished the novella, though, I dug around online to verify my delight. Didn’t I read somewhere that David Foster Wallace liked her? Did I remember a retrospective on her in the TLS? No, I didn’t, I was mistaken. Try as I may, the highest compliment I found was from Graham Greene who said, “Miss McCullers and perhaps Mr. Faulkner are the only writers since the death of D. H. Lawrence with an original poetic sensibility.” Now, don’t get me wrong. Graham Greene is fine, but I didn’t even finish The End of the Affair, and he is nowhere near my top ten. From whom did I inherit McCullers?
My Internet searching revealed some critical acclaim (in the Modern Library Revue column on The Millions, for one) and she is mentioned in the same breath as Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Connor, W.H. Auden, and Tennessee Williams, each time with a different, equally flattering comparison.
But I was disappointed. In myself? In McCullers? In other authors who did not love her as I am growing to?
I suppose if I can find an author and grow to love them outside of a direct inheritance, maybe, too, I could reject select elements of my more obvious literary heritage. Hesitantly, I have begun to dismiss other favorites’ favorites. When a former student of his published David Foster Wallace’s syllabus, I promptly downloaded the PDF. As I read the list, I was very self-assured: I’d been meaning to read Waiting for the Barbarians! I loved the Flannery O’Connor story he assigned (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”). He boldly included young contemporary writers like Aimee Bender and Sam Lipsyte. But Silence of the Lambs. Really? I would not follow him there. Maybe I am only disadvantaging myself. Silence of the Lambs may be the literary masterwork that could forever change my outlook on literature and fiction, just like Updike was supposed to.
Where I formerly swallowed recommendations whole, I now cull through them – not exactly on my own but in a more independent fashion. I find books, I do not just receive them. Or, I try to.
I am not a bad reader nor am I intellectually and creatively deficient, or, if I am, it is not because I do not like John Updike but for entirely different reasons.
Once upon a time, I would not even consider quitting a book mid-read. Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you.
Over the years, this has changed. Recently it struck me that the list of books I’ve started and not finished has grown quite formidable. I ask myself what this “means,” if it reflects some kind of moral devolution. It’s interesting how there does seem to be a kind of morality of reading, and people express their reading values quite passionately.
One of my favorite Millions Quizzes was “The Glaring Gap,” a post in which regular contributors confessed which Great Books / Great Authors they’ve never read. One contributor shared that she consciously chose not to read a certain category of male writers, and the comments came a-flying: oh, but you “should” read those! Should should should. Even the word “confess” implies sheepishness, shame and guilt. I know, I know, I should read (and love) Proust! And Dickens! And Virginia Woolf! And (these days) Bolaño!
My commitment to finishing books in the past was probably related to the above – fear of ensuing guilt and shame. Failure, too, I suppose. And perhaps at this point in my reading life, I’ve finished (and more than that, really ingested into my mind and emotions) enough books so that I feel a little freer in exercising the right to choose how to invest my reading time and energy; to veer from the Canonical Path – if such a thing actually exists anymore – and forge my own highly specific map of literary experience and influence. I’m not getting any younger, after all. Fifteen hours – the average it takes to read a book (and I tend to be on the slow side of this average) – is an increasingly precious chunk of time. Professional book reviewers, you have my sympathies.
My list of Unfinished Books breaks down into a few categories.
Perusing my list – from the last 3 or 4 years – reminds me that the convergence between book and reader is so specific; of-the-moment; contextual. For me, abandoning a book often has little to do with the book’s “objective quality,” and much more to do with the nature of my reading appetite at that moment. As a writer, there are books that you need during certain seasons of your own work, and others that must be held at bay, for the time being, or perhaps, but hopefully not, forever (oh, how the Bitch Goddess Time precludes so many returns to books we’d like to try again):
Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (out of reverence for Susan Sontag)
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Essential Kierkegaard
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Eugene Onegin by Pushkin
Then there are the books that you feel you “should” like — you’ve adored this writer’s other books, your most trusted reader-friend recommended it, etc. – and you can’t figure out what the disconnect is. You’ve tried and tried again, 50 pages, 75 pages, 120 pages, but for whatever reason… it’s like the blind date that looks perfect “on paper,” but the chemistry never happens:
Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The Book of Daniel and City of God by E.L. Doctorow (I am a Doctorow acolyte, these were particularly painful to abandon)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (I loved Women in Love so much)
It’s not that often that I really toss a book away and wipe my hands of it. And I know the following books are critically acclaimed and/or beloved by many. What can I say…
Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit
The following category speaks for itself:
Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake
I won’t be listing these, for obvious reasons. There aren’t many, but it’s an awkward thing for all of us; and I never imagine that a person who knows and supports me will necessarily like my fiction.
Now, onto books that I’ve nearly abandoned or considered abandoning, but actually finished.
“Should” is generally a battle between instinct and logic, id and superego. An allegory of sorts: when I was in high school, I was moderately athletic, but in a limited way; I ended up as a quintessential starting JV player on all my teams, never quite attaining to Varsity level. But one year, my senior year, I thought that I really “should” push myself, to get to that next level, to pursue some kind of fullness of achievement; even though I was enjoying perfectly all the playing time I was getting and never considered athleticism a central part of my identity. So I went out for Varsity, just barely made the team, and spent the rest of the season miserably subjecting myself to the coach’s masochistic training drills and sitting on the bench during games. I had thought that if I pushed myself, it would be “worth it” in some spiritual-existential way. It absolutely was not. I think about that experience often, and the metaphor pertains to the following list:
Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End
The Accidental by Ali Smith
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner
Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
Run by Ann Patchett
This final list is perhaps most significant, in terms of our moral quandary. This list keeps me from indulging appetite exclusively, from missing out on the pleasures of a difficult, not-immediately-or-obviously-gratifying read. I can’t imagine not having read these books; abandoning any one of them permanently really would have been a crying shame.
In particular, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods was an odd, and revelatory experience. I found the first 40 pages brilliant and alive and ground-shifting in that all-cylinders-firing way; then I found the next almost-150 pages tedious, repetitive, gimmicky; almost unbearable. Book, I’m going to quit you, I remember consciously thinking. But something made me pick it up again – all the acclaim, the voices of smart reader-friends in my head, my long-standing admiration of The Things They Carried; and also, I like to think, something more mysterious, my personal book fairy, who nudges me from category 3 above to this one, guiding and protecting me from tragically missed literary connections. So then, my God, those last 75 pages or so of In the Lake of the Woods – how it all comes together and wrecks you, shows you all the work that the previous 150 pages was doing. This is the novel that always pokes into my consciousness when I am considering quitting a book; but maybe this one will be another O’Brien miracle.
Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Names by Don Delillo
A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewksi
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
I can imagine a day when the proportions of these lists begin to shift. If you’re like me – neither young nor old – you feel a pressure, like every reading minute counts, in a way that you don’t feel as much when you’re younger, and perhaps I won’t feel in quite the same way when I am older. I have no way of knowing, really, if category 3 (or even category 4), past, present or future, actually contains The One That Got Away, the book that may have changed my life. To the books and writers that I’ve broken up with, I truly am sorry it didn’t work out; it is always at least a little bit true that it’s not you, it’s me.
You may have heard of Google Squared. It’s a new service in development from Google that, as Wikipedia puts it, “extracts structured data from across the web and presents its results in spreadsheet-like format.” Basically, it returns your results in a list-like format with some additional descriptive columns.Trying it out, we naturally entered some book-related queries. And, if you assume that Google has compiled a database of the world’s knowledge and uses that to generate its results, then these must be – definitively – the “best books” and “best novels” ever.Best Books:The Catcher in the RyeCatch-22Animal FarmThe Very Hungry CaterpillarGoodnight MoonCurious GeorgeGravity’s RainbowBest Novels:Gravity’s RainbowTo Kill a MockingbirdThe Sound and the FuryOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestThe Lord of the RingsTo The LighthouseA Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManNot bad for something computer-generated.(Google has been known to personalize and regularly adjust its results, so your lists may vary.)
Longtime Millions reader Laurie sent in her reaction to all these “top ten” book lists that have been floating around in recent months, while also, of course, sharing her own:In the wake of the release of The Top Ten, [there is also a Web site] a collection of top ten books chosen by 125 British and American writers, the Washington Post is soliciting readers’ top ten picks.These exercises are fun, but I hope no one takes them seriously. The lists they receive (like mine) will lean toward American/British books, with a smattering of European titles, partly because American schools emphasize Western literature. Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber should be as well known as War and Peace, but most Americans have never heard of it. Even when we have read the non-Western classics, we tend to favor the familiar — my list included The Old Man & the Sea and To Kill A Mockingbird, but Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji and Abolqasem Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh are probably greater works.What do you want to bet, though, that like the Modern Library a few years ago, they get inundated with a lot of lists that include Battlefield Earth?!My top ten (not set in stone, except for Heart of Darkness):The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark TwainThe Old Man and the Sea – Ernest HemingwayHeart of Darkness – Joseph ConradPortrait of the Artist As a Young Man – James JoyceTo Kill A Mockingbird – Harper LeeDon Quixote – CervantesThe Iliad & The Odyssey – HomerThe Dream of the Red Chamber – Cao XueqinWar & Peace – Leo TolstoyOedipus the King – SophoclesThanks Laurie!