I count Elisa Gabbert among the essayists I would eagerly read on anything. It happens to be the case that the things that tend to interest her—translation, literary style, and disasters, to name a few—tend to interest me, too. But the real pleasure of reading Gabbert is in letting oneself be carried along in her thinking, which is cuttingly clear and delightfully digressive. The Word Pretty—Gabbert’s fourth book, following two books of poetry and one book of very short prose pieces—collects 22 previously published essays on a wide variety of themes. The subjects range from notebook-keeping to the guilty pleasure of reading only the front matter of books to the TV adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. Each is a journey through some of Gabbert’s idiosyncratic interests by way of her formidable intellect.
Gabbert generously answered my questions about The Word Pretty over email.
The Millions: On Twitter, you described The Word Pretty as “a collection of [your] critical essays, rarities, & B-sides.” I love that description, in part because of the way it uses the language of music rather than literature. I’ve been wondering about the way that collections function as books, which seems different from the way that book-length works do. The Word Pretty is a good case for thinking about this, because you acknowledge its heterogeneity, and the book itself makes no claims to, say, thematic unity, yet it does feel to me like a whole. Does it feel that way to you? If so, is it in a different sense than your previous books, which are also wholes made of isolatable parts?
Elisa Gabbert: I often feel that where books start and stop is essentially arbitrary. I start to think of something as a book when it’s clear to me that I’m repeatedly returning to a certain set of concerns and a certain shape or structure or form as an approach to those concerns. Once I’m able to describe the concerns and the form to myself, it’s fairly easy to imagine the shape of the finished book. But it could always be a little shorter or longer, or arranged slightly differently and so on—at some point I just decide it’s done, maybe only because I get sick of the project and want to work on something new! The Word Pretty didn’t quite make sense to me as a book until I figured out the three sections. Then, if I wanted to add a new piece, for example, I knew which section it would go in, and I didn’t have to rearrange the whole table of contents. Sections and structure are important to me. I don’t write fiction, but I’m really interested in chapters, too, and I have a fantasy course mapped out in my head called “Chapter Studies.” In any case, after the fact of writing, I find that a book feels like a book partly because it’s time-delimited: I started it in a certain month of a certain year and finished it in a certain month of a later year. So whatever the genre, the book feels to me like a record of my thinking during that period.
TM: You told me, also on Twitter, that this book is “the kind of thing [you] always wanted to do but thought you had to be famous first.” What did you mean by that? And how did the book come about?
EG: I tweeted once—not that long ago actually, in early 2016—“I want to do one of those books of random bits and bobs of unrelated prose that only famous people get to do.” I was thinking of these collections that come out by J.M. Coetzee or Siri Hustvedt or Zadie Smith or, when they were living, John Updike or Gore Vidal—basically people who are some combination of “working writer” and “public intellectual” so that every few years, they’ve published enough essays or criticism to be packaged up into a book, and the fans buy it because they’ll read anything by that author, they just want the point of view. But debut collections of essays are usually not that freeform, unless maybe they’re on a small press. As it happens, later that same year, I had a small press approach me asking whether I had a manuscript of essays they could consider. Around the same time, I learned that my poetry publisher planned to launch a nonfiction series. So I got my wish via the small press route.
TM: I’m curious about the sequencing of the book. The essays are divided into three unnamed sections. Resonances abound, but there’s no clear thematic demarcation. In at least some instances, it seemed as if the ordering of essays within a section might be guided, in part, by shared references. For instance, “On the Pleasures of Front Matter” follows “The Inelegant Translation” (though there’s a section break in between), and both mention Lydia Davis’s introduction to her translation of Madame Bovary; “On the Pleasures of Front Matter” is followed by “Seeing Things,” both of which mention Howards End; “Seeing Things” is followed by “Impossible Time,” both of which mention The Catcher in the Rye. Am I right that you had this in mind? What other priorities guided the sequencing?
EG: In my mind, the middle section is made up of all my little “I noticed a thing” essays (a term I borrow from my friend Catherine Nichols) in the literary criticism category. Most of those started when I noticed a thing in a book I was reading (an idiosyncratic use of paragraphs, say, or a kind of POV), then thought about that thing as a thing, then started noticing how other books handled or achieved that same thing. Within that section I tried to sequence them in such a way that you might get a hint of an idea in one essay and then read an expansion on that idea in the next essay, as you suggest. That said, I’m not one of those people that tries every conceivable order of parts in a book to see if one permutation turns out better than the others—not that that’s actually possible. (Google tells me 12! ≈ 479 million—can that be right?!—and that’s just the essays in the second section.) I think on some level I’m just letting the juxtapositions do their own work. The first section and the third section could really be one section, but I wanted to split them apart, so there’s a more personal voice at the beginning and again at the end, with the more pure (-ish) criticism in the middle. Really, there’s plenty of I throughout. I got thoroughly sick of myself while proofing it.
TM: You began your career as a poet. How did you come to write essays? Do you think of your poetry and your essays as related or overlapping projects, or as discrete?
EG: I think essays are basically chunks of prose (nonfiction prose to be a little more exact), and I’ve been writing chunks of prose my whole life—papers, reviews, blog posts, whatever, they’re all essays if essays involve thinking about something for a while and then writing about it. At some point I decided to be more purposeful about calling them essays, and calling myself an essayist, probably around the time editors started asking me to write essays. Later, when I was working on a book proposal (not for The Word Pretty, but for the book I’m writing now), my agent asked me if I was committed to calling it essays—rather than, just, you know, a book—and I decided that yes, I really wanted to align myself with that tradition specifically. I think you approach a book of essays differently than a nonfiction book in chapters, and I wanted people to approach my essays as essays. (Incidentally, my second book was a collection of chunks of prose, and because, as you note, I started off as a poet, many people think of that book as prose poetry. It was actually marketed as a book of essays, but regardless of how it’s officially catalogued, it’s very obviously made of chunks of prose, and I think it reached a much larger audience than my collections of pro-forma poetry for that reason. More people read prose than poetry! No question!) But to get back to what you asked—I think my poetry and essays do have overlap in terms of my voice and sensibility and obsessions. But it feels very different to write prose versus poetry. It’s kind of like, I can either think in sentences or lines, in poetry or prose, but they’re distinct and exclusive modes. And my default mode is prose. Poetry is harder work. (At least in the drafting phase.)
TM: While I was in the midst of reading The Word Pretty, at a moment when I wasn’t actually reading it, I had this thought (which I considered tweeting, but decided not to): People talk a lot about overwritten prose, but what about the more common problem of underwritten prose? When I returned to The Word Pretty, I was surprised to find, in your essay “Writing That Sounds Like Writing,” first a discussion of overwritten prose, and then this: “of late I’ve read a few books I thought of as underwritten.” This could be a coincidence, or maybe I had read this essay of yours before (I can’t remember if I had) and was anticipating it. But another explanation would be that your essays so effectively convey your style of thinking that reading them helped me to have an Elisa Gabbert-style thought. What do you think of my hypothesis? Is that at all in line with what you think your essays accomplish, or what you intend them to?
EG: Oh, I love this story. It’s hard for me to think of a better compliment than “recognizable style of thinking.” But yes, what I look for in essays, and what I try to do in my essays, is interesting thinking. And sometimes I like when writers really show every step of the proof, as it were. Maybe they’re revealing all their missteps or false starts or the bad ideas they had on the way to a better idea. Or maybe they aren’t missteps exactly, but a series of small but necessary steps to get to something more profound. That level of thinking can be so interesting, even if you don’t really know what the writer is talking about! Like this paragraph I read yesterday, from a brief essay about Shostakovich’s 15th symphony by Tom Service:
Weird. Yes, Shostakovich has set up a sort of pre-echo of the William Tell tune in some of the rhythms we’ve heard; but when the trumpets play the tune, it’s a shock. So is it ironic? Not really, there’s a genuine musical connection, a reason for it being there. A parody? Again, it’s not that simple; Shostakovich doesn’t frame this moment as a separate kind of discourse from what we’ve heard so far, this quote isn’t in quotation marks. And in fact, I don’t actually think this is a quotation at all: what I mean is that the effect of hearing this music at this point in the symphony is so utterly removed from the original function, expression, and associations of Rossini’s tune that it becomes, in fact, a totally different object. Instead of infectious operatic cheeriness, we’re in a place of existential symphonic crisis. If anything, you hear the disjunction in meaning and context even more precisely because the pattern of the notes is so familiar. Make sense? Possibly not – but these are the kind of labyrinths Shostakovich’s symphony leads you into… (Even Shostakovich himself couldn’t properly explain the reason for the quotes in this symphony: “I don’t myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not, could not, not include them,” he told his friend Isaak Glikman in a tortuous bit of triple-negativity.)
I know almost nothing about classical music (does Shostakovich even count as classical?) but I read this three or four times. It’s such a great example of attention, representing the act of attention within the text, along with the uncertainty that follows attention, the questioning of what you thought you knew. Also, your story makes me think of that bit at the end of the Anne of Green Gables essay, where I talk about binge-watching TV and then feeling like I look like a character from the show, like looking at a face so much has warped my self-image. It sounds like you experienced a version of that!
TM: It’s clear that your writing is informed by a robust reading life, in which you take seriously the choice of what to read when as a part of living. Is developing a certain kind of reading life something you’ve worked at, or has it come naturally? How is your reading life related to your writing life?
EG: I have worked at it! I’ve loved reading all my life, but I made a conscious decision about five years ago to be more disciplined about it. I felt like approaching my reading in a haphazard, undisciplined way wasn’t cutting it anymore. So I made all these little, or in some cases not so little, habitual changes in order to make reading more central in my life. I started going to the library all the time—this has at least two positive effects. One, there are always stacks of unread books around, so there’s never the problem of having “nothing to read.” Two, due dates are deadlines, so I can’t put off reading a book forever. I also pretty much stopped watching TV. I know it’s supposed to be the golden age of prestige TV blah blah, but for me, good TV still isn’t as good or rewarding as a good book, and even bad TV is addictive. It’s just too easy to get sucked into, so I avoid it entirely. Another thing I started doing is documenting all the books I finish, then publishing little mini-reviews of all of them at the end of the year. I like writing them and I like when people read them so it gives me extra incentive to finish books. As for how my reading life relates to my writing life, it definitely feeds it, but lately I feel like the balance is a little off. Too much writing and not enough reading!
TM: I love the way the essays in The Word Pretty ground the acts of reading, research, and citation in your life and in the world. For instance, you thematize the act of finding something to quote in “Meditation on the Word Pretty”: You write, “I flipped through my copy of Terry Eagleton’s Ideology of the Aesthetic from grad school; I had not recalled that it paints Edmund Burke-ian sublimity as practically a loathsome side effect of testosterone,” and then you quote it. I think this is related to the way, in “Seeing Things,” you write about picturing characters and spaces in novels by drawing from people and spaces from your life. Essays that engage texts often give the impression that the essayist is a brain in a vat encountering texts in some abstract way. Yours never do that, even when you don’t explicitly dwell on or dramatize the physical or imaginative encounter. Is this grounded textual engagement a way of achieving a certain effect? Are you writing against a tendency in essays or criticism?
EG: Ah, this is one of my signature moves, incorporating notes on the process of writing an essay into the essay itself. It feels more authentic, or maybe I should say truthful, to reveal that process, which can involve chance and randomness, or cursory, passing interest in things. I don’t want to create the false impression that every time I cite a book, I’ve necessarily read the whole book or that author’s whole oeuvre. (But I’m trying not to do this move reflexively or let it turn into a tic. There’s a danger of understanding your own style too well, and then imitating yourself.) I think I’m also using, in a sense, critical or topical essays to write about my self in the world. I’m always trying to situate who and where and when I am in relation to the books or other things I’m writing about. Partly it’s an ethical position, a way of highlighting my subjectivity, and partly it’s just ego.
TM: Do you have a favorite essay from the book?
EG: Yes. My favorite essay is the last one, “Time, Money, Happiness.”
TM: I know you’re working on a new book. What can you tell me about it and how it’s going?
EG: I just finished the penultimate essay, so I think I’m allowed to say it’s almost done. Writing it while also working a pretty demanding full-time job has been incredibly stressful and difficult, but it’s a good kind of pain, I guess you could say. (As I just tweeted the other day, writing it is taking years off my life, but seeing as it’s about disasters, it’s making me want to die sooner anyway.) Working on it is giving me forward movement and purpose at a time when it would be easy to succumb to the whole “LOL, nothing matters” ethos. Nothing does matter, but also this book is important to me. I want to finish it, and I want people to read it.
The first time I stole, I was told it was wrong. It was borrowed from a Garfield cartoon—one character says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” and then in the next panel, a dictionary falls on his head. I thought it was funny; I included it in one of my stories. I was seven. When I showed the story to my parents, my dad asked if I’d come up with that joke on my own, and I admitted that I hadn’t. He explained to me that it wasn’t right to use someone’s words without giving credit to that person or without changing them enough so that they were my own; that was called plagiarism. It didn’t make sense to me. This cartoon had been drawn and printed and delivered to my parents’ doorstep for me to unfold and read while I ate my Cheerios. I could cut it out and stick it to the refrigerator with magnets, or roll out a ball of Silly Putty and pull Garfield right off of the page and into my hand. It didn’t make sense that enjoying or admiring or loving something wasn’t enough to make that something mine.
As a longtime lover of words, I was a master mimic. After hearing Donna Lewis’s “I Love You Always Forever” on the radio, I spent weeks trying to find and compose the tune on my Yamaha keyboard. I wrote my own song parodies à la “Weird Al” Yankovic. It only made sense that when I read books that I loved, I wanted to try and recreate them. Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones inspired my own series about a precocious six-year-old named Leslie Ann Mayfield. Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl led to the creation of The Girls of Greenwich Academy. They were imitations; they were different only in the sense that I couldn’t have the original and wanted to have control over as close an approximation as I could. I loved these stories like I loved the barrage of letters that Elizabeth Clarry receives from various societies and clubs—each pointing out her faults and shortcomings—in Jaclyn Moriarty’s Feeling Sorry for Celia (the letters being reflections of Elizabeth’s own subconscious thoughts and not real letters, of course), or like I loved a particular passage from Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl that I wrote out in notebooks and repeated so many times I had it memorized and still can recite it today: “She was elusive. She was today. She was tomorrow…In our minds we tried to pin her to a cork board like a butterfly, but the pin merely went through and away she flew.” I wrote a story composed entirely of letters to myself from fictionalized clubs. I read Stargirl so many times the pages fell out of the binding. But no matter how many times I read these books, no matter how many times I tried to make them my own, they remained too elusive to pin down. My inexperience impeded me. My inability to create something of equal value frustrated me. To create something of my own worthy of that kind of love felt impossible.
After I met Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, I realized all of my past preoccupations—even with Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen—had merely been crushes. With Prep, I felt vulnerable and unnervingly understood—I felt loved. Lee Fiora was a misanthrope, a cypher—difficult to like and everything I feared myself to be. Over the course of the four years in which the novel takes place, Lee silently watches her peers, trying at once to imitate them and appear unassuming enough to not be seen. She fails, of course; she fails and exposes herself as a fraud in the most public and humiliating way. I typed out hundreds of pages of the novel, and the sensation of generating Sittenfeld’s words by my own hand on my own screen felt like ecstasy. I dreamed of writing Prep myself. I dreamed of a machine that would allow me to go back in time and steal the manuscript before it was ever published and claim it as my own. But because I couldn’t pluck Prep from Curtis Sittenfeld’s hands like I once pulled cartoon Garfield off a page with putty, I decided to make it my mission: I would write a book that would make someone ache with recognition, a book that someone could love—even if that someone was only me.
I couldn’t know at the time of my preoccupation that Junie B.’s speech patterns and penchant for nicknames is reminiscent of short story writer Damon Runyon. I never knew until later that von Ziegesar modeled Gossip Girl on The Age of Innocence. Even having heard Prep compared to everything from A Separate Peace to The Bell Jar to The Catcher in the Rye, Lee Fiora’s story never felt like anything but her own. It is inevitable to bear a resemblance to classic literature, it seemed to me; everyone is made to read the same books the summer before ninth grade and write the same reports. The difference was that classic literature felt wholly impersonal, unrelatable, obsolete. It was okay to rewrite those stories because—to me—they’d ceased to entertain, to matter.
As I began to study writing in earnest in college and later graduate school, I looked not to the past but to contemporaries for inspiration and guidance. I had a love affair with Lorrie Moore my junior year of college; I loved repetition, lists, and long, looping, loquacious sentences that Moore could make funny in their inanity. I met Edward P. Jones and experimented with time, turning to him for guidance so I could shift forward and back without warning and without losing a reader. I wrote whole stories trying to imitate the narrative style of Thomas Bernhard and Donald Barthelme. My senior year of college, Zadie Smith—actual Zadie Smith, that is—came to my advanced fiction workshop the day my story was up for critique, and she noted that I did the Lorrie Moore-esque technique of listing three things, each item more extreme or nonsensical than the last. “The ‘Three Things’ things—that’s a Lorrie thing. It’s been done,” she said. The only part of my story Zadie Smith took special notice of was when the character said she didn’t know how to cook chicken properly so that it wasn’t still pink inside. “That’s honest,” she said. At the time, the only thing that stuck with me after class was pleasure at being told that I wrote like Lorrie Moore.
I remember reading Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go and, shortly after, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and feeling almost betrayed—Roy’s influence on Selasi was so evident to me that I felt I’d uncovered something devious or even criminal. But everything is borrowed from something, I’ve learned; every story is influenced by those told before it, every voice a reflection of an earlier one. By borrowing stories, trying on different styles, imitating different techniques, I somehow learned to develop my own voice—a cocktail of everything I’d ever read and admired and loved, but diffused through me, made into my own. When I first started showing people my own novel, I heard comparisons to Alissa Nutting’s Tampa and Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, and—to my great delight—Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. But readers also drew comparisons to stories I hadn’t even meant to echo: Lolita and Old School, so-called classics that I’d once dismissed as irrelevant, but that are still called up from the past today to be borrowed and reformed, made new again. Layers and layers of stories and voices in conversation with one another, building on one another; I love that idea, that every story I’ve ever loved is inextricable from my own. That I’ve finally, in a way, made them mine.
I worry that the novel I’ve written isn’t anything new. I worry that my story has already been told—been told dozens of times, in fact—and that I don’t contribute anything new to the story’s legacy except another tired imitation. But I also like to think that what I have contributed is my own truth, a personal intimacy, like the redemptive bit about the uncooked chicken. Writing the novel, I channeled Lorrie and Bernhard and Zadie all at once, exploring my characters and their story through several different lenses—empathic, contemptuous, tongue-in-cheek—but what never changed was my desire to make it all feel as achingly, cringingly honest as possible. Years later, an editor would read my novel and tell me that she’d always felt alone in her experience of depression until she read my character’s experience and, for the first time since I’d read Prep at age 14, I felt seen and understood.
I have created something, something that may even be worthy of love, but still I covet others. That won’t ever stop. I read to learn and to grow, and even if the things I read make me blind with envy—make me want to rip the pages from the bindings and hide them from the world and claim the words as my own—it only makes me want to improve. Each book I love is a new voice to carry with me, a new style to try on. A new something that I can stretch and hem and saturate with my scent until it feels like me. Like something honest.
Image Credit: Flickr/IsabelleTheDreamer.
Since it came out in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye has meant different things to different readers. For some, Holden Caulfield was the rebellious voice of a generation; for many today, he’s a whiny rich kid; for a pair of recent biographers, he’s the rechanneled trauma of J.D. Salinger’s experience in World War II. But one of its less remarked-upon qualities strikes me as absolutely pivotal for the concerns of the day: the book’s focus on sexual abuse and on the culture that fosters it. Abuse draws lines between characters, permeates the social atmosphere of the novel, and drives its hero to anger and despair.
One reason we miss this theme is because the narrator is a horny 1950s prep-schooler who calls women “whory,” gay men “flits,” and whose general behavior is, well, crummy. When it comes to analyzing toxic masculinity, we’re accustomed to exterior rather than interior critique. That Holden’s position is compromised, that he’s trapped inside the castle of mid-century American male power, is part of what gives the book its dizzying force. Caught within that world, Holden has no choice but to create his own language, his own moral system, and in veering off from the mainstream he ends up half-crazy and deeply alone.
In an early scene, Holden hangs around the dorms while his brawny roommate, Stradlater, prepares for a date with Jane Gallagher. Jane happens to be Holden’s long-time crush, the only person he trusted enough show the baseball mitt of his dead brother, Allie. He feels terrified for Jane given his experience with Stradlater’s behavior on double dates: “What he’d do was, he’d start snowing his date in this very quiet, sincere voice—like as if he wasn’t only a very handsome guy but a nice, sincere guy, too. I damn near puked, listening to him. His date kept saying, ‘No—please. Please, don’t. Please.’ But old Stradlater kept snowing her in this Abraham Lincoln, sincere voice, and finally there’d be this terrific silence in the back of the car.” Anyone nostalgic for the simple goodness of the 1950s should consider passages like these, where a woman’s “No” was optional and frequently trespassed. In contrast, Holden later claims that he’s still a virgin because he always stops at “No,” so what sets him apart from Stradlater and Co. is his refusal to commit what today we’d classify as sexual assault.
Desperate to humanize Jane in Stradlater’s eyes, Holden describes how when Jane played checkers she’d line up all her kings in the back row and never move them. Ignored, Holden tries to fight Stradlater, who pins him to the ground while Holden bawls that “the reason [Stradlater] didn’t care is because he’s a goddamn stupid moron.” The insult makes perfect sense to Holden, a line drawn in the sand between those who can appreciate a girl’s checkers technique and those who can’t, those who treat women as objects and those who value their idiosyncrasy. The allusion gathers emotional force later on when Holden recalls comforting Jane after her stepfather interrupts their game of checkers. Jane’s stepfather is a “booze hound” with a habit of going naked around the house, and his arrival puts Jane in tears. By now it’s an interpretive commonplace that Holden wants to protect those around him, as in his signature fantasy about catching kids before they fall off a cliff (“the catcher in the rye”), but less attention is paid to the real dangers from which he wants to protect them: guys like Stradlater and Jane’s stepfather.
These guys are everywhere, and not just at prep school. In New York City, sitting alone at a piano bar, Holden sizes up the phonies around him, especially the “Ivy League bastard” next to him with a date: “What he was doing, he was giving her a feel under the table, and at the same time telling her all about some guy in his dorm that had eaten a whole bottle of aspirin and nearly committed suicide. His date kept saying to him, ‘How horrible…Don’t, darling. Please, don’t. Not here.’” Notice how exactly the young woman’s refusals (“Please, don’t”) echo those of Stradlater’s date (“Please, don’t. Please.”). And then there’s the strangeness of the young man’s anecdote, which is Salinger at his darkest and most jarring, punching holes in the edifice of 1950s life, showing the yammer behind the static. Why is “the Ivy League bastard” feeling up his date while telling her about his suicidal dorm mate? Out of twisted grief? To lower her defenses? We know nothing about him, and yet the intertwining of death with male aggression pulls us toward the depths of The Catcher in the Rye. “What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide,” Holden says hours later after his botched encounter with a sex worker and her john. “I felt like jumping out the window.” Suicide, like assault, lurks just under the surface.
In the climactic scene, Holden sneaks back into his parents’ house and wakes up his sister, Phoebe. After initially embracing him, Phoebe soon grows doubtful, realizes that he’s been kicked out of school, and asks her brother what we’ve been wondering all along: Why is he so mad? and Why does he hate everyone? Holden has no good answer, but instead he thinks back to a traumatic memory from his old prep school. After a “skinny little weak-looking” guy, James Castle, called a classmate named Stabile “conceited,” Stabile and his friends went to Castle’s rooms, locked the door, and tried to make him take it back. When Castile refused, “they started in on him. I won’t even tell you what they did to him—it’s too repulsive—but he still wouldn’t take it back…Finally, what he did, instead of taking back what he said, he jumped out the window.” We can infer that the “repulsive” behavior of Stabile and his friends is sexually abusive, linking them to Stradlater and Jane’s stepfather, and Castile’s suicide to Holden’s impulse to leap out a window. Holden’s only comfort is that his English teacher, Mr. Antolini, wraps up Castle’s dead body, which Holden sees on the ground, and carries it to the infirmary. And so it makes sense that, with nowhere else to turn, Holden hurries out of his parents’ apartment and spends the night on the couch of Mr. Antolini, who, though drinking heavily and lecturing Holden on value of a good education, is still the only authority figure whom Holden trusts.
And yet, the book reveals Mr. Antolini to be himself a sexual aggressor, who caresses and stares at Holden’s body while he sleeps and then instantly turns the blame around, calling Holden a “very strange boy” when he leaps up to go. Some readers describe this scene as out-of-the-blue or they defend Mr. Antolini’s conduct as ambiguous, but that’s only if you’ve missed the undercurrents of the whole novel. This is a massive betrayal. As he rushes out, Holden thinks, “That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it.” He’s caught in a net of abuse, and totally alone. If Holden’s anger derives not just from petty vendettas against his prep school classmates but as a terrifying glimpse into a world of pervasive abuse and indifference, in which sincerity is a ploy for date rape and phony lectures are a pretext for unwanted touches, then maybe Holden isn’t so whiny after all. Maybe he’s right.
Since the revelation of widespread sexual harassment in Hollywood, the media, and politics, there’s been a lot of talk about the proper role and response of men. Standing up for victims of sexual assault is clearly essential, but the work shouldn’t stop there. If a male reckoning with the culture of sexual assault is to transcend apologies and hand-wringing, then what’s required is a serious dive into vulnerability, a return to the fears and destructive forces that shaped us as kids. All men have known Stradlater, and Jane’s stepfather, and the “Ivy League bastard,” and more than want to admit have been taken advantage of by Mr. Antolini. And many, too, have been Holden: desire with nowhere to hide, tenderness with nowhere to go. The time to be honest has arrived. Anything less is, as Holden might say, worse than phony.
Over the last few years, I’ve developed a certain pattern for whenever Jonathan Safran Foer or his writing come up in conversation. First, I admit that I’ve read all of his books and liked them. Second, I provide the caveat that I was a teenager when read them and haven’t looked at them since. Third, I say that I still stand by Eating Animals and find it to be an interesting piece of literary journalism, but that, of course, I no longer have a high opinion of his fiction. Much of the literary community seems to feel the same way, if they were ever on his side in the first place.
Cursory research indicates that even at the beginning of his career he was a polarizing figure, winning awards and making end-of-the-years lists alongside middling reviews in The New Yorker and The New York Times. This time around, it seems a little more universal. Here I Am received negative reviews from The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and many other prominent outlets. Is the book that much worse than his others? Or are we just different?
My first encounter with Foer’s work was in an English class my junior year of high school. After reading many of the canonical American works — Catcher in the Rye, Beloved, etc. — we closed out the year with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
The book is about a nine-year-old boy, Oskar Schell, whose father passed away in the September 11th terrorist attacks. I was around that age in 2001 and had similar youthful difficulty making sense of what happened. Unlike much of the other work that I had read in English classes up to that point, I felt like I really understood what it was trying to do. The novel was also built on a series of formal techniques that I had not seen before. He dispersed letters from grandparents throughout the narrative and used photographs in contexts that seemed unconventional. These elements created the illusion of complexity, which dazzled me at the time.
The summer after this class, I read Everything Is Illuminated. In it, a character named Jonathan Safran Foer sets out to Ukraine to learn about a woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Holocaust. Just like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it switches between two storylines, and just like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it resonated with me deeply. I had never read anything else like it.
In the years since this, I have come to think about these novels as sentimental and emotionally manipulative works. It does not take a particularly good writer to make the story of Oskar Schell an emotionally resonant one. The same goes for the story of (the fictional) Jonathan Safran Foer in his first novel. Centering books around flashpoints of international trauma is a quick way to the heart of a reader, and there is something about the way he does it that does not feel earned.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, for example, uses 9/11 as a prop to make its narrative heavier and more believable. His father could have died any other way, and he still could have found the envelope with the word “Black” on the front, and he still could have gone on his adventure. Perhaps, outside the specter of international trauma, it would be unbelievable that all these strangers are willing to speak with this child, but it is unbelievable within the specter of international trauma, anyway. In fact, the collective trauma has nothing to do with why people are so open to him, because in the end the reader learns that it was his mother pulling strings for him the whole time that made it possible.
Similarly, Everything is Illuminated relies heavily on the fictionalized history of the real town of Trochenbord, an exclusively Jewish shtetl located in Poland before the Nazis and the Soviets invaded during World War II. Almost all of the residents were murdered before the Holocaust ended. But replacing the real history with an imagined one turns a town that experienced tragedy into a device that coerces sympathy from the reader. The book takes the name and weight but leaves the substance behind, repurposing real-world suffering into a gimmick.
Still, I couldn’t deny that I found his books deeply moving, and if art is deeply moving, is it possible that it failed? If the impact is there, does it matter whether the writer “earned it” or not? They were gimmicks and tricks and manipulative, yes, but does it matter that they work?
It has been six years since I read his fiction, and it has been 11 years since he has published any. I was curious to see how his writing has changed over the years, as my perception of his work also changed. To bridge the gap between perception and reality, I read his new book.
Here I Am is a much more straightforward family novel than his prior two. The three central conflicts are also basically familial: Jacob and Julia, middle-aged parents of three, are spiraling toward divorce. Sam, their eldest, is 13 but does not want to have his bar mitzvah. Isaac, the great-grandfather, is deciding whether he wants to kill himself or be moved to a nursing home. These three conflicts are done well, or at least well enough.
Foer’s dialogue is also strong, crackling with energy reminiscent of gatherings with my own Jewish family. He proves especially proficient in busy scenes with more than two speaking characters.
However, there are long stretches of time when nobody is speaking, and interiority is not his strong suit by any means. Julia’s inner life is constructed particularly poorly. The writing is overwrought and leans on lists of superficial opinions to create the illusion of character depth, and sometimes it borders on unreadable. When he is willing to allow actions to characterize her, they are bizarre and unbelievable. Once, she asks Jacob to stare at her vagina in order to bring her to orgasm, which works. Another time, she masturbates with a doorknob she got from a hardware store. These moments are predictably unconvincing. As if to prove that his sexual misunderstanding is not sexist, he also devotes an enormous amount of page space to men thinking about their penises and talking about them with other men. These also fail to appear believably on the page.
The major events of the book are similarly hard to believe. About 275 pages into the book, there is a major earthquake in the Middle East, causing devastation in Israel, Jordan, and other surrounding countries. This leads to a series of events that make sense if you squint and are maybe a little drunk, including a total and unconditional withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and citizens from occupied territories and the unification of Jordan and Saudi Arabia into Transarabia. All of this leads to pretty much every country in the region declaring war on Israel.
The point of this, of almost starting World War III, is not to highlight the instability in the Middle East or the danger citizens of the region face or to even add to the conversation about Israel and its relationship with those around it. Instead, the point of this is to highlight the dissonance involved in being an American Jew, and specifically being Jacob, an American Jew who feels like a feckless wimp because he is a feckless wimp and struggling to bear the weight of how “manlier” men see him.
And all of that is very bad. It feels wrong in the moment, and the more one thinks about it, the worse it gets. It is, in a lot of ways, exactly the issue I started to see in his work as I grew up a little and read a lot more. The tragedy that is supposed to give the book its power is a shortcut, a way of giving the book emotional muscle without doing any weightlifting.
Still, I can’t avoid the way I felt at the end. Once the utter bullshit of the “war” falls away, once we are back with the family, the ending works. It is sad, and it made me feel sad. In spite of Foer’s issues, in spite of the flaws wounding Here I Am, in spite of the fact that it’s at least 100 pages longer than it needs to be, when I closed the book for the last time, I was genuinely moved. It ends quietly with a scene that is inevitable, but no less excruciating for it.
Foer is the writer I thought he was. I have a hard time saying the book failed. Maybe Foer’s project is bad, or too sentimental. But if he was trying to get me to feel something, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t work.
When I was a student at the University of Delaware in the late 1990s, there were a handful of options for buying books in town. One was a midsized shop called Rainbow Books and Records, located amid the downtown’s Main Street bustle. I have few memories of actually buying anything there (though I did steal, for no good reason, a used Cypress Hill CD from the store; hopefully the crime’s statute of limitations has run out). There was a mediocre campus bookstore from which I bought a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland that I read eight or nine pages of. The best, by a wide margin, was the airy, endless Bookateria, where I spent afternoons searching for titles by Edward Abbey, Tom Robbins, Robert Pirsig, and whatever else might bolster my developing self-image as a chin-stroking bongside intellectual. Twenty years on, The Bookateria is still there — or so says the internet — and just thinking of it puts me there, my Birkenstocks (I was looking for Tom Robbins, remember) soft on its creaking hardwood floors.
There was also a fourth option, and I have no idea what it was called. In a wide alley off of Main Street, a miniscule bookstore existed for an equally miniscule length of time. Its lifespan, as I recall, was just a few months, but it might have been less than that. It was heavily curated, blue of carpet, and run by a prim white-haired woman with a courteous smile. Its metal shelves were home to midcentury cookbooks and color-plate nature guides, their prices written, almost apologetically, in the corners of their inside covers. The shop, so small and quiet — save for the waft of classical music — lent it the feeling of the quarters of a bibliophilic monk. Entering the store always reminded me that I was wearing dirty track pants and an old Phillies cap.
On one of my few trips there — I could feel the owner’s eyes, as if my CD-lifting reputation had preceded me — I came across a row of hardbacked, dark-blue novels. Their jackets were gone, and they stood together, naked, as if huddling against danger. Each spine bore the stamped name of the books’ author — Kurt Vonnegut– and, in smaller type, the title. I’d heard of Vonnegut, and vaguely knew that I should read him. I picked up Breakfast of Champions, read a few lines (“I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.” “I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can’t live without a culture anymore.”), and felt a surge in my chest. I paid the owner the lightly-penciled price of five dollars plus tax, waited for her pointlessly elaborate receipt, said thanks, and tore the fuck out of there. I had to read this book.
Breakfast of Champions felt, like a handful of other works — The Catcher in the Rye, of course, and later T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain and the stories of George Saunders — wholly new to me, modes of communication that kicked through my mind’s thin walls. I’d never — and still have never — read anything like it. I suppose that any Vonnegut book would have had this effect, so distinctive is his style — that of a brilliant depressive, the vitality of his talent battling his downbeat vision — but Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut’s loosest book, full of drawings and nonsense lines (“Dwayne Hoover had oodles of charm. I can have oodles of charm when I want to. A lot of people have oodles of charm.”) that gain menace as they mount. It seemed somehow right for this to be my first, the best route into his world.
Breakfast of Champions isn’t my favorite Vonnegut novel, but it smacked me in the head with more force than any of his others — and possibly more than any other book I’ve read. I haven’t read it since that day in 1998, and I have only a dim memory of what it was about — something about a used-car salesman; something about cows. But that initial excitement has stuck; when I picked it up before writing this piece, something tightened in my throat. It was an artifact that had shoved me towards the person I would become.
And it seems somehow insane to me that I could have gotten it — this rousing, angry work that shook me by my spine — at that cramped and nameless store, overseen by a woman who, I’m guessing, had gone into business to occupy her time. Maybe her husband had recently died, and the quiet of her home had become unbearable — so she opened a shop that was just as quiet as the place she had escaped. Maybe she’d wanted to bring a touch of politesse to downtown Newark, Delaware, where music blasted from low riders and fistfights proliferated when the bars let out. Maybe she was engaging in a quiet fight of her own, selling pleasant books to the few students who might appreciate the gesture. Obviously — judging by its swift closure — there weren’t enough of us.
That I could have found a book that so enflamed me in such a serene, well-meaning place now seems to me a rude and minor marvel, like a tabernacle choir breaking into “Fuck tha Police.” The store has been gone for nearly 20 years, and its owner, I assume, has passed on as well. But they slipped me something important in the time we had together — and for that, I can only offer thanks.
I took Purity in one long gallop, reading it over four days at my friend’s house. Sarah had already read it, and was desperate for me to hurry up and finish so we could talk about it. The minute I put it down, I went to go find her. She was wearing clean white shorts and a miraculously uncreased blue linen shirt. I was wearing a regretted purchase from H&M — a white cotton dress with little roses on it that looked fine in the shop, but depressing on me. I told Sarah that I’d finished and she said, “Have you noticed,” she asked, “the clothes thing?”
Yes, the clothes thing. The whole point of Jonathan Franzen is the richness of his description, his eye for a telling detail. Where are all the clothes, then? Why are there almost no descriptions of what anyone is wearing? It seems like the most amazing oversight. How is it possible that two characters can have an extremely detailed conversation about a third character being “jealous of the internet”, or that we are subjected to a long and over-vivid description of Pip’s boring job, or the smells of different kinds of soil, and yet we are given almost nothing in the way of clothing? They all might as well be walking around naked. The only detailed description of an outfit in the first section, for instance, is the following: “she saw Stephen sitting on the front steps, wearing his little-boy clothes, his secondhand Keds and secondhand seersucker shirt.” The word “seersucker” is latched onto and used twice more (“she whispered into the seersucker of his shirt”; “she said, nuzzling the seersucker”). It gets slightly better as the novel progresses, but not by much. The first time Pip sees Andreas Wolf, for instance, his “glow of charged fame particles” are vividly described, but his clothes? No. Even Tom’s mother’s significant sundress is described only as being “of Western cut.” It’s unsettling.
I know this to be a petty criticism, but there are all kinds of nerds who write long, aggrieved blog posts about how some novelist got a car wrong, or misdated the death of an actress. Clothes have always been important to me, and while their fictional depiction might be beneath some people’s notice, it is always one of the first things I see. Clothes aren’t just something one puts on a character to stop her from being naked. Done right, clothes are everything — a way of describing class, affluence, taste, self-presentation, mental health, body image. Clothes matter. Besides all that, clothes are fun. Descriptions of dresses got me through War and Peace. I think about Dolores Haze’s outfits on a near-daily basis (“check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, snug-fitting bodices and generously full skirts!”) I think about her cotton pyjamas in the popular butcher-boy style. Holden Caulfield’s hounds-tooth jacket, and Franny Glass’s coat, the lapel of which is kissed by Lane as a perfectly desirable extension of herself. Sara Crewe’s black velvet dress in A Little Princess, and the matching one made for her favourite doll. The green dress in Atonement (“dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck.”) Anna Karenina’s entire wardrobe, obviously, but also Nicola Six’s clothes in London Fields. Nicola Six’s clothes are fantastic.
Aviva Rossner’s angora sweaters and “socks with little pom-poms at the heels” in The Virgins. Pnin’s “sloppy socks of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges”, his “conservative black Oxfords [which] had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing (flamboyant goon tie included).” May Welland at the August meeting of the Newport Archery Club, in her white dress with the pale green ribbon. I quite often get dressed with Maria Wyeth from Play It As It Lays in mind (“cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator”). I think about unfortunate clothes, as well. I think about Zora’s terrible party dress in On Beauty, and about how badly she wanted it to be right. The meanest thing Kingsley Amis ever did to a woman was to put Margaret Peele in that green paisley dress and “quasi-velvet” shoes in Lucky Jim. Vanity Fair’s Jos Sedley in his buckskins and Hessian boots, his “several immense neckcloths” and “apple green coat with steel buttons almost as large as crown pieces.”
This list changes all the time, but my current favorite fictional clothes are the ones in A Good Man is Hard to Find. There is no one quite like Flannery O’Connor for creeping out the reader via dress. Bailey’s “yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed on it” contrasts in the most sinister way with the The Misfit’s too tight blue jeans, the fact that he “didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt.” I’d also like to make a plug for one of The Misfit’s companions, “a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” Any Flannery O’Connor story will contain something similar, because she used clothes as exposition, as dialogue, as mood. Anyone to who clothes matter will have their own highlight reel, and will argue strenuously for the inclusion of Topaz’s dresses in I Capture the Castle, or Gatsby’s shirts, or Dorothea Brooke’s ugly crepe dress. They will point out, for instance, that I have neglected to mention Donna Tartt, top five fluent speaker of the language of dress. What of Judge Holden’s kid boots, in Blood Meridian? What about Ayn Rand, who, as Mallory Ortberg has noted, is just about unparalleled?
The point is, we do not lack for excellent and illuminating descriptions of clothes in literature. Given such riches, it is perhaps churlish to object to the times when people get it wrong. Haven’t we been given enough? Apparently not. Just as I can think of hundreds of times when a writer knocked it out of the park, attire-wise, (Phlox’s stupid clothes in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, all those layers and scarves and hideous cuffs), I can just as easily recall the failures. There are a variety of ways for an author to get clothes wrong, but I will stick to just two categories of offense here.
1. Outfits that don’t sound real
Purity again, and Andreas’s “good narrow jeans and a close-fitting polo shirt.” This is wrong. Andreas is a charismatic weirdo, a maniac, and I struggle to believe that he would be slinking around in such tight, nerdy clothes. Another jarring example is Princess Margaret’s dress, in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope: “the ambassador raised his fork with such an extravagant gesture of appreciation that he flicked glistening brown globules over the front of the Princess’s blue tulle dress.” The Princess here is supposed to be in her sixties. Would a post-menopausal aristocrat really be wearing a blue tulle dress? Is the whole thing made out of tulle? Wouldn’t that make it more the kind of thing a small girl at a ballet recital would choose? St. Aubyn’s novels are largely autobiographical, and he has mentioned in interviews that he met the allegedly blue-tulle-dress-wearing Princess on a number of occasions. Maybe that really is what she was wearing. It doesn’t sound right, though, or not to me.
One last example, from The Rings of Saturn: “One of them, a bridal gown made of hundreds of scraps of silk embroidered with silken thread, or rather woven over cobweb-fashion, which hung on a headless tailor’s dummy, was a work of art so colourful and of such intricacy and perfection that it seemed almost to have come to life, and at the time I could no more believe my eyes than now I can trust my memory.” One believes the narrator, when he says that he cannot trust his memory, because this actually doesn’t sound like a dress, or not a very nice one. It sounds like a dress a person might buy from a stall at a psytrance party. The word “colourful” here is a dead giveaway that the narrator does not necessarily have a particular dress in mind: what kind of colours, exactly? “Intricate” is also no good — it seeks to give the impression of specificity, but is in fact very vague.
2. Outfits that make too much of a point
Many people are suspicious of fashion. They do not trust it or like it, and, while they see that it serves a purpose, they wish it was somehow enforceable to make everyone wear a uniform at all times. Deep down, they also believe that anyone who does take pleasure in it is lying to themselves, or doing it for the wrong reasons. I argue with such people in my head all the time, because this is not what clothes are about for me, at all. I argue with the books they have written as well. To be fair to Jeffrey Eugenides, he is mostly excellent on the subject of dress. The Lisbon girls’ prom dresses and the Obscure Object’s High Wasp style are in my own personal highlight reel. The Marriage Plot is different, though. It is deeply cynical on the subject of dress. Clothes in that novel are always an affectation or a disguise, a way for a character to control the way others see her.
Here is Madeline, getting Leonard back “Madeleine … put on her first spring dress: an apple-green baby-doll dress with a bib collar and a high hem.” Here is Madeline, trying to seem like the kind of girl who is at home in a semiotics class: “She took out her diamond studs, leaving her ears bare. She stood in front of the mirror wondering if her Annie Hall glasses might possibly project a New Wave look…She unearthed a pair of Beatle boots … She put up her collar, and wore more black.” And here is Madeline, failed Bohemian, despondent semiotician, after she has gone back to reading novels: “The next Thursday, “Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design.” After college, she realizes that she can dress the way she has always, in her haute-bourgeois heart, wanted to dress: like a Kennedy girlfriend on holiday. Another costume, for a girl who doesn’t know who she really is. The problem with these clothes is not that they don’t sound real, or that they are badly described. It’s that Madeline only ever wears clothes to make a point, to manipulate or to persuade her audience that she is someone other than she really is. Worse, there is the implication that she has no real identity outside from what she projects. It’s exact opposite approach to O’Connor’s wardrobe choices in A Good Man is Hard to Find. The guy in the red sweat shirt, with the silver stallion? He is not wearing those clothes for anyone but himself. Same with The Misfit and his frightening jeans.
Those who are suspicious of fashion tend to believe that people (especially women) only ever wear clothes as a form of armor, a costume, and never because they get pleasure out of it. Madeline, in other words, doesn’t wear clothes because she likes them, but because she likes what they do. I find this line of thinking very depressing.
There are other categories (clothes that I think sound ugly, clothes in over-researched historical novels where the writer takes too much relish in describing jerkins and the smell of wet leather etc.), but these two stand out. I’m not asking for anything too excessive — just a few more details, a bit more effort when getting a character dressed. Clothes matter, to some of us, and we need to see them done right.
Image: John Singer Sargent, Wikipedia
There’s a bit in The Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield is talking about the sort of thing he values in a reading experience. “What really knocks me out,” he says, “is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” This line kept floating into my mind as I was reading Paul Murray’s new novel The Mark and the Void, his first since the massive success of 2010’s Skippy Dies. Because this new novel — which is, like its predecessor, a large and generous and furiously funny book, and which intertwines crises in both capitalism and literary creativity — really did knock me out, and because its author is a friend I could call up whenever I felt like it. But apart from the odd text to inform him I’d just LOL’ed at a particular bit of the novel, I didn’t really avail of that proximity. Strangely — or maybe not strangely at all — it wasn’t until I was asked to interview him for The Millions that I actually sat down and had a proper conversation with him about the book, and about his work in general.
There aren’t very many contemporary novelists whose work so audaciously mixes rich human comedy and bracing intellectual ambition. Just as Skippy Dies somehow managed to tie together its disparate elements — string theory, the First World War, the sadness and alienation of middle-class teenage Irish boys — into a funny and moving whole, The Mark and the Void pulls off an equally unlikely synthesis of arcane financial intrigue, artful metafiction, and ruthless satire. It’s set in a Dublin investment bank during the crazy, stupid early days of Ireland’s economic crisis. For all that it deals with some deeply unfunny material, I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much reading a novel.
Having a conversation with Paul is, in a lot of ways, very much like reading him. You need to set aside quite a lot of time, but it will absolutely be worth it; you’ll be led down a great many scenic conversational detours and intellectual byroads, and you’ll see see things in a different way by the time he’s finished talking. It’s also, crucially, a lot of fun, and you’ll laugh a great deal, often in a way that deepens a sense of the seriousness of the things you’re laughing at.
The Millions: The Mark and the Void is saturated in an anxiety about the novel as a form, about its waning cultural powers. There’s this serious unease in the book, which manifests as a constant comic interrogation of why the hell a person would write a novel in the first place. This is interesting on its own terms, but particularly within the context you were writing it, by which I mean the pretty overwhelming success of Skippy Dies. Because that novel did on a large scale what people worry the novel is no longer capable of doing: it had a significant emotional and intellectual impact on a large number of readers. Please discuss.
Paul Murray: I actually thought that would be the first thing people would ask about this book, but it hasn’t been. The one thing I didn’t think would happen with Skippy Dies was that it would be a quote-unquote “bestseller.” Because even aside from the so-called “Death of the Novel,” it just didn’t feel to me that the world was that kind of place. But when Skippy came out, people read it who I wouldn’t have expected to read it. And that was an interesting corrective to a lot of the assumptions that I had about the world. Old ladies would come up to me and say that they had read it. And old ladies have seen a lot: they’ve raised children and grandchildren. So they’re well equipped to deal with reading something like Skippy Dies.
As are teenagers. And you hear all the time about how teenagers don’t read books, but teenagers were reading this book. So in a way, it was this weird rebuttal of everything I presumed to be the case about the world, which is that it’s in terminal decline and everyone just marches in lock step to these horrific corporate forces. And so that kind of made things difficult. It was actually much easier for me to think of the world as full of empty drones who don’t get me. And now it’s like, okay, fuck, there are actually a lot of sensitive, engaged, sweet-natured people out there. So that was a wonderful and strange experience. But I’m a total pessimist, obviously, and so if the book had done badly I would have responded to it by berating myself for being a fraud, and telling myself to give up now. And when something good happens, my brain goes, well that’s it, you might as well roll up your tent now and move on, because you’ve had your moment in the sun.
TM: The obvious move after a book like Skippy would have been to write something explicitly less ambitious. A palate-cleansing novella or, you know, a tidy little Ian McEwan number. The Mark and the Void is not that.
PM: In a sense, Skippy was destructive in terms of the kind of success it had. It was a slow burner. It had good reviews when it came out in the U.K., and that carries a book for about three weeks. But it kept reappearing. Like, it would make it onto the Booker longlist, or Donna Tartt or Bret Easton Ellis would say how much they liked it, or David Cameron would bring it on holidays to Ibiza or whatever. So for a year, it kept sort of reappearing to the public. But that made it difficult to start something new. I tried writing short stories, and I can’t write short stories. With any creative endeavor, you put everything into it. And what you feel at the end is this terrible anxiety. And the success doesn’t really assuage that anxiety. In fact it reinforces it, because the natural question is the question of what you’re going to do next, and all you can see is nothingness. I find nothingness and entropy interesting ideas to think about at the best of times, and maybe working as a writer, you’re quite familiar with these things, because you’re just looking at your screen, and thinking “I’ve got nothing, absolutely nothing.” You’re back in the old foul rag and bone shop of the heart, you know? So anxiety is a natural condition for writers to be working out of. There’s this sort of weird feedback loop with writing, where you can’t quite figure out whether the anxiety happens because of the writing or whether you write because you’re an anxious person.
TM: The economic and cultural anxieties at the heart of The Mark and the Void play themselves out in an interesting way, through a kind of dialectic between the banker and the writer characters, and between the ideas of finance and art.
PM: Yeah. Well, the two major characters are obviously a writer and a banker. And I didn’t want the book to be just me standing on a soap box ranting about bankers. Because the interesting thing about the financial crash was that bankers were enabled by the rest of the world; to a large degree, everybody started thinking like bankers. From the 1980s onwards, ordinary people have thought in a more and more materialistic way. So we’ve seen the rise of the economist as public intellectual, of the economist as seer. Theatre and film and literature, and all these things by which we get some bearing on our existence, those are now seen as just sort of frivolities for the middle classes. And there’s this weirdly Stalinist idea now that what we need to be doing is taking our place as functioning cogs in this enormous machine. And so people are increasingly encouraged to self-objectify. And so in Ireland, during the boom years, you were increasingly made to feel that the way that people should conceive of themselves in society was in economic terms. The questions to ask were questions like “What value do I have for the economy?” and “How best can I contribute to it?” There is nothing more noble now, at an institutional level or at a personal level, than asking the question “Where is the money?” It’s no longer problematic for that to be the first question to ask.
TM: Right. That’s now, in a way, the essential public-spirited question. The question of how you can contribute to the economy.
PM: That’s it. And so to a certain degree, bankers have become scapegoats, the people we like to point the finger at as a country. But the banker’s success is predicated to a degree on us all wanting to be bankers, wanting to have that security and wanting to be top dog in this society that has become increasingly atomized by these very forces of corporatism and money. And we’re all going, “Okay, that’s how it is, and that’s fine, as long as I’m on top”. So my book is about this banker who has worked very hard to be on top, and has achieved that, and finds himself feeling very isolated and empty, and without a story. He doesn’t really have a narrative. To a certain degree the path to success he’s chosen is one that’s designed to lift him out of the world. And to a degree, everybody is partly a banker and partly a writer.
TM: Right, but those distinctions are very much complicated in the book. Obviously my reading of it is always going to be influenced by the fact that we’re friends, but to the extent that I recognized you in the book, it was in Claude (the banker) rather than Paul (the writer). Claude is much more thoughtful and sensitive and politically engaged than Paul, who is more or less a philistine, and solely preoccupied by making a buck wherever he can.
TM: I know what you’re going to say now. You’re going to say there’s much more of you in Paul. So let me just say that Paul’s not completely awful, that I did have some sympathy for him as a reader…
PM: Well, initially this book came from an idea I’d started on ages ago, and never took anywhere. It was a kind of a comic two-hander about those two guys, the banker and the writer. It was much broader, and the banker was this kind of Roland Barthes figure — I was really into Barthes at the time — who just went around meditating on existence. And the writer was much more of an asshole than he is in this version. And the setting was the most boring place imaginable, which was the IFSC (Irish Financial Services Centre). And I left it because there wasn’t enough to it. I thought it would be easy to write, and funny, and it wasn’t.
TM: Was it that it didn’t feel worth doing?
PM: That’s it. Writing is already a state of anxiety, just creatively speaking. But to work as a writer during the Celtic Tiger years, in the most turbo-charged super-capitalist place in the Western world, it was a terrifying place to work as a writer at that time.
TM: It was like a 51st state of America that seceded because the U.S. wasn’t neoliberal enough or something.
PM: It was the place all the U.S. companies came to because we’d ripped up the rulebook. It was the frontier, the “Wild West of Capitalism,” as The New York Times called it. Writing had become increasingly irrelevant in the culture, so that was this existential anxiety. But then you also had this other very literal thing of, like, “What? They put up my rent again? They put up the price of milk again?” And at that point, everyone in the country seemed to have so much money that, like, who even knew or cared what milk cost? Well, I was the mug who knew what milk cost. I was the mug who was a writer. And you felt beaten over the head with this idea that you’d taken the wrong turn, and you were pursuing something antediluvian and self-harming. So that anxiety feeds into the character of Paul in the book. Writing about a writer is obviously problematic anyway. It’s sort of the last refuge of a scoundrel. You know, you hear about some new movie, and Al Pacino’s in it, and he’s a writer with writer’s block. And you immediately think, well, fuck that. So the only way I could really do it was to ham it up, and to do a sort of Curb Your Enthusiasm thing with it.
TM: But isn’t writer’s block actually paradoxically fertile ground for creativity? So many books and films, so many plots, seem to spring from this sterile situation of the writer who can’t write.
PM: Totally. You know, happiness writes white, and writing also writes white. But people can relate to that state of impotence. Of doing something that feels completely at odds with everything else that’s going on. People know what it’s like to fail, and writers block is just this living second-by-second hell of failure, where you’re doing nothing but failing. I don’t know of any profession where you experience failing as consistently and unambiguously as writing.
TM: And yet there’s often this weirdly romantic idea of writer’s block in fiction and film, where it’s seen as this strangely authentic and pure state of creativity. And you totally subvert that in The Mark and the Void.
PM: I read Faulkner’s The Wild Palms recently. It’s not a great book, but there’s this terrific last line: “Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.” I don’t know that that’s a terrible thing. Robert Frost described literature as “a momentary stay against confusion.” It’s not going to solve all your problems, but it will give you a few seconds whereby you can adjust your stance so that when the hammer falls it will hit you on the shoulder rather than the middle of your cranium. So I think Paul’s problem in the book is the problem that every writer has. I set up this guy to be asking himself, Why should I continue working as a writer in a culture that doesn’t care about writing. Then I had to try to answer that question, and I don’t know that I succeeded. But all you can do is offer yourself temporary answers. Paul is facing the problem of what do you write about? If you don’t want to be the Capital W Writer, the sage or the seer figure who delivers these atrocities, these beautiful representations of other people’s pain for upper-middle-class consumers to enjoy, then you’re faced with this nothingness of just a bunch of people just swiping their phones. That’s all there is, so how do you write about that? Ben Lerner answers that question amazingly in 10:04, I think, which is a great book about there being nothing to write about. But how do you do that again? And why?
TM: Some of the funniest parts in The Mark and the Void deal with the shortfall between the bankers’ need to see Paul as this seer-like artist figure and the person he actually is. And that made me think about Ireland, and how the banker and the writer are these two poles of the country’s self-perception.
PM: I think the bankers like the idea of Paul, but in this very patronizing way. “The meaning monkey,” as Paul refers to himself. And that sort of reflects how rich people literally patronize the arts. They don’t necessarily like the art per se, but they like the idea of having creativity by proxy.
TM: It’s possibly a bit like how Irish people generally like the idea of there being a Gaeltacht, of there still being areas where the Irish language is spoken as a living language by people in their everyday lives. We don’t necessarily want to go there, or speak the language ourselves, but we feel somehow reassured by knowing that it’s out there, that people are still doing it.
PM: Totally. I had this bit that I kept trying to put in the book, but it wouldn’t fit anywhere. Paul and Claude are talking, and Paul is saying how nobody cares about books anymore, and Claude says that surely writers are more esteemed in Ireland than anywhere else in the world, because you name all these bridges after them and so on. And Paul says that esteeming someone is the easiest way of not reading them. You can esteem someone and name a bridge after them and then get back to reading the Ikea catalogue. The book is very critical of Ireland, obviously, but I do think Ireland is this very interesting place, this very weird and singular place. I still find myself envious of American writers. Because that’s the empire, and most of what we think of as modern life, that’s where it’s happening. But the idea that Jonathan Franzen or whoever is having a more echt experience than we are: that’s exactly the mentality that Joyce was trying to interrogate or refute in Ulysses. The idea that life is elsewhere is itself the universal.
TM: Right. The fact that Dublin is a minor city in the world is very much part of the point of Ulysses, and what makes it so great and universal. The Mark and the Void is explicitly situated in the most boring and characterless part of Dublin, the IFSC, which is this large area of the city that nobody who doesn’t work there ever thinks about. It’s a kind of non-Dublin.
PM: It’s very much non-Dublin. The IFSC is on the one hand marginal, but on the other hand it’s very much part of this neoliberal network, that is like the dominant world order. It’s an important place because all these multinational corporations are coming here precisely to do all the stuff that’s illegal in other countries. They come here, in a way, to express themselves more completely. So it’s kind of this weird mix of marginality and centrality.
TM: In an economic sense, Ireland is kind of an open city, a surrendered polity. A place where these very powerful supra-state forces are invited to come and do their bidding. And this is sort of reflected in your book by the fact that Paul is the only major character who is Irish, right?
PM: Yes. I guess I wanted it to feel like a kind of post-Empire story, where all of these structures and illusions have collapsed. We actually did reach the giddy height, at one point, of feeling like we had a place in the world. And then all those things went from under us, and we’re right back to being this sort of marginal state. And, as you say, completely at the behest of these incredibly powerful financial institutions, which nobody on the ground knows that much about.
TM: I sometimes wonder whether the main role that Ireland’s “Great Writers” play in contemporary culture is that they, or their images, give us a kind of foothold, or a sense of ourselves. The idea of Joyce, or Beckett, or Wilde, gives us something to hold onto in terms of national identity, when the reality is much more nebulous. They make it easier for us to fool ourselves into thinking we know who we are.
PM: I think literature is not actually especially important to Ireland. If you go to Germany, people there read like motherfuckers. And if you do a reading there, they charge an entry fee, and you get a couple of hundred people, even if you’re not that well known an author. And they want an hour and a half of your time. Because they’re serious readers. And in Germany, they have this really romantic idea of Ireland. But without wanting to do the place down, Ireland really doesn’t care much about literature per se. I mean, there are extracts of Ulysses embroidered on the seats in Aer Lingus seats. But you have to wonder what it means, other than that you can sit there and fart into this great work of Modernist literature on your flight to New York.
TM: I think Joyce might have relished that idea.
PM: Maybe, yes. But the old school idea of the novelist as seer — of, you know, Philip Roth or whoever issuing his edicts from on high every few years — that’s gone. And maybe what’s left is the idea of the novelist as this somewhat abject figure, who identifies with the downtrodden and so on, which is another very old idea. Because I think that is the position you’re putting yourself in as a fiction writer now. In a world that’s dominated by economics, you’re doing something as childish as making up stories that are untrue, and everyone knows they’re untrue. Everyone else is telling you that they’re telling you the truth — the banker and the politician, the priest and the doctor. That’s something that I tried to get at in the book, the idea that the novelist is the one person you can trust to be lying.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald never won a prize. In 1925, the year it was published, the Pulitzer went to Edna Ferber for her novel So Big. How many readers have read this book or remember it?
In 1952 Catcher in the Rye lost the Pulitzer to The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. Catcher in the Rye is a short novel told in the first person and is about a teenager disenchanted by the world of adults. The Caine Mutiny weighs in at over 500 pages and is a sprawling novel of life and mutiny on a Navy warship in the Pacific dealing with the moral complexities and the human consequences of World War II. Which work would now be regarded as literature?
Poor Ernest Hemingway. In 1930 A Farewell to Arms, along with The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, lost the Pulitzer to Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge. In 1941, the year that Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tolls, no Pulitzer was awarded in fiction at all. We may remember the winner of a prize, but we often fail to recall the finalists that year or the vast array of deserving works that were overlooked.
Now that awards season is upon us, with various lists of contenders for the Booker, the National Book Award, and soon the National Book Critics Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize, it is interesting to step back and examine the place of prizes in literature. Do they necessarily reward greatness or works that, like a fine wine, gain stature over time? Do they simply reflect the taste of the jury at a particular moment in history? Or is it a little of both?
Prizes are not awarded by an omniscient god. They are based on a jury. The Pulitzer typically invites three to five judges to recommend works that then go to its 19 to 20 member board of newspaper journalists to make the final decision. The National Book Award seats five jurists. According to its blog, Critical Mass, The National Book Critics Circle divides “into informed, committed teams that focus on one category each. Those committees take their judging to the finalist stage, after which the board reunites into one massive voting group to choose the winners.” Although their choices may be worthy, does the 24-board-member committee have its ear tuned to the winds of media hype? When they meet to choose their finalists, typically announced in January, are they looking for the best books that year, books that may have been overlooked by the judges of the National Book Awards, for instance, which holds its award ceremony in November? Or do they hop on the bandwagon and support the same five or 10 books that — because a seven-figure advance was paid and publishers have a vested interest in getting the books known — are getting all the attention? Or because the NYTBR has chosen to give the book front-page acknowledgment? Or because a particular author’s work has been ignored in the past, even if the new work isn’t as strong as earlier work? Do they purposely seek out a book by a smaller press to stir up debate? Why is it that the same books generally tend to be acknowledged by various prize committees?
Roxana Robinson, president of the Authors Guild says, “I am very wary of a book that has won more than one prize. Then it seems like a lemming award. Two things I wish would change: One, that prize-awarders would agree tacitly not to award more than one prize to any given book. There are always a number of good books in any season, and for one book to get more than one award is a huge waste of public attention — there are other books that could use it. Two, I wish some of the many First Novel awards would shift their sights to writers in mid-career. Those are the writers who often need support, if their first books weren’t blockbusters, or didn’t win a prize.”
About awards, author Alix Kates Shulman’s feelings are mixed: “Of course I like getting one, which feels validating, and my desire to read a book shoots up a little bit if it has won an award, even though I know the process is basically corrupt. Awards help the few and hurt the many and probably make literary culture a little less welcoming to most writers and more clubby. Having been on award committees, I’ve seen that those who have an advocate or friend on the committee (preferably male and loud) are the ones who usually win. And then there are those writers, some very good ones who never win (or who seldom get reviewed): I’ve seen them get discouraged and even depressed — the opposite of validated.”
What happens to writers who do win awards? Does it affect their own perceptions of their work? I asked Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Philip Schultz. “Winning the Pulitzer Prize affected me in many helpful, sustaining ways. It was certainly surprising. The attention it brought to my work helped me find more time to actually write, which no doubt affected my process, too. But one’s creative process is a mysterious, unknowable source, and I doubt anything external can really affect what takes places at its core.”
The Pulitzer and National Book Awards help the publishing industry because they ignite sales and interest in books in general and invite traffic into the bookstore. If consumers go to the bookstore to purchase the latest novel by Jennifer Egan or Elizabeth Strout after it won the Pulitzer, the likelihood is that they will pick up or be made aware of another book. Prizes affect sales, advances, and influence. Prize-winning books that earn a gold stamp of approval, even if the judging that goes on behind the scenes is subjective, tend to be volumes that book club members will choose for their book club inflating further the worth (and sales) of the book. But while prizes offer a greater visibility for an author and his or her award-winning book, do they necessarily validate a work’s artistic worth?
Joyce Hackett, whose novel Disturbance of the Inner Ear won the Kafka Prize for fiction, said her book “gained far more recognition that it might otherwise have, after it won. Still, prizes reflect one thing: the taste of this year or this era’s committee. A book like The Known World, which won every prize, has only grown in stature since it was published. On the other hand, the Nobel list is littered with people who are no longer read.” But still she sees the benefits of such distinction: “One of the great things about literature is that it’s as individual as the souls who read and write it. Well-read people can have completely contradictory, equally valid lists of what’s great and what’s unreadable.”
Perhaps, in the end, a work’s worth can only be based on the beholder’s sense of what qualifies as greatness, and it is the artist alone who holds the power of validation over his or her work.
When Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1964, he refused to accept it — as he did for all awards — out of fear that by accepting the award he would be aligning himself with an institution. He believed that individuals must create their own purpose in life. “The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances, as in the present case,” he said. “If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner.”
I can’t think of many writers today who would not want to sign their name as a Nobel Prize winner.
Image Credit: Flickr/Lars Plougmann.
Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike get inspired by Harper Lee’s new Go Kill a Watchbird, and talk about sequels to classic books they’d like to discover.
Discussed in this episode: Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, racist Atticus Finch, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, A Christmas Story by Charles Dickens, Scarface (dir. Brian De Palma), Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, The Family Stone (dir. Thomas Bezucha), Dermot Mulroney, Sarah Jessica Parker, Claire Danes, Animal Farm by George Orwell, middle school plays, old-timey editorial cartoons, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Scarlett O’Hara’s nonsense, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Holden Caulfield’s stupid cap, selling out, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, the forgotten students of Hogwarts, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Jean Valjean.
Cut for time from this episode but likely to be included as an extra on the eventual DVD: 2 Naked 2 Dead by Norman Mailer.
Fifty years ago this month, The New Yorker published a bizarre short story by J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, written in the form of a 28,000-word letter from a seven-year-old child at summer camp. No one could know it at the time, but this story was to mark one of the longest and most fascinating silences in literary history. Shortly after the story appeared, Salinger retreated into his reclusive rural New Hampshire home, and never published anything again in his lifetime.
The story, titled “Hapworth 16, 1924” in a disorienting merging of date and location, remains something of a baffling enigma: branded as unreadable by critics, and never republished, only the most dedicated Salinger devotees bother to track it down and slog through it. Indeed, the negative reaction to the story is thought to have been the catalyst for Salinger’s retreat from publication, even though he personally believed it to be “a high point of his writing.”
“Hapworth” is the final story (although the first chronologically) in Salinger’s Glass series, a sequence of short stories revolving around a family of hyper-intellectual New Yorkers. Despite, the swift ascension to the status of American classic for The Catcher in the Rye (just five years after it was published it was being compared to everything from Homer’s Odyssey to Ulysses and The Great Gatsby) Salinger’s reputation gradually declined as he began to focus on the Glass stories, losing more and more fans with each subsequent publication.
One of the most common criticisms leveled against the Glass stories was that Salinger was writing them purely for himself, at the price of alienating his readers. Salinger even admitted as much, stating “I write just for myself and my own pleasure,” and “there is a real enough danger, I suppose, that sooner or later I’ll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods.” Thus, “Hapworth” came for many to represent the culmination of this, and the ultimate in insufferable self-indulgence, with its endless verbosity and preposterous length. Even within the story, Salinger appears to acknowledge this, with his narrator warning us that “This is going to be a very long letter!” and later urging the reader “Please, please, PLEASE do not grow impatient and ice cold to this letter because of its gathering length!”
This length is perhaps the greatest obstacle for readers aiming to tackle “Hapworth.” However, it is not just the practical side of reading such a long story filled at times with impenetrable language and incoherent structuring, but more the implications that come with the fact that we are told this letter has been authored by a seven-year-old.
The narrator, Seymour Glass, is frequently held up as bastion of human intelligence in the earlier Glass stories, and even as something approaching an enlightened spiritual guru. But “Hapworth” takes this concept to a level well beyond the far-fetched, endowing its child protagonist with the power to accurately predict the future, recall past lives, and write with the vocabulary of a PhD candidate. One of the most critically derided passages of the story takes up around a quarter its length and consists entirely of Seymour’s absurd and entirely age inappropriate list of requested reading material: “the complete works again of Count Leo Tolstoy […] any thoughtful books on human whirling or spinning […and] both the French edition and Mr. Cotton’s wonderful translation of Montaigne’s essays.” Likewise, Seymour’s request to his father to share any “imaginary sensual acts [which] gave lively, unmentionable entertainment to your mind” has proved another source of eye-rolling disbelief for readers, leading many to the assumption that “Hapworth” is simply some kind of curious in-joke between Salinger and his imaginary Glass family.
However, such an interpretation, though valid, is simplistic, and with so little having been written on “Hapworth,” it seems that the 50th anniversary offers a chance to reexamine the story, and see if the overwhelmingly negative critical consensus is not somewhat hyperbolic.
When “Seymour: An Introduction” (the immediate predecessor to “Hapworth” in the Glass series) was published in 1959 it attracted more negative reviews than any of Salinger’s previous stories, but since then some critics have argued that Salinger was well ahead of his time, including Eberhard Alsen, in his A Reader’s Guide to J.D. Salinger, suggesting he in fact “anticipated by a decade the self-reflexive trend in American postmodernist fiction.” Roger Lathbury, who attempted to republish “Hapworth” in 1997 and even met and exchanged letters with the reclusive author, posits a similar theory for “Hapworth,” arguing that Salinger was “trying something new, arguably something different than any other American writer: to reconcile non-material (Eastern) ways of transcendence with the particulars of American daily life.” Lathbury contends that this accounts for its unusual style — “a letter that is not a letter” — and that to write what Salinger wanted to write necessarily required “a seismic shift in sensibility.”
Salinger addressed this exact concept in an earlier story entitled “Teddy,” which also takes a child prodigy with spiritual gifts as its protagonist: “It’s very hard to meditate and live a spiritual life in America.” Likewise, the form of “Hapworth” is recycled from an earlier unpublished story, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” which is also presented as a letter written home from summer camp. Thus, one might hypothesize that”Hapworth” represents an attempt by Salinger to readdress his earlier fiction, and more radically alter his style, moving away from the traditional structures of the American short story to reflect his spiritual Eastern-influenced themes.
This would explain “Hapworth’s” rambling and meandering style: rather than forcing his story into a conventional linear structure, it follows the contours of the mind. However, unlike the modernist form of stream-of-consciousness, “Hapworth” is both internal and external at the same time: in addressing his letter to his family, Seymour the narrator is communicating externally; but, at the same time, large portions of the letter seem to be directed at himself. And perhaps the same could be said for Salinger: through “Hapworth” he is addressing both the reader and himself.
Amid all of this, however, the story does have a strange kind of structure, though it is one of circularity. Moments from the beginning have their corresponding counterparts at the end, and yet nothing is really tied up neatly. For instance, in the letter’s opening, Seymour expresses his belief that it is every individual’s moral duty to act kindly without hope of reward: “without examining […the recipient of a good deed’s] face or combing it for gratitude;” and just before signing off he mentions an acquaintance’s need “to see the grateful recipients’ faces in person when he does them a favor.” Here Salinger is trying to reconcile the moral ideal with the imperfection of human nature. And indeed, despite Seymour’s almost superhuman abilities, “Hapworth” reveals a “humanness” in the character that is rarely glimpsed in the other Glass stories.
However, the presentation of such “humanness” is arguably Salinger’s undoing. By revealing too much of Seymour, who had previously been conspicuously physically absent from most of the Glass stories, Salinger shatters the enigma, and reveals the man behind the curtain. It is clear this was his intention, as the story revolves around the conflict between the spirit and body, but for many devotees of the Glass saga, uniting the saintly Seymour of the previous stories with the angry and pretentious Seymour of “Hapworth” is too great an ask.
Still, Salinger fans will find plenty of interest in “Hapworth,” not least the familiar upbeat style — a balance of the intellectual and the colloquial — complete with the trademark tautology and adjectival listing that came to define much of Salinger’s later work. And one could also argue that while revealing Seymour’s imperfection — “Do not think me infallible! I am utterly fallible!” — spoils the mystery of the character, it also opens up new enigmas, such as the possibility that the letter is inauthentic, and is in fact authored by Buddy, Seymour’s younger brother.
Buddy’s voice is apparent via a brief introduction before the letter begins, in which he assures us twice that he intends to type up an “exact copy,” which is what we will read. This over-assurance is immediately suspicious, and the opening line, in which Seymour states “I will write for us both,” might also serve as evidence. Inconsistencies in the text, such as Seymour’s not knowing the address his parents are staying at, reinforce this hypothesis, but, once again, there is no concrete proof, only further and deeper mystery.
This is the crux of “Hapworth” — it defies interpretation, and in this way stands as Salinger’s ultimate embodiment of the Glass family’s ideals. Just four years earlier he had admitted that Buddy was his “alter-ego,” blurring the lines between fiction and reality, and here we see him bringing the ideals of his fictional world into the reality of his work as a writer. In Franny and Zooey, Salinger quotes at length from Swami Prabhavananda: “You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work.” “Hapworth” can be seen as a culmination of this ideal, as it represents Salinger writing purely for himself, and for the pleasure of the work. The fact that he continued to write for the rest of his life, but ceased publishing, also meant he was rejecting considerable “fruits:” Franny and Zooey spent 25 weeks at the top of The New York Times fiction bestseller list in 1961-1962, for instance.
Whether or not any of this was intentional on Salinger’s part is purely speculative, but one cannot deny that he took considerable risks with “Hapworth,” and that, as Roger Lathbury has argued, “For refusing to repeat his popular successes, Salinger deserves respect and honor.” Thus, ironically, the very complaint critics had of his later work (that it was becoming too self-involved) is the very thing that makes it unique — no other American writer ever created so complete a retreat into his or her fictional world.
The story itself remains ambiguous, and a thorn in the side of Salinger fans and scholars alike. Nonetheless, the exaggerated critical drubbing it received should not put new readers off, and it remains, undeniably, a true original. Within “Hapworth 16, 1924,” J.D. Salinger praises this very quality — “Close on the heels of kindness, originality is one of the most thrilling things in the world, also the most rare!” — suggesting perhaps that this was his primary goal. In that sense, at least, he succeeded.
“Hapworth 16, 1924” was published in The New Yorker on June 19, 1965 and has never been republished. It is available to read in The Complete New Yorker.
All quotations by Roger Lathbury are from personal email correspondences.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
Did Dickens invent Christmas? It’s sometimes said he did, recreating the holiday as we know it out of the neglect that had been imposed on it by Puritanism, Utilitarianism, and the Scrooge-like forces of the Industrial Revolution. But Dickens himself would hardly have said he invented the traditions he celebrated: the mission of his Ghost of Christmas Present, after all, is to show the spirit and customs of the holiday are authentic and alive among the people, not just humbug. But A Christmas Carol did appear alongside the arrival in Victorian England of some of the modern traditions of the holiday. It was published in 1843, the same year the first commercial Christmas cards were printed in England, and two years after Prince Albert brought the German custom of the Christmas tree with him to England after his marriage to Queen Victoria.
Christmas was undoubtedly Dickens’s favorite holiday, and he made it a tradition of his own. A Christmas Carol was the first of his five almost-annual Christmas books (he regretted skipping a year in 1847 while working on Dombey and Son; he was “very loath to lose the money,” he said. “And still more so to leave any gap at Christmas firesides which I ought to fill”), and then for eighteen more years he published Christmas editions of his magazines Household Words and All the Year Round. And the popular and exhausting activity that nearly took over the last decades of his career, his public reading of his own works, began with his Christmas stories. For years they remained his favorite texts to perform, whether it was December or not.
One of the Christmas traditions Dickens most wanted to celebrate is one mostly forgotten now: storytelling. The early Christmas numbers of Household Words were imagined as stories told around the fireplace, often ghost stories like A Christmas Carol. It’s an easily forgotten detail that the classic American ghost tale, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, is also told around the Christmas hearth. James begins his tale with the mention of a story told among friends “round the fire,” about which we learn little except that it was “gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be,” and that it involved a child. Three nights later that story inspires another, even stranger and more unsettling and involving not one child but two, a ratcheting of dread that gave James the title for his tale.
Telling ghost stories around the hearth might have declined since Dickens’s and James’s times, but it’s striking how important the voice of the storyteller remains in more recent Christmas traditions: Dylan Thomas, nostalgic for the winters of his childhood in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”; Jean Shepherd, nostalgic for the Red Ryder air rifles of his own childhood in In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, later adapted, with Shepherd’s own narration, into the cable TV staple A Christmas Story; and David Sedaris, nostalgic for absolutely nothing from his years as an underpaid elf in the “SantaLand Diaries,” the NPR monologue that launched his storytelling career.
Gather round the fire with these December tales:
Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter (1845)
In a Christmas tale of sparkling simplicity, a small brother and sister, heading home from grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve across a mountain pass, find their familiar path made strange and spend a wakeful night in an ice cave on a glacier as the Northern Lights–which the girl takes as a visit from the Holy Child–flood the dark skies above them.
The Chemical History of a Candle by Michael Faraday (1861)
Dickens was not the only Victorian with a taste for public speaking: Faraday created the still-ongoing series of Christmastime scientific lectures for young people at the Royal Institution, the best known of which remains his own, a classic of scientific explanation for readers of any age.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)
If you were one of the March girls, you’d read the copies of The Pilgrim’s Progress you found under your pillow on Christmas morning, but we’ll excuse you if you prefer to read about the Marches themselves instead.
Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara (1934)
Julian English’s three-day spiral to a lonely end, burning every bridge he can in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, from the day before Christmas to the day after, is inexplicable, inevitable, and compelling, the inexplicability of his self-destruction only adding to his isolation.
“The Birds” by Daphne du Maurier (1952)
Hitchcock transplanted the unsettling idea of mass avian malevolence in du Maurier’s story from the blustery December coast of England to the Technicolor brightness of California, but the original, told with the terse modesty of postwar austerity, still carries a greater horror.
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951)
Holden’s not supposed to be back from Pencey Prep for Christmas vacation until Wednesday, but since he’s been kicked out anyway, he figures he might as well head to the city early and take it easy in some inexpensive hotel before going home all rested up and feeling swell.
Instead of a Letter by Diana Athill (1963)
The “twenty years of unhappiness” recounted in Athill’s memoir, after her fiancé wrote to say he was marrying someone else just before being killed in the war, ended on her forty-first birthday with the news she had won the Observer’s Christmas story competition (the same prize that launched Muriel Spark’s career seven years before).
Tape for the Turn of the Year by A. R. Ammons (1965)
The long poem was a form made for Ammons, with its space to wander around, contradict himself, and turn equally to matters quotidian and cosmic, as he does in this lovely experiment that, in a sort of serious joke on Kerouac, he composed on a single piece of adding machine tape from December 1963 to early January 1964.
Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie (1976)
Want to extend The Catcher in the Rye’s feeling of unrequited holiday ennui well into your twenties? Spend the days before New Year’s with Charles, impatient, blunt, and love-struck over a married woman whom he kept giving Salinger books until she couldn’t bear it anymore.
The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth (1979)
The brash and eventful fictional life of Nathan Zuckerman, which Roth extended in another eight books, starts quietly in this short novel (one of Roth’s best), with his abashed arrival on a December afternoon at the country retreat of his idol, the reclusive novelist E. I. Lonoff.
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (1998)
Head south with the snowbirds to the humid swamps of Florida as Orlean investigates the December theft of over two hundred orchids from state swampland and becomes fascinated by its strangely charismatic primary perpetrator, John Laroche.
Stalingrad by Antony Beevor (1999)
Or perhaps your December isn’t cold enough. Beevor’s authoritative account of the siege of Stalingrad, the wintry graveyard of Hitler’s plans to conquer Russia, captures the nearly incomprehensible human drama that changed the course of the war at a cost of a million lives.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
Didion’s year of grief, recorded in this clear-eyed memoir, began with her husband’s sudden death on December 30, 2003, and ended on the last day of 2004, the first day, as she realized to her sorrow, that he hadn’t seen the year before.
Last Day at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan (2007)
Manny DeLeon will be all right—he has a transfer to a nearby Olive Garden set up—but in his last shift as manager of a Connecticut Red Lobster, shutting down for good with a blizzard on the way, he becomes a sort of saint of the corporate service economy in O’Nan’s modest marvel of a novel.
December by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter (2012)
Two German artists reinvent the calendar book, with Richter’s photographs of snowy, implacable winter and Kluge’s enigmatic anecdotes from Decembers past, drawing from 21,999 b.c. to 2009 a.d. but circling back obsessively to the two empires, Nazi and Soviet, that met at Stalingrad.
I first heard of Charles D’Ambrosio in a fiction workshop that put a lot of emphasis on craft. By that I mean that every sentence in every short story was examined carefully, not only for its meaning and utility, but for its beauty, its distinction, and, most elusively, for how it “worked” within the entire story. There is a luxury to this approach that sometimes strikes me as too self-conscious, but in the right hands, it can lead to precise, indelible writing. D’Ambrosio’s prose has this rare integrity. In the preface to Loitering, his new essay collection, he writes: “I worked on each of these pieces a stupidly long time, with a determination that was fueled, in part, by vanity. I wanted the writing to live an independent life and not rely on passing opinion or the ephemeral realities of alt-weeklies to make its way in the world.”
D’Ambrosio is probably best known for his short stories, which have been featured in The New Yorker and collected in two books, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum. His essays have been collected once before, in a book called Orphans, but that volume had a limited reach (only 3,500 copies were printed) and D’Ambrosio never got quite the readership he deserved. Loitering corrects that mistake, gathering together the essays from Orphans, along with some new ones that have been published over the past decade. The result is a twenty-year retrospective of D’Ambrosio’s career.
The oldest essays in Loitering were first published in Seattle’s The Stranger, where he was given carte blanche and plenty of space—as long as he didn’t expect a big payday. I can’t imagine another writer using that freedom more wisely. D’Ambrosio’s first essays are among his best, especially “Seattle, 1974,” a beautifully woven memoir about growing up in the Pacific Northwest and feeling estranged from the rest of the country—and then, in turn, being shaped by that feeling of estrangement. It’s a moody, melancholy piece of writing that brought me straight back to the early 1990s, when the West Coast seemed farther away than it does now, and when certain regions of the country seemed to exist in greater isolation.
Another standout essay from that early period is “Whaling Out West,” which circles around a debate between animal-rights groups and the Makah Tribe, who hunt whales. D’Ambrosio gently takes apart the position of animal-rights groups, pointing out how certain animals are romanticized and turned into mascots: “Abstract love is the nosy neighbor of abstract hate…neither one of them really tests disinterestedness, the ability to make tragic choices between things of equal worthiness and legitimacy.” But “Whaling Out West” isn’t only an essay about environmental politics. It’s also about D’Ambrosio ambivalence about whether or not to have children, which he frames in terms of procreation versus extinction: “As the extant capable male in my family, I either perpetuate our name or wipe it off the earth forever.”
D’Ambrosio’s family is never far from his mind. He’s haunted by the suicide of his youngest brother and the attempted suicide of his surviving brother, a legacy he alludes to often and addresses directly in “Documents,” an essay about letters from family members, including a painful correspondence between D’Ambrosio and his father as they try to make sense of their shared loss. In this and other instances, D’Ambrosio’s struggles with his father are laid bare. Of his father’s letters, D’Ambrosio writes: “I’ve often thought that the unit of measure that best suits prose in the human breath, but there was no air in my father’s sentences; he seemed to be suffocating inside them.” There’s frustration in this observation, but also compassion, and you feel D’Ambrosio’s deep connection to his subject.
D’Ambrosio is best on the subject of suicide and family in “Salinger and Sobs,” one of a handful of pieces of literary criticism in this collection. It explores the theme of suicide in Salinger’s fiction and asks how this theme relates to Salinger’s ultimate silence as a writer. Like a lot of people, I read Salinger when I was a teenager and I haven’t looked back much since then. But D’Ambrosio came to Salinger as an adult and his perspective was, to me, utterly refreshing. He rejects the idea that The Catcher in the Rye is a coming of age novel, instead seeing it as a story about the loss of familial identity after the death of a sibling. This is obviously a subject that D’Ambrosio knows about firsthand, and he is onto Salinger in a way that other critics aren’t: “It’s my suspicion that the [familial] refuge isn’t really a haven the way Holden imagines it—nor is it safe for Salinger, who seems to defang his work by taking the parents out of almost every story.” D’Ambrosio is also attuned to the ways that Seymour Glass’s suicide is elided: “Salinger never really looks at the role of parents in family life, and never examines, in particular, their position re: Seymour’s suicide…the other thing not present in Salinger’s work is outright anger toward Seymour or a sense of doubt about him. As Buddy [Glass] describes him, Seymour really has no flaws at all, and to me this absence of flaws and of anger and doubt is a texture that’s conspicuously absent.” D’Ambrosio argues that these omissions feel like a kind of secrecy rather than restraint or artfulness, and he asks how this feeling of secrecy relates to Salinger’s eventual withdrawal from the world.
Another essay that meditates on the subject of absent parents is “Orphans,” an account of D’Ambrosio’s trip to a Russian orphanage. He’s there as a reporter, but he’s not chasing any particular story, he just wants to see what it’s like to live in an orphanage, a world without parents. There are many beautiful and funny passages in this essay, including this one, about the orphanage’s interiors: “Things inside were so worn and rubbed and handled by living beings that the interior had lost a lot of its rectangularity, and was replaced, instead, by a roundedness, a kind of inner burrowed shaped arrived at by working the materials from within, like the nest of wren.”
The mix of criticism, reportage, and memoir in these essays reminded me of Leslie Jamison’s recent collection, The Empathy Exams, and also of Michelle Orange’s 2013 collection, This is Running for Your Life. It’s the kind of hybrid nonfiction that is flourishing right now, thanks in part to the flexibility of Internet outlets. However, D’Ambrosio doesn’t seem to be writing in response to and alongside Internet culture in quite the same way as Orange and Jamison. This could simply be that D’Ambrosio is slightly older (he was born in 1968) and not as profoundly shaped by the medium, or it could be that he takes a slower approach to writing. In any case, he feels like the older brother to this younger generation of essayists, and I was interested to notice that Jamison actually thanks D’Ambrosio in the acknowledgements of The Empathy Exams. Her note provides a little window onto his aesthetic: “I feel an abiding and evolving gratitude to Charlie D’Ambrosio, who taught me early that the problem with an essay can eventually become its subject.”
I like Jamison’s acknowledgement because it explains to me why I had so much trouble summarizing D’Ambrosio’s essays for this review. I kept returning to his preface, his idea of letting his essays “live an independent life.” What I admired most about these essays is the way each one takes its own shape, never conforming to an expected narrative or feeling the need to answer all the questions housed within. D’Ambrosio allows his essays their ambivalence, and this gives ideas space to move freely across time, so that even “Seattle, 1974,” which was published twenty years ago, reflecting upon a time twenty years before, speaks to the present day.
One night in the early 1980s, Jay McInerney, then a twenty-something wannabe writer, stumbled home after an epic evening of partying and heard an insistent voice in his head saying, “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.” He dashed off a quick paragraph about the night he’d just spent at a club talking with a girl with a shaved head and wishing he could get his hands on some more “Bolivian Marching Powder.” A short time later, editor George Plimpton called him to say he’d liked a story McInerney had sent to The Paris Review and hoped McInerney had something else he might want to submit. Rooting through his old notebooks, McInerney found the scrawled paragraph about his night at the club, and in the space of a few hours, wrote an entire story in that angry, ironical, self-disgusted second-person voice.
Plimpton published the story, “It’s Six A.M., Do You Know Where You Are?” in The Paris Review, and in 1984, with the help of his best friend from college, Random House editor Gary Fisketjon, McInerney turned it into a 182-page novel, Bright Lights, Big City, which became an instant bestseller, making McInerney at once among the most popular and most vilified writers in America. Three years later, the Village Voice labeled McInerney, along with Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz, as part of the Literary Brat Pack, setting off an orgy of media hype that continues to dog these authors to this day.
Even now, as the novel marks its 30th anniversary, it is nearly impossible to separate one’s opinion of Bright Lights from one’s opinion of its author. This is in no small part McInerney’s fault. At the height of his fame, he partied hard and publicly; he dated models, said inane things in magazine profiles, and earned a rightful place in untold numbers of nasty gossip columns. He has married four times and written six more novels, many of them bad, one or two of them truly execrable. In latter years, McInerney has become almost a parody of his younger self: a red-faced dandy with presidential hair, married to a Hearst heiress, who writes wine columns for the Wall Street Journal.
But forget all that. Forget, too, the unwatchable screen version of Bright Lights starring a painfully miscast Michael J. Fox. Forget the later books. Forget the careers of McInerney’s fellow Brat Packers, none of whom has written a good novel in the last twenty years. Set all of that aside, and just read the book. If you do, you may well find that, pried loose from the perpetual noise machine that surrounds its author and the lore of its publication, Bright Lights, Big City appears, hidden in plain sight, as one of the great undiscovered gems of post-World War II American literature.
Put simply, Bright Lights, Big City is the story of a young, handsome man-child very much like Jay McInerney, who works in the Department of Factual Verification of a famous magazine very much like The New Yorker. Abandoned by his fashion-model wife, Amanda, and mourning a private sorrow, the novel’s narrator snorts enough cocaine to float a South American junta, gets fired from the famous magazine, and nearly has his hand bitten off by enraged ferret. In the end, he reunites with his family, meets a nice Princeton girl with freckles, and in a direct steal from the short story “A Small Good Thing” by McInerney’s mentor Raymond Carver, he finishes the book gorging on fresh bread, resolving “to learn everything all over again.”
But, really, nothing about Bright Lights, Big City is as simple as it seems. Start with those autobiographical details. McInerney was in fact fired from a job as a fact-checker at the New Yorker. He had also been briefly married to a fashion model, Linda Rossiter, before he met a fresh-faced graduate student named Merry Reymond, to whom he dedicated the book. He was also, by his own admission, partying pretty hard and putting a good deal of Bolivia’s finest up his nose.
But it’s a hall of mirrors, these connections between the novel’s protagonist and its author, making it hard to pass judgment on the fictional character without running headlong into his real-life doppelgänger, who has spent the last thirty years looking more fashion-plate-ish and sounding more pompously self-involved than any ordinary reader can be expected to endure. Perusing three decades of magazine-profile McInerniana, one longs to suggest he please stop with the preciously self-conscious comparisons to F. Scott Fitzgerald. One yearns to slip him a note suggesting he try getting his picture taken in something other than a black turtleneck or J. Press sport coat. He might also try being linked to a woman who is neither a model nor a scion to a great newspaper fortune. And would it kill him to go to Supercuts? One $19.95 haircut would do wonders for his literary reputation.
The problem is, of course, that, with some crucial elisions and exaggerations for effect, the unnamed protagonist of Bright Lights, Big City is Jay McInerney, and to fully appreciate his book, we have to see past that to the boldness and prescience of his literary achievement. We live in an age of memoir. Today, every ambitious young person with a problem and a prose style is writing a memoir of his or her misspent youth to the bestseller list, and it isn’t going out on much of a limb to suggest that if McInerney had had that cocaine-fueled moment of clarity today, he would have written a bestselling addiction memoir rather than a bestselling literary novel. In fact, it isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that if the other Brat Packers were starting out today they would be writing memoir rather than fiction – Janowitz about her freaky Lower East Side friends, Ellis about his monstrously vacuous early years in L.A. This may help answer the perennial question: “Whatever happened to the 1980s Literary Brat Pack?” What happened to them is what eventually happens to all young memoirists: they ran out of source material.
But the secret to Bright Lights, Big City, what makes it feel so fresh thirty years later, is that it’s not a memoir. In 1984, the addiction memoir didn’t exist as a popular form the way it does today, so McInerney drew his stylistic guidance from an older tradition of voice-driven American literature that runs through J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The voice at the center of Bright Lights may be spoiled and petulant, but it also is unmistakably American: fatally romantic, distrustful of authority, and democratic to a fault, even as it sounds its barbaric yawp over the rooftop parties of the world.
It may sound strange to call McInerney’s narrator, so famously obsessed with status and designer goods, democratic, but one of the things that emerges from a rereading of Bright Lights is how deeply middle American his voice sounds. For all his velvet-rope hopping and faux French phrases, deep down the narrator is just a wide-eyed kid gawking at the passing parade of humanity called New York City, and one of the pleasures of the book is how effortlessly it allows you to gawk along with him.
The New York of Bright Lights, Big City is a city poised on the knife-edge of change. For decades, upwardly mobile young white people like McInerney’s narrator had been fleeing to the suburbs, where John Updike’s and John Cheever’s protagonists lived, leaving the five boroughs a cauldron of poverty, crime, and ethnic unrest. But in the years after the city nearly went bankrupt in the 1970s, the poles abruptly reversed. Knowledge industries like banking, media, and fashion design, which had stayed in New York even as its manufacturing base evaporated, hit their stride again, and upwardly mobile young white people – the adventurous ones, anyway – started beating a track back to the city, snapping up cheap apartments in formerly industrial and working-class neighborhoods like SoHo and the West Village.
Bright Lights, Big City puts you at the heart of this historic shift, riding the subways where Hasidic Jews – “gnomes in black with briefcases full of diamonds” – study scripture beside Rastafarians reeking “of sweat and reefer”; and walking the streets where vendors sell everything from drugs and fake watches to real, live wild ferrets. The daily clash between this rougher, more tribal New York and the new college-educated elite flooding the city gives the novel its vivid backdrop and hastens the narrator toward his drug-fueled self-immolation.
McInerney reports it all with great humor and a raptor’s eye for squirming detail, but it’s the second-person voice that makes it lasting literature. By telling his own story through a fictional avatar called “you,” McInerney manages the trick of creating three characters from one protagonist. On the one hand, the character is Jay McInerney, a real person who experienced misadventures very similar to those described in the book and who thus possesses the credibility granted to any memoirist. At the same time, he is a fictional construct for whom all the traditional rules of narrative apply: we can laugh at his foibles and voyeuristically feel his pain, all the while knowing he isn’t real.
But finally – this is the magic part – he is literally “you,” each and every one of McInerney’s readers, the thousands of suburban-bred Americans who yearned to be this essentially decent, right-thinking guy who is also a wildly self-destructive drug addict. This was the substance of McInerney’s flash of insight when he turned that scrawled paragraph into a work of fiction: that thousands of readers secretly wanted to be like him. So he let them. In his book, you marry a fashion model. You work at The New Yorker and stay out partying every night till dawn. You own an Aston-Martin sports car that a friend has smashed up and know the waitress by name at the Lion’s Head bar. And when you let it all slip through your fingers, thanks to your unquenchable thirst for the edge, you are saved by the love of a good woman, who is prettier than the fashion model and a doctoral student at Princeton.
The second-person voice performed one last magic act on McInerney himself: it opened him up. Throughout his career, in good books and bad, McInerney’s subject has been beauty and what it masks. Whether he’s writing about socialites or fashion models, writers or investment bankers, the engine of the plot is a dazzling surface that hides an ugly truth. Some books are better than others. His 1992 novel Brightness Falls is a smart, sharply observed take on the go-go Eighties. The Last of the Savages, published in 1997 and set in part in the American South, occasionally manages to rise above McInerney’s general cluelessness about the American South to deliver some moving scenes.
More often than not, though, McInerney’s later novels fail because he is too in love with the surfaces in his characters. Only in Bright Lights, Big City does McInerney truly peel back the mask. What he reveals is not, in the great scheme of things, so awful. The novel’s hero isn’t a sadistic mass murderer like Patrick Bateman from Ellis’s American Psycho. He is merely needy and socially insecure. For this man, the primal scene isn’t catching his parents having sex, but “a ring of schoolchildren, like Indians surrounding a wagon train, laughing with malice, pointing their vicious little fingers to insist on your otherness.” He has since learned the art of appearing to belong, but he has “never quite lost the fear that you eventually would be discovered a fraud, an imposter in the social circle.”
For a man obsessed with belonging – whose girlfriend must always be the prettiest in the room, who must always know the name of the waitress at the Lion’s Head – this is as ugly a truth as it is possible for him to admit. Indeed, his hunger to belong, to have the sexiest wife, the most prestigious job, the best vial of blow south of Fourteenth Street, nearly kills him. In the end, he is saved, but thirty years later, we know how that story turned out. He married the girl from Princeton – actually, she was teaching at Syracuse – and then they divorced, and two wives later, he is the red-faced man in a J. Press sport coat, condemned in every interview to talk about his first, best work.
In the fall of 1995, Joanna Rakoff dropped out of graduate school and returned to her parents’ home in the suburbs. “I want to write my own poetry,” she told her college boyfriend, “not analyze other people’s poetry.” Three months later, having done little more than allow her mother to buy her a wool gabardine suit and put her name in with a placement agency, Rakoff landed a plum job as an assistant to the president of a storied literary agency whose clients had included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, and Agatha Christie.
Though Rakoff never names it in her memoir, My Salinger Year, the literary agency where she worked was Harold Ober Associates, and her boss – again not named – was Phyllis Westberg, whose most famous client was J.D. Salinger, author of the classic young-adult novel The Catcher in the Rye. When Rakoff arrives at Harold Ober in January 1996, the agency does not own a single computer. Agents still track submissions on little pink file cards and Rakoff spends much of her day behind an IBM Selectric typing correspondence recorded for her by Westberg on a 1960s-era Dictaphone machine.
Rakoff’s work is largely secretarial, but it pays $18,500 a year plus benefits and affords Rakoff, now a successful journalist and writer in her 40s, a valuable apprenticeship in the tight-knit world of New York publishing. For readers like myself, who are old enough to have begun their careers in the analog era, Rakoff’s tale carries with it a strong whiff of nostalgia. Like Rakoff, I was a humanities major with great artistic ambitions and little notion how to make good on them, and like Rakoff, I fell backward into a low-paying entry-level job in the culture industry. In my case, despite not having written a news story since high school, I wound up as a reporter at a local newspaper, an experience that gave me on-the-job training I am still using more than 20 years later.
But if you are now 23, the age Rakoff was when she started at Harold Ober, you may have been hung up by this fact: They paid her $18,500 a year, plus benefits. Granted, that’s hardly a lavish salary, just $28,000 in today’s dollars, but it beats interning for no pay, which is how most anyone in Rakoff’s position — college-educated and bright, but without relevant experience or contacts — can expect to start out in publishing today. I would go so far as to suggest that this helps explain the sleeper success of My Salinger Year, which has already gone into its third printing and been sold to the movies.
Every year, droves of smart young people from America’s best universities come to live in Brooklyn and work in New York publishing, just as Rakoff did 18 years ago, drawn at least in part by an image of working in hushed, book-lined offices where art and commerce meet and famous authors regularly drop by for martini-soaked lunches. What they find is an industry beset by tectonic shifts in technology and consumer leisure habits, in a knife fight against a certain Seattle-based e-tailer that now controls a third of its business. Against this backdrop, Rakoff’s tale of Dictaphones and gabardine suits, in which a literary agent could say in all seriousness, “I don’t know what an electronic book is, but I’m not giving away the rights to it,” can sound like a fairy tale set in a mythical land.
Of course, part of the joke of My Salinger Year is that the literary world Rakoff enters exists nowhere but at Harold Ober Associates. By 1996, the tech boom was underway and a generation of younger people, including Rakoff, had grown up using computers, but Harold Ober is still a world of paper in which even form letters must be individually typed by hand and the office photocopier is considered newfangled. “Until just a few years prior,” Rakoff writes, “assistants had typed every letter in duplicate, inserting into their typewriters a paper sandwich consisting of a thick sheet of creamy letterhead, a slender black wisp of carbon, and a piece of soft, pulpy yellow paper on which the carbon imprinted a copy of the note.”
The quaintness of the agency’s office fixtures — the dark-wood paneling and dim lighting, the heavy black desk phones and the “statuesque” receptionist answering them — is matched by its old-school business culture. Westberg, who swans into work at 10 “swathed in a whiskey mink, her eyes covered with enormous dark glasses, her head with a silk scarf in an equestrian pattern,” doesn’t believe in multiple submissions and abhors publisher bidding wars, which she considers “uncouth.” “We send things out to one editor at a time,” she tells Rakoff. “We match writers with editors. We have morals.”
Morals Westberg may have, but her stodginess is costing her clients — except of course for J.D. “Jerry” Salinger, whose hit books from the 1950s and ’60s, including Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey, are still keeping the lights on. Save for a single brief appearance, Salinger remains an off-stage presence, a distant voice on the phone calling from his compound in Cornish, N.H. Disgusted by modern publishing and overwhelmed by the tidal wave of appreciation his work provokes in his most ardent fans, Salinger has walled himself off from the world, declining to publish the novels he claims to be still writing and refusing to even look at the stacks of letters from readers hungry to share their problems with the creator of Holden Caulfield, American literature’s great cynical romantic.
This leaves Rakoff, as the assistant to Salinger’s agent, the unenviable task of sending letters informing his readers that their literary hero doesn’t want to hear their praise or their problems — a job at which Rakoff fails magnificently. Refusing to simply retype the form letter, whose original dates back to 1963, Rakoff begins composing letters of her own, dispensing consolation and advice as she sees fit. Some write to thank her, while others fume at her presumption, but as a gesture, her espistolary mischief makes sense. Though the pages of My Salinger Year are lousy with writers, at heart this is a book about readers, professional and unprofessional, who hunger for communion with the remote and often troubled authors they revere.
For all her limitations as a literary agent — and they are legion, if Rakoff’s account is to be believed — Westberg is a dedicated professional reader who sees her role in life as fostering an atmosphere in which literary talent can thrive. “For my boss, the Agency was not just a business,” Rakoff writes. “It was a way of life, a culture, a community, a home. It was more in common with an Ivy League secret society or — though it would take me time to see the extent of this — a religion, with its practices defined and its gods to worship, Salinger first and foremost.”
What Rakoff doesn’t say, because anyone who would read an insider’s memoir of the book business already knows it, is that it is precisely these professional readers who have been hurt most by the collapse of the old model of publishing. In the short term at least, the digital age has been a gift to nonprofessional readers. Books, which before chain stores were often expensive and hard to find, are now cheap and available at the push of a button. Readers also have more access to writers than they ever have, to the point that it’s hard to see how a shy, reclusive writer like Salinger or Thomas Pynchon could build a readership in an era of Facebook friending and constant book tours and signings.
Writers, of course, bemoan the withering of the publishing industry, and to a degree they are right to do so. Tight profit margins for publishing houses mean fewer book contracts and smaller advances. But do writers really have it so bad? Without a doubt, there is a gaping hole in the market for writers whose work falls between the plot-driven, Zeitgeisty fiction major publishers still pay big money for and the more literary, craft-driven fiction that ends up at indie houses. These so-called midlist authors, whose toil pays off not in a blaze of bestseller glory, but over the long haul in slow but steady sales, are now being shunted into self-publishing — or more often, are finding themselves recalibrating their work toward the more viable poles of the literary/commercial divide.
Still, thanks to self-publishing and the rise of MFA programs as a subsidy system for poets and literary novelists, writers today have more paths to publication and more ways to make money as writers than has ever been the case. A less-heralded casualty of the digital age is the disintegration of the lower rungs of the ladder that have long led young, smart readers into the caste of professional tastemakers.
Think for a minute of 23-year-old Joanna Rakoff at her humming Selectric typing those form letters to Salinger’s fans. Today, fans communicate directly with authors or with each other online, and if one does route a message through a publishing house or literary agency it is typically deleted unread or farmed out to an unpaid intern. The same goes for Rakoff taking her boss’s correspondence from a Dictaphone. Today, agents and editors handle their own email and use their assistants to screen out people they don’t want to deal with. That’s a real job, as anyone who reports on the publishing industry can tell you, but it’s a lot less work than typing thousands of letters.
Publishing is hardly alone in seeing its lower ranks eviscerated by time-saving digital devices, but in the book business the problem is particularly acute and widespread, affecting not just agents and editors, but critics and booksellers. The top positions in each field still exist and can be well-paid, but the gateway jobs where generations of young people learned the trade, are being devalued or outsourced. In publishing, it’s the near-mandatory unpaid internships that make it so hard for anyone without rich parents to enter the business. In criticism, it’s the blogosphere and reader sites like Goodreads that outmoded the books page in all but a few newspapers and magazines. In bookstores, it’s Amazon that has digitized the recommendation role that well-read independent booksellers play in the lives of their customers. You can still be a passionate reader, but it’s getting harder to make a profession of it.
At the end of My Salinger Year, Rakoff leaves Harold Ober to be a writer, but not before she experiences the thrill of being a professional reader when she helps Westberg sell a story for one of her clients. “Rationally, I know that it’s just a business transaction,” she tells her college boyfriend. “But I can’t help feeling that there is more to it: I brought this story into the world. People will read it because I placed it. Until I placed it, the story belonged only to the writer. Now it will belong to the world.”
In a final twist that will not surprise many, Rakoff reveals that around the same time she left the literary agency, she ditched the nogoodnik writer boyfriend she was living with in Brooklyn, and now many years later, after a failed marriage, she has reunited with the college boyfriend to whom she poured out these first thoughts of readerly pride. Frankly, I found Rakoff’s account of her affairs outside the office less compelling — and less believable — than those of her days in the hopelessly outdated offices of Harold Ober. I was also put off by the book’s coyness in declining to name its central characters, especially since she has identified the major players in earlier versions of the story that can be found with a few keystrokes on Google.
But it is hard not to be charmed by her sepia-toned portrait of a time when a smart young woman in possession of no more than a decent wool suit and rudimentary typing skills could be acculturated into the profession of reading. Maybe it’s just as well that those jobs are going away. It was a sexist system, and a deeply conservative one. Young would-be publishing professionals may find it hard to get paid to learn their trade, but they’re not spending their days fetching coffee and doing things the old way just because that’s the way people have always done them. But it’s a loss, too — one Rakoff captures with elegance and humor in My Salinger Year.
Teju Cole is a novelist, essayist, photographer, art history teacher, and Twitter aphorist. He approaches each of these roles as an amateur. This is a compliment. He is not trying to master any particular form as much as he is trying to work inside each with the curiosity of a young craftsman.
Open City, his first book to appear in the U.S., chronicled the wanderings of Julius, a Nigerian psychology student living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Julius filters ideas one usually encounters in a graduate school seminar through his own precise diction, as he describes the problems that theory often fails to confront. A Japanese-American professor, his mentor, remembers the internment camps of his childhood but sidesteps the subject of his homosexuality until the very end of his life. On a trip to Europe, he encounters anti-Semitic Muslims who harbor a justified paranoia of American power. And finally he finds himself caught within the tentacles of rape culture.
Every Day Is for the Thief, a work of fiction about a man returning home to Lagos from America, was first published in Nigeria in 2007 and is now making its first appearance in the U.S. Cole’s narrator studies Nigeria’s kleptocratic culture with a melancholy eye and considers the constant threat of violence and poverty in one of the 21st century’s megacities. The new edition includes pictures of street scenes Cole took many years after first writing the book. His prose guided but did not dictate the subject matter of his un-posed photographs.
I met Cole in Seattle on March 26. He had a full schedule for his book tour and he wanted to see the central building of Seattle’s Public Library system, a beautiful Rem Koolhaas structure located in the city’s downtown. We got to the lookout point where his reliable 40-year-old Leica M4 busted. He spent most of the hour of our interview trying to fix it. We spent a good portion of our time together standing by the elevators at the top of the building. We went downstairs to the library café for about 20 minutes and then we returned back upstairs. The following is a condensed version of our conversation.
The Millions: You maintain an essayistic voice in both your novels. You have more freedom with that essayistic voice in a novel than you would in an essay, because you are not as responsible for the ideas that are presented.
Teju Cole: I think that’s right. It becomes a way of exploring other ways that things could be, other thoughts that you might have. The master of this is Coetzee.
TM: You are talking about Elizabeth Costello.
[On the camera.] I’m having such a day with this. Why?
And I think that’s interesting, because it actually allows us to confront those ideas in a way that if someone gave a talk about them from their own reasonable or defensive point of view it would not be as provocative or would not get as far with it. Don’t you agree?
TM: I don’t know if I do. With an essay, you are putting much more on the line by saying, “This is what I’m saying. This is who I am.” When you put those ideas in a character, it’s an act of ventriloquism.
TC: Precisely. But you never know [whether the character or the author is speaking.] And because you don’t know which that sets up an interesting tension between the reader, the author, and the narrator or the leading character. Personally, I find it very intriguing.
TM: Well, it may be one of the reasons why Proust lives on. We read these thoughts filtered through a narrator who is not Proust.
TC: But who may be close enough to being Proust that we’re not sure. And I’m especially interested in those characters who advance ideas that I would find less attractive or a bit less friendly.
[Fiddling with the camera.] I’m sorry. I’m not distracted, but I’m being mechanical and I’m listening to you.
TM: You had a line at the beginning of your essay “The White Savior Industrial Complex” that a good novel does not have a point. How does that apply to the essay as it compares to the novel?
TC: That’s an interesting example to bring up. Because it’s probably my best-known essay, but it’s definitely not my best essay, and I think you know that. It’s an essay that is definitely meant to have a point. It is actually an activist essay. I’ve done long non-fiction narratives that contain ideas in them that I like as much as anything I’ve done that is fictional…Yes, an essay still has a point. It’s also exploratory, but fiction is more exploratory. And the analogy I would give is of people who take a picture of something like that yellow sign over there. [points to sign describing rules of library etiquette.] They say, “This is the frame,” and you take a picture of the object. But what I strive for both in fiction, but also in the best non-fiction that I try to write, is to actually take a photo of a situation rather than an object.
So, if I take a picture of this right now, [points to view of street down below from the perspective of the lookout point] there’s no object I’m taking a picture of. I’m taking a picture of the light on the glass, the vehicles down there, the zebra crossings, how they interact with these crossings over here [points to the railings and the diagonal frames on the windows.] That complexity is the subject as opposed to taking a picture of an object.
I think an essay might do that. I’m interested in how one might break the essay and do new things to it. So, in that particular essay, I made this assertion. An essay has a point and a novel does not. Well, that particular essay had a point, but many essays actually do not. However, I stand by that essay. I thought that essay was necessary. Absolutely. I 100 percent stand by it.
TM: I found Every Day Is for the Thief incredibly depressing.
TC: Could I tell you that many Nigerians thought it was hilarious?
TM: Well, that’s my question. I thought that if Naipaul had written some of those scenes, I would have been laughing.
TC: Interesting. Why?
TM: Well, he wouldn’t talk about the terrible pressures that the environment created.
TC: He would distance it and he would not bring in the personalized pathos of these people’s lives.
TM: You are writing about this kleptocratic culture.
TC: And I try to bring across the hurt of it as well.
TM: Yes, and the constant pressure, the feeling of betrayal over and over again, the inability to have a fellow feeling with the person you see walking down the street.
TC: Right. Right.
TM: Now, when Naipaul writes about it…
TC: He’s straightforward and brutal about it. He’s like, “I don’t give a shit about these people. I’m going to tell you how ridiculous they are.” And he can also be quite funny about it. I find it quite painful to read him when it comes to this stuff.
TM: But I didn’t laugh when I was reading your book.
TC: Except if you were Nigerian you would laugh, because that’s the only thing you could do. That was a very pleasant surprise for me when the book came out in Nigeria, that people really did find it hilarious.
TM: You did not intend it to be that way.
TC: Not so much, because I’m also writing with the sad distance of somebody who doesn’t live there anymore.
[Fidgeting with the camera.] It’s a comic sequence. This has never happened to me before. It takes me one minute to change some film. I’ve struggled with it and I’ve made certain things loose and now it’s not working. It’s not loving me back.
TM: Open City was mostly just as fragmented as Every Day Is for the Thief. You didn’t have a sense of an arc until the last 50 pages or so.
TC: There’s a way in which Open City…is actually a more conventional novel. I don’t call Every Day Is for the Thief a novel. I call it a work of fiction, or when pressed I’ll say it is a novella. So Open City is more novelistic. It does have these instances of continuous drama that have been foreshadowed and all of that interweaving. So there’s a certain sophistication to the way that it is all working together.
What I’m experiencing now that Every Day is for the Thief is being reviewed [are] the normal ways people talk about a person’s earlier work, not that Open City is [earlier]…just [how they talk about] other work that they know. Quite amazingly, almost uniformly, they all like Open City. So this is the benefit of the distance of time. “If all you motherfuckers had shown up when it came out!” It’s now this settled thing that Open City is a good thing…But as the author I know there was a lot of hemming and hawing about that book when it came out. “Oh nothing happens. Or the stuff that happens at the end is not resolved.”
TM: The second to last chapter is what made that novel work for me.
TC: There was a lovely review in The Times by Miguel Syjuco, a really, really positive review, and he thought that the end was an amateur move.
TM: To me Julius was the intellectual 30-something version of a likable narrator in a young adult novel.
TC: Absolutely. Absolutely. The Catcher in the Rye is one of the not-often-noticed shadows of this book.
TM: He’s an interesting person for you to listen to, and you like his observations. But he is capable of committing something so heinous.
TC: And that exactly is the point.
TM: That might be the best defense for the essay in the novel form. I guess it’s similar to what Coetzee does in Elizabeth Costello.
TC: Which, by the way, was panned.
TM: Well, there’s something of a consensus that since he’s moved to Australia he’s not as good.
TC: That’s right. I think that’s a bullshit consensus. He’s making it work. He can’t just sit back and relax on what has worked. That’s not how he got to where he is. He found out how far he could go with conventional forms. Now he has to interrogate those forms, and go farther and farther with them. It’s hard to part ways with an audience that would like to keep liking you in the ways they’ve always liked you. But that’s the way creativity is. That’s why late work is so puzzling.
Every Day Is for the Thief had been widely read in Nigeria. When Open City came out it was met with quite a bit of excitement there and almost total puzzlement. Like, “It’s too bad, he lost it. He had a good thing going there.”
I’m sorry to make you stand.
[On the camera] I’ve brought it all the way across this continent. And I’ll be damned if I can’t use it. And I can see the damn thing. I can see this picture and not being able to take this damn thing. The light’s been changing the whole time we’ve been here. It’s driving me nuts. This is not what I’m here for. This is nonsense.
[Takes a picture with his smartphone.]
To me it’s an interesting image.
This is my friend, this machine. I love it very much and now I’m a little bit worried.
[We go downstairs to the café where he continues to toy with his camera.]
TM: In this work of fiction, Every Day Is for the Thief, you are describing objects that were never there. So when I read this work of fiction and see these photographs, suggesting you are taking pictures of real things…it’s jarring.
TC: Well the thing you are reading was not made out of whole cloth. Already a lot of what you are reading leans toward memoir. But you know a lot of it must have been made up, not just because of the label, but because of some of the texture of the recollection. It is too precise not to be made up in some way. There are a number of coincidences in this book that almost nobody picks up that I’m embedding inside the text. So then you’re struggling. “It’s reading a lot like a memoir, but I want it to be fiction because it says it’s fiction.” And then you see these photos and it seems someone went on a trip and took these photos.
[Points to picture of a goat on the street, which relates to a passage in the book.] I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, but…I didn’t have to set that up. It’s a street photo. It was by chance and by patience and just by the way anyone makes a street photograph that’s worth keeping. One thing I’ll say about this photograph is that this photograph appeared about seven years after the text, but it wasn’t posed. It is a street scene from Lagos. [These photographs] are also works of fiction.
TM: [One passage in the book describes a lynching, a filming of which circulated on VHS tapes.] You can’t photograph a lynching.
TC: I could go out and photograph a lynching, but that’s not what I want to do. You see this and you see that.
TM: No, you couldn’t do a lynching. Not in this book.
TC: Well maybe not here in the U.S.
TM: Well not in this book. It wouldn’t be acceptable.
TC: To whom? Maybe Random House would not want to publish it for its own reasons. But I totally could. You don’t understand what it’s like on the street over there. You have never driven down the street and seen a body decomposing for three days. It’s inconceivable. It’s not inconceivable in Lagos. And nothing would stop me from leaning out of a car and taking that picture. And you can go on YouTube and see lynchings.
TM: Yes, but you still wouldn’t put it in the book.
TC: The reason I wouldn’t put it in the book is because it wouldn’t function psychologically the way I want it to function in the book.
TM: Exactly, that’s what I’m getting at. Everything else is much more emotive.
TC: That’s right. Most of the photos in this book are anti-spectacular pictures.
TM: The photographic evidence of a child being lynched here would be assaultive.
TC: That would not keep it from being in the book, and I’ll tell you why. If you look at the work of someone like Sebald there are pictures not of piles of bodies, but of camps and empty interiors of cells or whatever. We have seen pictures of Auschwitz. They do exist. And they have a role that they play in these narratives. So it’s not impossible. It’s just that I was trying to do something different in this book. I was trying to present a series of pictures that if you did not read the text and you just looked at each photograph in the sequence that is presented, there is a kind of psychological mood that I’m building, which is quite similar to the one of the book. I think of it as a slant rhyme. [The photographs] rhyme with the book in a slant way.
TM: Not having that image of a lynching in this book plays off the narrator’s own desire not to look at something like this.
TC: It’s true, except that he does relive it in great detail. I don’t know. There’s definitely an aversion from the horror. When you’re in Lagos, you can’t avert your eyes. I’ve seen people being burnt. You can’t not see it. I don’t know. It’s a little complicated. I don’t know what role photography plays in terms of that particular act of violence. But if that’s what you want to do in a place like Lagos, you can do it because that’s a place where things like this happen and you can see the aftermath.
[He finally fixes his camera.]
Can we stroll up there before we lose the light?
[We head back upstairs.]
TM: There’s this idea that the maximum city is this late 20th-/early 21st-century phenomenon. Your approach to writing about [New York as well as the maximum city of Lagos] is [through the] intimate view of the flaneur, or stroller. Why?
TC: I think it’s because I believe in small-scale stories as a thing that can be revealing about what is true of a place. You don’t need to be that guy [Kenneth] Jackson, the guy who does those big New York books. You could do it that way, as an encyclopedia. Do we need that? Nobody needs to read a 1200-page history of New York.
Now I’m writing a non-fiction book about Lagos. It’s more panoramic. It’s going to owe a lot to Every Day Is for the Thief, to Open City, [but also to] [Orhan Pamuk’s] Istanbul, to [Michael Ondaatje’s] Running in the Family. It’s going to have a lot of those essayistic/memoir-ish aspects but it also will have lots of interviews.
TM: Do you love Lagos?
TM: Do you love New York?
TM: I sensed that in both books.
TC: It’s funny. When I was writing Open City I thought I hated New York. As I was writing it, I saw it was a love letter. When I was writing Every Day Is for the Thief, I had a love/hate relationship with Lagos. But then afterwards I realized that I love Lagosians, but I hate Lagos. Because I hate what the city does to the people who live there.
[Problem with the camera] Once again. Unbelievable.
TM: Are you drawn to write about Lagos from a feeling of responsibility?
TC: That’s how it’s being sold, but even if you don’t love the place, it’s an interesting subject. You don’t become a war reporter because you love war. You report on war because it expands and complicates our idea of what war is. As a Nigerian-American who lives in the United States, I would like to complicate our sense of what Nigeria is, of what Lagos is, of what Africa is like. So that’s why I write about it. Not because I hate it. Not because I’m from there. I’m working on my second book on it, and it probably won’t be my last.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Recently J.K. Rowling dropped a bombshell on the smoking remnants of one of the fiercest shipping wars of the last decade: “I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.” It’s from an interview conducted by Hermione herself, Emma Watson, excerpted in the Sunday Times; the full article, in an issue of Wonderland Magazine guest-edited by Watson, came out on Friday. (The words “publicity stunt” may be floating around, but that kind of speculation is useless.) The ladies, bafflingly, “agree[d] that Harry and Hermione were a better match than Ron and Hermione,” Ron wouldn’t be able to satisfy Hermione’s needs, and the pair as she wrote them would need relationship counseling. And then the internet exploded.
OK, first of all, JKR, please just stop. Is the most aggravating thing about all of this the fact that Hermione doesn’t belong with either of these jokers? Was there literally anyone else for her to get with? (Rowling’s shoddy math suggests possibly not; despite the insistence in an early interview that “there are about a thousand students at Hogwarts,” there remain just eight Gryffindors in the matriculating class of ’98, suggesting no more than three dozen in the entire year, a whole house of which remain irredeemably, mustache-twirlingly evil despite seven books in which to write convincing moral ambivalence and complexity. But I digress.)
But also, JKR, please just stop — for reasons that have a lot to do with literature. Because the weirdest thing about the statement is the “wish fulfillment” bit, which I’ve seen interpreted many different ways, none of them satisfactory. My read of it is accompanied by this question: how is a writer setting down a plot from her head wish fulfillment? Forced, sure — this certainly wasn’t the only instance where it seemed that Rowling was stifled by the tyranny of the outline she mapped out more than a decade before penning The Deathly Hallows. (I spent years wondering how the hell the final word would, as promised, be “scar,” though by the time I got to the last page of the epilogue I was too infuriated to care.)
This isn’t the first time that Rowling has “revealed” further details about her characters, as if she is their publicist rather than their creator. The Dumbledore announcement was, admittedly, totally awesome, for the political ramifications at the very least. But Rowling seems insistent on undercutting her authorial intent, or her position as omniscient narrator, the sort of “I would have loved for this to happen” statement, it’s like, really? I was under the impression that you were making all the things happen. (The full article in Wonderland—or the full interview, excerpted at Mugglenet — is worth a read for its continued, almost amplified strangeness — Rowling speaks of being shocked to see the filmmakers depicting things she hadn’t written but was feeling about the characters, like the scene between Harry and Hermione in the tent in the first installment of The Deathly Hallows. “Yes, but David and Steve — they felt what I felt when writing it,” Rowling tells Watson, referring to the director and screenwriter. “That is so strange,” Watson responds. Yes — this whole thing is so strange. It feels like there’s a simultaneous disregard for the concept of subtext and the idea that the characters were driven by something other than Rowling’s own fingers. “JKR, I think, probably is still in mystical mode when talking about her characters and work,” Connor Joel said to me in a Twitter conversation. “Which can be OK…sometimes.”)
Is a writer allowed to have regrets? Certainly. Is she allowed to air them publicly? I mean, yeah, it’s a free internet, why not? Do I want to hear a single additional word about the world of Harry Potter from J. K. Rowling that is not in the form of another book? Unless she is going to travel via Time-Turner to the past and personally validate all of my ships, no, not particularly — though that’s just me. (On second thought, no, not even that: sometimes the joy of delving into subtext is that it remains, well, sub.) The night all this came out (my new BFF) Anne Jamison kicked off a round of hilarious authorial regrets on Twitter, collected here. (For example: “‘I realize I made generations believe instant antipathy is a valid basis for ideal marriage,’ sighed Ms Austen, ‘I just thought he was hot.’”)
All joking aside, these tweets got me thinking: how often has this sort of thing happened in the past? Is there something fundamental in the author/reader relationship that feels like it’s being abused in Rowling’s admissions — or is she just following a long tradition of regretful writers undermining their own authority via statements after publication? Initial research suggests that some of the most famous writers haven’t stayed as faithful to their own original texts as I might have guessed. I mean, these examples aren’t exactly the same (I can hear you saying this, even now!), and that might get at what feels so incredibly strange about the “wish fulfillment” idea that Rowling’s putting forth. But regrets are regrets, and once the pages are printed — and even with all the revisions and retractions in the world — there’s essentially no going back. Here are five authors who had a variety of regrets and later said they really wished they’d done things differently — and, in many cases, went on to try to actually do things differently, to varying degrees of success:
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Oliver Twist’s greedy, villainous employer, Fagin, is most famously marked by his Jewishness, via every derogatory stereotype in the history of man and by outright assertion: references as “the Jew” outnumber “the old man” in the original text nearly ten-to-one. There was no doubt in Dickens’s mind, nor that of many of his mid-Victorian counterparts, that this was totally fine, that Fagin’s crimes fell right in line with his background: he stated later, by way of (really poor and blatantly anti-Semitic) defense, that “that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew.” But in 1860 Dickens sold his house to a Jewish couple and befriended the wife, Eliza, who wrote him later to say that the creation of Fagin was a “great wrong” to the Jewish people. Dickens saw the light, albeit in a sort of, “Well, some of my best friends are Jewish!” sort of way, and began stripping out references to Fagin’s religion from the text, as well as the caricature-like aspects: at a reading of a later version, it was observed that, “There is no nasal intonation; a bent back but no shoulder-shrug: the conventional attributes are omitted.” But was it too little too late? After all, the original depiction of Fagin has endured through the centuries. Dickens tried, anyway. “There is nothing but good will left between me and a People for whom I have a real regard,” he wrote. “And to whom I would not willfully have given an offence.”
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Typee, Melville’s first novel and the most popular during his lifetime, is described as “one of American culture’s more startling instances of a fluid text.” There appears to be no definitive version of Typee — the sort of book that makes you question just how definitive anything you read really is. “All texts are fluid,” writes John Bryant, a scholar who’s done extensive work on Typee, examining its states of flux. “They only appear to be stable because the accidents of human action, time and economy have conspired to freeze the energy they represent into fixed packets of language.” Some of the changes — which were made over the course of half a century, from the first drafts Melville penned fresh off the high seas to the final years of his life — came from pressures from critics and his publishers: disparagement of missionary culture, expanded upon in first drafts, was largely removed in subsequent editions. Some requests for changes, including a toning down of the ‘bawdiness’ of earlier editions, took place decades later, when Melville was an old man — “Certain passages were to be restored, a paragraph on seaman debauchery dropped, and ‘Buggery Island’ changed to ‘Desolation Island,’” writes Bryant, though not all of these changes were honored in the posthumous edition. Bryant has developed a digital edition to view the fluid text as a whole, though perhaps even that can’t — and shouldn’t — answer the question of whether one version or another can be called the definitive text.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Image via Wikimedia Commons
F. Scott Fitzgerald, a man prone to last-minute editorial regrets: he sent a telegram to his publisher as The Great Gatsby was going to press, asking to change the title to Under the Red, White, and Blue. It arrived too late. He’d wavered so much on the title already — amongst a dozen other suggestions, he’d been set on Trimalchio in West Egg for a good while. But Tender is the Night suffered, in his opinion, from problems far larger than what was printed on the dust jacket. It was published in 1934 to poor critical and public response, and Fitzgerald set to work figuring out why it didn’t work. When it was reprinted two years later, he wanted to make minor changes and clarifications, and wrote that, “sometimes by a single word change one can throw a new emphasis or give a new value to the exact same scene or setting.” But he soon decided it wasn’t a “single word” — it was the entire structure: “If pages 151-212 were taken from their present place and put at the start,” he wrote to his editor at Scribner, “the improvement in appeal would be enormous.” He set to work slicing apart the novel — physically — and rearranging it in the order he felt it was now meant to be, the narrative now chronological rather than reliant on flashback. The copy is on display at Princeton, with Fitzgerald’s penciled note written inside the front cover: “This is the final version of the book as I would like it.” After Fitzgerald’s death, Malcolm Cowley decided to try to fulfill these editorial wishes, rearranging the book based on the notes and cut-up version. But people weren’t any more interested in this version than the first, and in the intervening half-century, the original has endured.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
If the biggest disappointment of 2015 will be the fact that almost nothing resembles the 2015 bits of “Back to the Future” (what’s sadder — no hoverboards or no magical pizzas?), it speaks to the risks of setting a sci-fi novel in the not-so-distant future. When Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, first published in 1947, were reissued fifty years later, the stories’ chronological start date was just two years away. Bradbury and his publisher made the call to bump up the timeline by three decades, 2030-2057, and made some additional editorial changes while they were at it. The timeline shift isn’t unique in science fiction: Wikipedia’s got a poetically-titled “List of stories set in a future now past,” which reveals that Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep also got a thirty-year bump. It’s an interesting question, and one that may crop up more and more as time goes on: does reading about some sort of alien “future” that’s now a few years in the past take a reader right out of the story? Isn’t there some joy in imagining Bradbury imagining 1999 in 1947, a vision of the future from that precise point in the past?
Image via erokism/Flickr
And then what to do if an author wishes the entire book had never been written? One famous example: “J.D. Salinger spent 10 years writing The Catcher in the Rye and the rest of his life regretting it,” Shane Salerno and David Shields assert in their recent biography. But Salinger’s dissatisfaction appeared to stem from the extraordinary amount of unwanted attention he received for it over the years. But what about Anthony Burgess, who wrote about A Clockwork Orange in his Flame into Being: The Life and Work of D. H. Lawrence, published in 1985:
We all suffer from the popular desire to make the known notorious. The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation, and the same may be said of Lawrence and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Lawrence died decades before the obscenity trials placed his book at the center of the moral questions of literature and society. Burgess had decades to witness the unraveling of the “misunderstandings” of the novel he will always be most remembered for. As for its merits as a work of literature? He also described it as “too didactic to be artistic.” Ah, well. Everyone is entitled to their opinions of a book and its characters. Even, I suppose, the author himself.
As Upworthy-style headlines sweep the internet, aiming to snag as many clicks as possible by pandering to as many whims and obsessions as possible, the dignified mystery of the great book title stands in stark contrast. The Upworthy headline had been widely satirized on other websites and social media, including some folks applying them to book titles, so my Millions colleague Nick Moran and I were inspired to muse as well — what if books were whorishly titled, optimizing our search engines rather than our imaginations, rather than leaving us to discover who Oliver Twist was or who was proud and who was prejudiced?
Leave your own optimized book titles in the comments or on twitter with the hashtag #litworthy.
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.
This question was posted all over New York City — on subway platforms and the sides of buses, in bright caps-locked letters. It was advertising the new documentary by Shane Salerno and David Shields about the ever-elusive writer. It also worked to promote the companion oral biography by the same name, Salinger. By adding no byline or description, the title sounds authoritative and definitive, it promises new insights into the author’s life and never-before-seen accounts by friends, ex-lovers and contemporaries.
The book is written in a cut-and-paste format familiar to readers of Shields’s “manifesto” Reality Hunger, a jarring style for a biography. The book is made up of pieces from Shields and Salerno’s own research as well as interviews conducted by other people, and — dominant in the book — accounts taken from other publications — the memoirs, biographies and letters already printed about old J.D. The style creates a sort of Salinger-history montage. An In Case You Missed It! of Salinger studies in the past several decades.
Most of the so-called new revelations in Salinger are well known to dedicated fans of the writer. His experience in World War II was detailed extensively in Kenneth Slawenski’s 2011 biography and his questionable experiences with younger women have been told countless times, most notably in Joyce Maynard’s memoir At Home in the World. That Salinger was not the most dedicated father or husband is no mystery to anyone who’s even heard of his daughter Margaret Salinger’s account in her own memoir, Dream Catcher. Salinger’s earlier fiction and the content of his letters is available to anyone with transportation to Princeton’s Firestone Library in New Jersey. While certainly not known to the average reader, these sections of the biography are hardly new discoveries.
To Salinger’s credit it does manage, between the stitches of its frankenstein format, to show a different, and quite clear, picture of Salinger’s life. All together, the fragmented accounts work as snapshots that create vibrant scenes of the experiences around and with J.D. Salinger. We hear the chatter and smell the cigarette smoke in the Stork Club as cameras flash to capture a moment in the life of Oona O’Neill, the Debutante of 1942 and sometimes-date of Salinger. Later we find ourselves waist-deep in water storming Utah Beach, surrounded by shellfire and chaos. In one of the final scenes of the book we see two photographers for the New York Post blocking in Salinger’s car in a grocery store parking lot, snapping photos and yelling harassment at the 69-year-old author.
Yet in all of the scenes in Salinger, through all the vivid color and sound, we see only what is going on around Salinger. The man himself is left in the shadows, remaining just out-of-frame. There is no moment, excepting the few quotations from Salinger’s own work or letters, when he feels present at all. The biography manages to circle in the air around old J.D. without ever hitting center.
There are attempts to fill these holes and reassert Salinger in what should be a story about him, but these feel rushed and speculative. Interviewees, and even Shields at times, insert statements that begin with “Salinger probably thought” or “Salinger must have felt” — and these instances feel like neighborhood gossip, not the work of literary biography.
After finishing the book I found myself with the same question that I began it with: What happened to J.D. Salinger? He appears absent in his own biography — a ghost, as Shields calls him several times. But this is the same Salinger we’ve seen, or rather haven’t seen, since he moved himself up a mountain in New Hampshire in 1952. He maintains, after death, the same elusiveness regarding his motives, his intentions, and his feelings, as he did for the last half century of his life. We have, instead of answers, a list of possible culprits for Salinger’s reclusion: heartbreak over Oona O’Neil, post-traumatic stress disorder from the war, and dedication to a Vedantic way of life which, we’re told rather adamantly, “killed his art.” These postulations fall short and don’t satisfy Salinger readers any more than previous accounts of his life had done.
So if this new project, hyped as one of the great literary reveals of our time, cannot help us find Salinger, what can?
Most striking in Salinger is the repetition of Salinger-seekers who went on to write or be interviewed about meeting the author, who didn’t expect their personal stories to elicit the attention and publicity that they received. Whenever news of Salinger was revealed, throughout his lifetime and especially after he ceased to publish, it was met with a flurry of public interest. Salinger has managed to not only maintain a readership through new generations, but to instill the same kind of devotion and excitement that once had readers rushing to newsstands the morning of a new New Yorker story.
Scholars, critics, everyday readers — everyone wants answers about (and from) Salinger. Many of the accounts in Salinger are from fans who decided that they needed, were even entitled, to an audience with the recluse, and they showed up at his doorstep only to be disappointed.
Michael Clarkson, the subject of the book’s first “Conversation with Salinger” section, drove 450 miles to meet the man he instinctually, and without permission, called Jerry. “I wanted to ask him, ‘Where do I go from here? What’s the next step?’” Unsurprisingly, Salinger was exasperated at being sought out as a guru to a stranger, to countless strangers, who showed up in the town that was supposed to be his santuary. Clarkson claims that he felt a certain obligation to Salinger fans to tell his story, and could not fathom that Salinger did not feel such a loyalty himself.
There’s something about Salinger that touches readers unlike any other 20th-century writer — he actually made people believe, in all sincerity, that he understood them, and truly cared. “There are few writers in this century,” Adam Gopnik is quoted saying, “who find or forge the key that enables them to unlock the hearts of their readers and their fellow people. And Salinger did that.”
He created his own small living room universes, revolving around three families — the Caulfields, the Glasses, and the Gladwaters of his early war stories who are mysteriously absent in the Shields/Salerno project — who struggled, as all people do, to reconcile that the world is full of suffering and horror, but no less full of beauty and hope. I can’t help but wonder why, for the fans who banged down his door, the fiction Salinger already gave us wasn’t enough.
In the 1959 New Yorker novella, Seymour: An Introduction, Buddy Glass, speaking as character and creator, says “I must reveal that my reputedly heart-shaped prose has knighted me one of the best-loved sciolists in print since Ferris L. Monahan, and a good many English Department people already know where I live, hole up; I have their tire tracks in my rose beds to prove it.”
Salinger fans, it seems, are forever leaving those tire tracks, trying to peek through the window. Perhaps his prose invites it — after all Salinger wrote the sort of books that, when you’re all done reading them, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours. For a lot of readers this instilled an entitlement for answers from the man who had already given them so much in those four slim volumes.
This, in part, feels like the premise of Salinger — that this writer, who we once dearly loved, abandoned us, and we deserve answers. The book seeks to answer not what happened to J.D. Salinger, but what was J.D. Salinger’s problem, anyway? It seeks answers like a child seeking an absent father.
So where do we go from here? With all of the information compiled in these new projects, the what’s, where’s, and when’s of Salinger’s life — what is there left to find? The why’s and how’s interest us most of all.
I believe the only way to fill these blanks is by returning to the beginning. To re-read The Catcher in the Rye with PTSD in mind. By reading Franny and Zooey, knowing that “Franny” was written as a wedding present for Salinger’s second wife Claire — a marriage that faded away as the Glass family grew more and more defined. Return to “For Esmé”, knowing that all of its hope and fragile beauty were created by a man present in many of the bloodiest battles of World War II and witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust. He managed to not only convey the numbing desolation of shell-shock, but to put the pieces back together again.
It’s time to not only return to his books, but to go back even further to his early stories — of Vincent Caulfield (later D.B.) and his brother Holden, each of whom die in the war and are resurrected in Catcher. To discover the Gladwater family, friends of the Caulfields, whose siblings Babe and Mattie mirror the relationship we see developed more fully between Holden and Phoebe. For those too far away from Princeton’s Firestone Library, the library at the University of Texas in Austin, or the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England — many of Salinger’s old stories can be found in library archives or, less reputably, transcribed online.
To read Salinger with new awareness of his experiences, retaining the grains of salt which must be taken alongside the Shields/Salerno projects, a new Salinger just might emerge. Now is the perfect time to revisit Salinger’s work and breathe new life into a body of critical work that is lacking at best. The conversation about him is re-starting and the readers who have remained quiet, holding their collective breath, for new Salinger material, can come out of hiding.
Perhaps we’ll even be rewarded with something truly new. There is not, for anyone who has read his final interviews or, better yet, read his letters, any doubt that Salinger kept writing. Salinger wrote his old friend Donald Hartog in 1991 that he kept busy writing, “fiction, as always.” In 1997 he noted, with great relief, that the fire which scorched a good part of the house, including his study, had spared his writing. After, he invested in a fireproof safe to protect his writing from future disasters, showing that Salinger didn’t only write for himself, but he actually took pains to preserve his work. If this doesn’t indicate an intention to publish, Shields and Salerno have word from “two independent and separate sources” that there are five works approved for publication beginning in 2015.
What awaits Salinger readers in the vault? Maybe more of the ecstatic prose of Seymour: An Introduction, or spiritual healing of “Zooey”. Perhaps, even, he continued in the direction of “Hapworth,” which so bewildered his critics. We may only speculate until the works are actually released but, whatever the outcome, new Salinger writing would help fuel the of renewed interest in the writer’s work and perhaps even relieve some of the bitterness that marks the better part of the Shields/Salerno project and so many other seeker accounts besides.
Whether or not Shields’s sources have any validity will be seen in time. It’s telling that Colleen O’Neill and Matthew Salinger, the two executors of the writer’s estate, both refuse to make a statement one way or the other. It will be impossible to gauge what the result of new Salinger fiction could have on the way that we view his writing as well as how we come to judge his reclusive years.
Writing for Airship Daily, Freddie Moore provides an overview of ten of her favorite unpublished J. D. Salinger stories. She also shares instructions on how to find – while being careful not to link directly toward – a “207-page trove of 22 out-of-print pieces available online.” This is for the best, considering the relationship between the Catcher in the Rye author, his unpublished works, and U.S. copyright.
In the acknowledgments for Salinger, the new biography that accompanies the documentary about the reclusive lion of 20th-century literature, the authors state: “Most biographies include photographs of and letters to and from the biographical subject, but as in the case of someone as secretive as Salinger, photographs of Salinger and letters from him were extremely difficult to come by.”
David Shields and Shane Salerno are not the first Salinger biographers to be hampered by the author’s shadow life. In fact, current U.S. copyright law is bolstered by a former biographer’s clash with Salinger over access to the author’s unpublished letters. In the 1980s, Ian Hamilton excerpted from a slew of Salinger letters that had been donated to the archives of Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Texas at Austin. The letters were quoted extensively in a draft that went out to reviewers and that was planned for publication by Random House. When Salinger’s agent, Dorothy Olding, passed along an uncorrected proof to the author in late 1986, he formally registered his copyright in the letters and told his lawyer to object to the publication of the book until all contents from the unpublished letters had been removed. Hamilton acquiesced and revised many of the letter excerpts into close paraphrases. For example, “like a dead rat…grey and nude…applauding madly” became “resembling a lifeless rodent…ancient and unclothed…claps her hands in appreciation.” The artfulness of such paraphrases aside, they didn’t appease Salinger and he sued Random House for copyright violation, breach of contract (Hamilton had signed copyright forms at the archives in question), and unfair competition (it was sometimes ambiguous as to whether the words were Salinger’s or Hamilton’s; why would consumers buy actual books of Salinger letters?)
The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York decided Salinger had enough of a case to issue a temporary restraining order pending an appeal. In any determination of fair use or copyright infringement under U.S. law, a judge looks at four factors: the purpose and character of the use; the nature of the copied work; the amount and substantiality of the use; and the effect of the use upon the work’s value.
In 1986, the Court of Appeals ruled in Salinger’s favor and thus began a new era in U.S. copyright law. Not only were unpublished works on their way to becoming covered under the fair use constraints and privileges, but a bright line was also drawn around unpublished letters. In subsequent copyright case law, a distinction was made between the vehicle of a letter (the paper it’s written on or the virtual notepad of an email) and the expression of the words themselves. This same logic is applied to unpublished creative works.
Here’s how it works: Say I write you some letters or stories in college and then go on to become famous. Years go by and we fall out of touch. One day you’re cleaning out your attic and you find a stash of my pithy dispatches from the dorms. You decide to sell them to an archive and they happily buy them and make them available for researchers studying my oeuvre. What the archive has actually bought are the pieces of paper and single-serving rights for researchers to consume them. The words themselves, my use of vocabulary and vivid imagery, these continue to remain my property. Not only that, but for up to 70 years after my death, my estate can continue to control the ownership of those words.
Given the impact of the Salinger case on copyright, for some years there was uncertainty about whether or not a writer could quote at all from unpublished letters, regardless of where they resided. In Wright v. Warner Books, a subsequent lawsuit, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals clarified that some amount of quotation from unpublished works, including letters, could qualify as fair use. The Copyright Act was then updated to include unpublished materials.
Unlike Hamilton’s biography, which was shelved and then reworked as In Search of J.D. Salinger, the new book by Salerno and Shields breaks new ground and pushes the boundaries of the sometimes rigidly imposed set of U.S. copyright rules. Salinger contains excerpts from dozens of the author’s unpublished letters. There’s a hint in the book that cooperation from Salinger’s children was part of the project at one point, though later withdrawn, so we can’t know for sure what kinds of permissions were granted. But given the secretive, almost hostile nature of Salinger and his subsequent estate’s relations with the wider world, it would be fair to assume that none of these excerpts came with the express permission from the author or his heirs. Depending on how you look at it, including extensive excerpts from those letters is either an invasion of Salinger’s privacy or a coup for fair use, a boon for biographers working in archives everywhere.
With an abundance of caution, I recently sat with the Salinger archive at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. For a novelist treading water in the middle of a draft, an archive is both an escape and a frustration. It might be fun to see the prosthetic eye Denis Johnson wore during his walk-on role in the film adaptation of his book Jesus’ Son (yes, the Ransom Center owns that motif from “Emergency”), but it doesn’t get me any closer to the end of my own book.
There are two Salinger archival boxes, both nondescript and smelling faintly of old typewriter ribbon. The reading room rules forbid you from removing more than one folder at a time from the document boxes, so the hungry archival researcher is forced to observe a measure of restraint. At most, you can walk briskly back and forth between the cart where the boxes sit and the well-lit wooden desks where you can plumb the sleeved documents for their secrets. I decided to skip the letters from Salinger to long-time friend Elizabeth Murray, from 1940 to 1963. According to the finding aid, they dwell on such things as the breakup of Salinger’s first marriage and his relationship with Oona O’Neill, daughter of Eugene O’Neill and the fourth wife of Charlie Chaplin. Instead, I went straight for the story manuscripts.
The first was the manuscript for an unpublished story named “Birthday Boy,” about a young man in the hospital for depression who is visited by his girlfriend on his birthday. Apparently from the early 1940s, the story is fledgling and uneven, as if Salinger hasn’t quite found his stylistic swagger. On the top right hand corner of the first page are some notes in red pencil. They’ve been partially erased and then crossed over with a regular lead pencil. I can’t be sure, but the red-penciled letters look like the rejection comments of an editor.
The second manuscript was for an early draft of a story called “I’m Crazy,” which eventually appeared in the December 1945 issue of Collier’s. It was also the literary debut of Holden Caulfield, who would go on to become the endearing and angst-ridden protagonist of Catcher in the Rye.
Despite the fact that some degree of quotation from unpublished works has won legal ground under fair use, most archives insist that no quotation is allowed without permission from the estate and the archive. If you follow this line of reasoning, as Hamilton was forced to do, even paraphrasing too closely is an infringement. According to this notion of copyright, I may report facts and ideas, but not expression. As one archivist put it in an email: “only if you are speaking generally about the manuscripts (supplying a description, for example)” do you not need permissions.
Curiously, though, under all three sets of rules — copyright, fair use, and most archive policies — I am free to use my iPad to take good resolution images of unpublished manuscripts so long as I don’t share them publicly. Who can say if this extends to the privacy of my own home where I might convert an unused closet into a Salinger shrine? Such is the fickleness of U.S. copyright law.
Although I won’t or can’t or shouldn’t quote directly from the unpublished manuscripts, nothing prevents me from describing them in general terms. So I can, for instance, tell you that in the fledgling draft of “I’m Crazy” in which Holden appears for the first time, the narrative is in third person. When it is published in Colliers, the narrative stance switches to first person. And by the time Holden crosses the transom into Catcher, as we all know, he’s found his full-blown voice, a blend of angst and innocence that has captured readers for generations. (The book continues to sell about half a million copies a year.) That Holden first walked onto the novelistic stage in third person might come as a profound shock to Salingerites — it did to me. A simple point of view switch is par for the course in many burgeoning novels, but this one is particularly momentous. Here, in the archive, we see Salinger before he’s broken through. We might have assumed that Holden had come to Salinger fully formed, as if through a divine channel, but the sobering news — and the glimmering gift of such archives — is that he emerged fitfully and through a series of false starts.
Perhaps one day soon the morass that is U.S. copyright law will be simplified. At the very least, maybe more of us will understand it. In preparing to write this piece, I reached out to an award-winning novelist, a respected journalist, an academic, and a staff member of an archive. They all chimed in with slightly different answers about whether or not unpublished letters and creative work could be quoted, paraphrased, or described in general terms. If writers and researchers can’t absorb the law, then the lay public has very little chance. Chances are, though, the reading public could care less about the fate of unpublished stories and letters when so much new Salinger work is allegedly about to hit the streets. Salerno and Shields assure us that between 2015 and 2020, we’ll see, among other things, five new Glass family stories and fiction that further fleshes out the story of Holden Caulfield. That’s better than waiting for the clock to run out on Salinger’s copyright on former work. I’ll take that over a first run of “Birthday Boy” in the pages of The New Yorker in the year 2083 any day.
“You would know more than we do.”
“He speaks up in class? That’s good because he doesn’t talk much at home.”
“I ask him if he has work for class but he always just says ‘no.’”
It makes me think that this is why The Catcher in the Rye is a classic. People are just so thrilled to hear a teenage boy’s thoughts.
Then maybe they’re sorry they asked.
There’s no getting around it: 15-year-old boys talk to their friends more than they talk to their parents. They probably talk to their dogs more than they talk to their parents. In class, they can’t stop talking for five minutes to work independently on a writing project, but when they get home, apparently, they’re mute.
When they’re talking in class, it isn’t about their thoughts and feelings. But my informal qualitative research suggests that young men today are growing up with the same basic longings and tribulations that Holden did. How do I know? How do I have any idea what these walking enigmas feel inside? By what they read, of course. Teenage boys might be closed books, but the ones that they open are those in which the author manages to capture the honest-to-god truth about coming age. Here are three books the teenage boys in my class have been reading:
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: I’m so excited that this novel has been made in to a movie; originally published in 1999, Perks might not be enjoying the readership it is today without the film publicity and modern cover art. The book merits its evolution from cult classic to mainstream movie fame — in turns heartbreaking and hilarious, Stephen Chbosky’s novel gets the coming-of-age motif just right. His character Charlie is the wallflower that the title references, and Charlie’s journey, told through letters to an anonymous recipient, is ultimately one of moving out onto that dance floor and of refusing to play bystander to his own life.
A freshman in high school, Charlie navigates friendship, bullying, crushes, sex, drugs, and loss. He is an earnest, shy kid who struggles against depression and seclusion, hanging on to moments of joy and human connection. The novel is just angsty enough to feel honest, without being cringeworthy, and the voice is real and raw. I haven’t met a student yet who didn’t relate to Charlie’s story.
Ball Don’t Lie by Matt de la Pena: One of my favorites this year, Ball Don’t Lie tells the story of Travis Reichard, or as his mom used to call him: Sticky Boy. Matt de la Pena’s character portrayal is incredibly rich — not only when it comes to Sticky, with his compulsive tics and subconscious motivations, but with the entire cast: Sticky’s addict mom, his girlfriend, Anh-thu, and all the boys who go head-to-head on the basketball court and the streets.
We first meet Sticky on the gym floor of Lincoln Rec: “the best place in L.A. to ball.” De la Pena’s description of the game and the boys who play it is so vivid you can hear the squeak of sneakers on the court and the thud of the ball on the bent and battered rim. Initially, all but the outcome of each play is a mystery, and it takes a while to get to know Sticky, a foster kid whose only dream is to play in the NBA. Sticky is slow to show himself, as his past has left him broken, and the uncertainty of his future leaves him guarded. But, chapter-by-chapter, piece-by-piece, greater depths are revealed, and the book opens up to an emotional and riveting account of an urban basketball community, and a boy looking for a home.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan: Yet another delight from John Green, and this time with the added bonus of Levithan, Will Grayson, Will Grayson tells the story of two Will Graysons: a pair of teenage boys who meet serendipitously, at a time when a small miracle of coincidence is just what each one needs.
The two male protagonists, one gay, one straight, navigate platonic and romantic relationships with varying degrees of success and failure, with all the modern day complications of texting and online messaging. The story builds to an epic climax, complete with a high school musical and passionate declarations of love. The writing is funny, the characters relatable, the circumstances engaging, the themes meaningful and poignant. I haven’t seen my copy of the novel since September: as soon as one student signs it in, another signs it out.
Bud offers a charming man about town piece that touches on the intersection of technology and culture.One of my biggest on-the-job challenges back when I was a bookseller was recommending books for finicky teenagers. In an effort to take some of the guesswork out of this endeavor, Anita Silvey, a professor of children’s literature at Simmons College in Boston, wrote 500 Great Books for Teens. Scripps news prints 20 of those recommendations, including The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby, and, of course, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.Germany is prosecuting seven men for burning a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank, in a case that highlights the symbolic power of books.And in Trenton, NJ, librarians are accusing a library accountant of refusing to purchase the novel Whore by Tanika Lynch for the library’s collection because “he objected to the title.”
When I was a kid, I read the whole Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder and never thought about it being “for girls.” At Slate, Emily Bazelon writes about why it’s wrong that “the conventional educational wisdom holds that boys don’t like to read about girls.”The New York Public Library’s 25 Books to Remember from 2005 (via Conversational Reading)It’s Perfectly Normal, a sex education book by Robie H. Harris tops the American Library Association’s list of 10 Most Challenged Books of 2005. Also on the list: The Catcher in the Rye and the Captain Underpants series.The Ten Worst Autobiographies as listed by The Independent. Not sure where else you’d find Hillary Clinton, James Frey and Hitler on the same list. (via Books Inq.)A New Orleans resident auctions off a bunch of “first-edition books, handwritten manuscripts and letters by Beat Generation writers” to raise money for Jon and Gypsy Lou Webb who published some of Charles Bukowski’s earlest works and were left homeless by Hurricane Katrina.
A couple of weeks passed and I had the urge to read another novel, so using a trip to Chicago as the good chance it was, I picked up J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Again, I was amazed at the ease with which Salinger grasps the reader’s attention and pulls him into the dialogues of Franny and Zooey. The Glass family is extraordinary in many ways and Zooey’s rants reminds me of an older version of Vince Vaughn. I could not finish the novel on my flights to and from Chicago, which is just as well, because on Monday, after I got home from work I filled the tub a la Zooey, lay in it for half an hour, and finished the book. A friend of mine once mentioned that it was his favorite piece growing up and he’d read it once every week, I understand and respect his mania now. I think I shall turn to The Catcher in the Rye next and keep reading the genius that Salinger is.I traveled to Charlottesville and back via train in the same week. During the thirteen hours I spent on the Amtrak couch, I luxuriously started and finished Orhan Pamuk’s Sessiz Ev (silent house, La Maison du silence). I really like Pamuk, he is a pretentious, rich, aristocratic bastard in life but his novels are for the most part very successful in grasping certain periods of Turkey’s modern history. I am afraid that Sessiz Ev has not been translated into English but you can read it in French if you so desire. In this second novel of his, Pamuk describes the visit of three siblings to their grandmother’s residence an hour east of Istanbul. It is the summer of 1980, three months before the military coup, the youngest brother, now a senior in high school, wants to continue his education in the U.S. and has high capitalistic ambitions, the sister, a junior in college, is an ardent communist and would like nothing better than to see the fascists beat, and the older brother, a thirty-four-year-old drunken history professor, is aloof to everything and resembles his father and grandfather in his disconnect to the world. Sessiz Ev is a very interesting study of an important period in Turkey through common, unhappy and disgruntled characters.My last pick of the year is a serious undertaking, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I am almost halfway through and enjoy the story, language, and the other novellas inserted in the middle. Clearly there is much to be said about Don Quixote but I will keep my reserve until I am done reading the whole novel.And last but not least, I also picked up Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lord Henry Wotton’s opinions have forced me to put Don Quixote on hold and indulge in the vanity that Lord Henry propagates. Of course, more on The Picture of Dorian Gray once I am done, but let it suffice to say that I am currently thrilled by its brilliance.[Thanks for sharing your year in reading, Emre]Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
Film and literature are two vastly different mediums of communication, an argument best captured in the sentiments a friend wrote to me recently:”I identify books with age and place. It’s a nasty habit as it carries with it a certain sentiment that is not in the book itself, rather the impressions of habitat where and when I was reading a particular book, not to mention my desires at the time.”I replied to my friend that he had defined and distilled the reading experience. It’s those precise differences in approach that make the reading experience so monumental. No two people can read a book the same way, particularly people with different life histories.But film is a visual medium. Movies give us iconic images that last a lifetime. Or so I believed until recently.In early 2004 I wrote a series of 28 blithely interconnected short stories for L.A. Stories. One of the tales, “Bill’s Bottle,” is a first-person narrative that provides a voyeuristic look at the tragic death of film icon William Holden from the point of view of the fatal bottle of vodka that contributed to his passing.Immediately after “Bill’s Bottle” appeared on the fiction page at the L.A. Stories website I received perplexed e-mails from my readers, all asking the same question: “Who the hell is William Holden?””I just looked up his movies on the Internet Movie Database,” one reader wrote, “and I have to say that I am not familiar with the man or his work.”Not familiar with the star who appeared in a bevy of classic motion pictures? Consider just a small handful of Holden’s iconic roles: The struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Major Shears in David Lean’s epic The Bridge on the River Kwai. Max Schumacker in Paddy Chayefsky’s clairvoyant Network. Pike Bishop in Sam Peckinpah’s blood-soaked western The Wild Bunch.There was a time when Billy Wilder’s 1953 classic Stalag 17 – set in an Allied POW camp in World War II during one memorable Christmas, starring Holden as rough-hewn Sergeant Sefton – was a holiday perennial on television. Not anymore. This year I was compelled to rent the movie on video in order to add it to my plate of favorite Christmas movies.I purchased a previously viewed VHS of Stalag 17 at my local Blockbuster just a few days before Christmas. Pawing through the bin of discarded videotapes I discovered a virtual treasure trove of William Holden films being chased out the door for a mere $4.99 apiece: Picnic, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, the original Sabrina. (A further irony is that every title mentioned possesses either a theatrical or literary pedigree but that’s another matter entirely.)William Holden was an alcoholic for much of his adult life. Biographer Bob Thomas points out in his book Golden Boy that the ruggedly handsome actor was embarrassed to make a living as an actor, believing the profession to be not only unmanly but downright humiliating. Holden began having a snort or two before scenes, a shyness killer that would eventually kill the man himself in a most gruesome and embarrassing manner.Holden was no Olivier but he was one of the greatest stars who ever graced the silver screen. In 1995 – fourteen years after his death – Empire Magazine selected Holden as one of the 100 Sexiest Stars in Film History. Securing Holden’s lofty place in the often-strange intersection between literature and film is this interesting factoid: J.D. Salinger got the name for protagonist Holden Caulfield in the classic book The Catcher in the Rye from the movie Dear Ruth, which starred William Holden and Joan Caulfield.Today, though, William Holden, sadly, is largely unknown. I moved “Bill’s Bottle” to my website earlier this year and reading the site meter for that page provides an excuse to ponder where our culture is going and has gone. “Bill’s Bottle” receives less than two page views per month. On the other hand, “Dead Porn Stars,” a trade magazine piece I wrote for X Biz World exploring those in cyberspace who are cashing in on late, great porn stars, receives over 1,000 page views per week.One thousand page views for dead porn stars per week. Two page views for Bill Holden.You do the math.
The recent news, here in Canada, of our great lady of letters, Alice Munro, taking the Giller prize for Runaway (excerpt), her latest collection of short fiction, gives us a chance to praise that wonderful literary form – the short story – and the authors who have practiced it with precision, humanity, and wit.Collected volumes of short fiction often provided me with an easy approach to the many writers who would become my favourites. Tight, economical writing, a whole world painted with just a few deft strokes – and I was hooked.And so it was that Welcome to the Monkey House became the book of my formative college years. In short order, I would devour all of Kurt Vonnegut’s marvelous works, but I still hold dear this short story collection. Even now, years later, the thought of “Harrison Bergeron” makes me simultaneously laugh and shudder at the alternate universe he inhabits – a world in which all citizens are subjected to absurd physical and mental “handicapping,” a leveling-out process that results in a form of institutionalized mediocrity. Sameness.For Ernest Hemingway, clarity and precision were his stock in trade, and nowhere is this more resonant than in In Our Time, a collection of early shorts. Hemingway can present Nick Adams to us and reveal more of his world in 5 pages than many writers would dare to in 500. “The Battler” stands out – a tale of young Nick’s encounter with a disfigured and psychologically damaged prizefighter while riding the rails. Equally powerful are the numerous vignettes that Hemingway intersperses between the stories, many of them harrowing slices of war.Hemingway’s contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, gives us Jazz Age Stories. It’s within these pages that you can experience the remarkable “Diamond As Big As The Ritz“, an astonishing tale of money, power, fear (of losing it) and the complete moral bankruptcy that ensues. This is an unparalleled story of illusion and disillusion. It creeps up on you and will echo for years and years.While The Catcher in the Rye has become such an iconic cultural phenomenon, its often forgotten that J.D. Salinger wrote anything else. Unless of course you’ve read Franny and Zooey, or Raise High the Roof Beam. Or my personal choice, the collection Nine Stories. Then you never forget. This is dysfunction grounded in reality, not simply splayed out for shock value or a quick laugh. I recommend you revisit the extended Glass family in the deceptively simmering “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.”In recent years, I’ve come to regard Anton Chekhov as the master of the form. Any collection will do. Try Lady With Lapdog and Other Stories. I challenge you to find an unnecessary or misplaced word. Simple, perfect writing. These selections just scratch the surface, and of course there’s no shortage of good contemporary short fiction. But it serves us well to be reminded from time to time of “the greats” – not as an untouchable force that stomps on any newcomers, but rather as artistic touchstones that let you approach, and that remind you of first principles. These masters have given us a vital part of our literary canon.Also recommended: The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories by Oscar Wilde, James Joyce’s (surprisingly readable) Dubliners, and Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver
I had the pleasure of making Kaye Gibbons’ acquaintance via email, and I have very quickly become a big fan. Aspiring writers and precocious readers could learn a lot from her. One of the more noteworthy events of Gibbons’ distinguished career was the selection of two of her books, Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman by Oprah Winfrey for her eponymous book club. I asked Gibbons how she looks back on this experience as a writer, and she was kind enough to send us the following reply:You’d asked how I felt about having two novels of mine on the Oprah Book Club. There’s so much to say about it that I’ll talk about it chronologically. Before the Oprah call, I was doing fine, amazing fine. But it didn’t start out that way. My advance for Ellen Foster was 1500. But I’ve always had a strong work ethic, and as I worked, as rights were sold and awards won, the money began to catch up to the blood and time I was putting into it. Unfortunately, being a rather eccentric, free-thinking woman in the South led others and eventually me to conclude that there had to be something pathological about me, and it wasn’t until two years ago that a twenty-year old diagnosis of bi-polar disorder was eradicated. Doctors made me feel forced to take drugs that took the edge off my creativity, but I’ve taken nothing in two years and haven’t ever felt and written better.My theory is that I want to write the best literature possible and have it read by as many people as possible. Living in NC, now half-time in NY, there’s a long tradition of writers helping one another, reading manuscripts, finding agents. Lee Smith introduced me to my agent, and then in 1997 I was able to pass that along when I read the first pages of Cold Mountain. Chuck [Charles Frazier] and I had had children at the same Montessori school for years and had been close friends. Things like that happen here all the time.But there’s still a great deal of intellectual isolation here–and that’s probably why I write and read as much as I do. The other day in the grocery store, an acquaintance asked me what’d I’d been writing since I finished Divining Women. When I told her I’d been reviewing books for Atlanta and Chicago, she asked, “They let you review your own books?” This is a strange occupation to have in Raleigh, not so much in Chapel Hill, where Alan Gurganus, Reynolds Price, and others live. But sometimes 20 miles feels very far away.So, with regard to Oprah, one thing her call did was to give what I do for a living a certain amount of validation. I’d been knighted by the French, won awards galore, sold about a million books, had a movie made, done 12 thirty-city book tours, but dealing with the perception that I was a local writer was often frustrating. I’d have an audience of 2000 in Michigan and then 30 in Raleigh, for example.What it took to manage it was self-esteem, and that generally comes from having a firm grasp of reality and what’s important, my children. A digression, because I anticipate someone mouthing about the Oprah money: I have a hard time tolerating the starving artist in the garret whining about how a writer writes a brilliant book that the publisher won’t promote and that no one is reading. It’s easier to be a victim than take action, write a better book, listen to an editor’s input, find a new publisher. I truly believe, because I’ve seen it, that if a brilliant manuscript exists, that if that writer has had enough gall, brains, energy, etc. to write it that he or she can get it to the right people. When a person sends me something that deserves publishing, I see it through the process. But ninety-nine percent of what I’m sent just isn’t good. A writer has to be a superb editor, and wishing a book good doesn’t make it so. When someone sends me something drowning in cliches, I tell them that language is to use, not to take easy advantage of. When Oprah called and said she wanted to put the two novels on her show, I was nervous about it diminishing my literary reputation, which sounds pompous to say. When she held A Virtuous Woman up and said, “America, you’ve wanted a love story, well, here it is,” I thought, Well, here we go.But, you see, her selling, what now, about three million books that month, didn’t change the basic nature of the novels or me. When Jonathan Franzen started running his mouth about the maudlin trash or whatever he said about her choices, I smiled and remembered that the first novel, Ellen Foster, is taught all over the world beside The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. When it was finished, in 1986, it was sent to and read by Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Gordon Lish, John Barth, and other people who, over the years, became dear to me. The whole Franzen thing got sort of tedious, and I didn’t have the time to get dragged into it.What someone like a Franzen doesn’t see was how poor I was growing up, a surreal state of poverty, and then that small advance, and how I worked my way up to financial security. I’m finally making now what many, many first, very young writers are getting, and I think it damages the soul. I finally have a house that doesn’t have something hanging off in disrepair. There’s the whole attitude now in music and writing of, I’m 21, Where’s my Big Deal? So, even though the Oprah thing seemed to come out of the blue, it had been earned. I think I’d have felt a little ridiculous if it hadn’t been. I used a lot of the money establishing a library at a local children’s home, which my daughters and I still maintain. We sat down and wrote checks, making decisions together about where the money went. Anything I put away personally was completely eradicated, gone, during a horrible divorce two years later. So, I found myself back at the beginning financially, having been reamed. But I’ve got this work ethic, and I’ve got the post-Oprah, broadened visibility. It’ll be okay. My daughter wasn’t able to go to college in NY, stayed here because of the financial drain of the divorce, but it remains, we will all be okay.I admire Oprah, enormously. As for the book club, she’s getting it done, getting people in bookstores. If there’s the criticism that the books she selects have taken on a certain sameness, well, so what? She’s not picked Danielle Steele, for crying out loud. I know for a fact, given the hundreds of letters, that people are reading, because of her, who haven’t read before.Let me tell you that when I got a letter from a mother who said her daughter’s impression of her totally changed when she saw her mother sitting down, reading a book at night in bed, how very proud this woman was, it is hard to say anything critical about the Oprah Book Club.The problem is that it is hard, to impossible, for people who live around books, who read them, own them, who have, like me, about 4000 books in the bedroom, to even process the notion that houses exist where there are no books except the ones the kids bring home from school. That’s a deplorable, elitist attitude. When I was house-shopping, I looked at about fifty upper middle-class houses, and only in a couple did I see more than a handful of books. I started asking the real estate agent if the sellers had hidden the books, thinking they were clutter.I have two younger teenagers, and I can tell you that seeing them reading anything is a blessing. I don’t go over and demand that they upgrade. And for those 350 kids who use the library Oprah made possible day in and day out because the public library in their town will not trust them to check out and bring back books, they’d wonder what all the snobbish hoopla was about. They’re able to do their homework better, their grades have improved, and that money was funneled directly from Oprah.I felt nothing but honored by the whole process, and only wish that I’d been in better emotional and physical shape at the time. I was 75 pounds heavier, weight that drugs I didn’t need had put on me, and I felt run down and a little thick in the head. But that was then. This is now. I’m the person I used to be before my marriage went to hell, and I’m nothing but glad that the Oprah thing is a part of my experience. If nothing else, local ladies who stop me in the grocery store don’t talk to me like I’m having to sell books out of the back of my car.I think anybody who wants to be successful at this whole ordeal of publishing has to take a certain amount of responsibility that I see so many people abdicating in favor of bitter comparisons. Language is a gift, and to be able to use language to make a living is one of the most joyful enterprises I can imagine. I try to take that joy and make what I’m writing a better book every time I edit it. I work 18-hour days. It is a long, lonely, spiritually hazardous occupation. But the joy I feel in putting even two words together in something of an original way has nothing to do with money or movies, nothing external. I think that people buy and read my books, regardless of Oprah, because I’ve always studied everything I’ve read, even packaging on the mascara I just bought, and tried to figure out why a particular word was chosen. You can get in a habit of alert, concentrated reading that comes back when the writing begins. I’ve learned to be honest with myself and cut what sucks.Kaye Gibbons lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her books include Charms for Easy Life, On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, A Cure for Dreams, and Sights Unseen, as well as the titles mentioned above. Her latest novel, Divining Women will come out April 14th. And make sure to check out her cool new website, kayegibbons.com.Many ThanksThanks to Will Femia for allowing my self-promotion to extend to MSNBC’s Weblog Central. For those that are blog-fans, it is always a must-read.