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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Chapter Eighty-Two, in which the Truth is revealed

Often a little thing sparks a thought which is nourished into an idea, but lacks real import, until a critical mass of related ideas builds, and finally resolves itself into an exciting new chapter. What follows is the result of a week or so of such a build-up.

Callie is a fan of David Foster Wallace. When the opportunity arose for her to attend one of his readings, she had to go. The following is a partial quote of her reasons:
Several years ago I was at a book party in LA ... and he was standing behind me talking quietly to someone.... As he moved to leave the party, he bumped up against my shoulder and that was that. So -- I have, literally, rubbed shoulders with him.
Your Bibliothecary does not wish to create the impression that her "brush with greatness" is the sole reason for her fondness for Wallace, as his writing has just as much to do with it. But there is another thought that wanders through our labyrinthine mind.

Jessica, the Book Nerd, commented a few days ago about the James Frey brouhaha. Out of the confusion of her post arose this question: "when you take away the writer, does the writing still exist?" A good piece of literature, after all, should stand alone on its own merit, not on the veracity of its content, or the personality of its author.

Sylvia recently offered a wonderful quote from Oscar Wilde, that master of epigrams: "I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train." We commented elsewhere that the renowned Italian poet Francesco Petrarch embellished details of his life in his Letter to Posterity over six hundred years ago. Like them both, we all write the story of our life the way we see it, the way we want it to be seen.

Fantasy and reality are not always opposites. As the owner, we may think of our bookstore as a business; a student may think of it as a convenient and inexpensive place to find research material, or convert old research material into beer money; a book collector may think of it as a shrine, a temple, a place for the cure of the soul. Each of us is correct, and all our views are true.

A society displaying symptoms of addiction to "reality shows" not surprisingly craves "based on actual events" stories and memoirs. For such readers, to discount or disregard Jude the Obscure because it is fiction reveals how lazy and shallow they are. They cannot be bothered to participate in their reading, to become actively engaged. They cannot see how fiction can have anything other than entertainment value. We assert that the memoirist produces the weaker literature, because he simply "tells it like it is." Often he has no talent for writing at all, exposed by the small print that informs us the book was "written with" someone else. Thomas Hardy gives readers many more truths through a story he has created, universal truths that stand the test of time. To make a reader lose herself in the fictive dream, to believe the story she is reading because it is so powerfully conveyed--not because it is "based on actual events"--that is true genius. Hardy is the greater talent; Jude is the more valuable book.

If we have done our work well, none of you, Dear Readers, can know if what we publish on this blog is real or not. Is Leander a real person? Is your Bibliothecary really a dash? Can The Bridges of Madison County really be that bad? In the interests of this discussion, we will confess that some of what we write is true, and some is invented. Our trick is to blend the two seamlessly, so even we never know for sure when the boundaries have been crossed. Know that the meaning, the emotion, the consequence of it all is guaranteed to be true.

If a book moves one, what matter is it whether the author is Chinese, or an ex-convict, or a pastor, or a liar? If that changes one's feelings toward the writing, maybe one is responding more toward something other than the writing. Are these symptoms of a cult of personality? Someone once said wanting to know the writer of a book one enjoyed is like wanting to know the duck from last night's dinner.

All of which brings us back to the core question: when you take away the writer, does the writing still exist? Is the meaning of a text locked for eternity by the writer, or is it malleable and adapted by each individual reader? Would one care so much for the books of Elie Wiesel if one hadn't been told by someone else that what he has written should be "mandatory reading for every person on the planet," or one hadn't obtained his autograph ten years ago at a book signing? If one disagrees with the political stance of a certain author, will one still be able to enjoy and appreciate her books? Must there always be a dichotomy between two poles?


  1. I appreciate all the thoughts, Callie, concise or not. I wonder why we want to know a writer better when we enjoy their work? I felt that way about Scott Fitzgerald, for example, and I can't even answer for myself why. Could it really be as simple as the hope some of their magic will rub off on us?

  2. For me, much of it has to do with learning about what type of person and/or background + life events would help a person create the story/novel I've just read.

    Also, rather less intelligently, I'm interested in if they have their MFA, where else they've published, what they studied, etc. In essence, what qualifies them to write this book and how do I measure up. The inherent question being: Why can't I write a book this good? With the hopeful answer being: Well, if he can do it, so can I.

  3. Hmm. My comment got eaten. I'll try again.

    What a wonderful discussion topic! Something similar came up on my blog recently: the question of whether you can/should still enjoy a book when the author is a jerk "in real life." So what if Patrick O'Brian deserted his first wife and disabled child? I still love his books!

    On the other hand, I've not been able to enjoy James Herriot as much as I did before reading his biography. He wasn't a bad guy, but his deviations from real life are sort of embarrassing. (Mainly, they involve his wife's personality.) Perhaps the difference here is that his deviations don't contribute to any "greater truth" in his books; they just make him seem...small-minded.

    On the whole, I agree that writer and writing are separate. But I also sort of believe in muses and divine inspiration (not necessarily religious).

  4. As the creator of a fake publishing company, I have been thinking long and hard about the nature of flimflam. My conclusion seem to be, so far, that it's okay to exaggerate as long as it's clear that that is what you're doing. It's the exaggeration plus deception that becomes, at least to me, disagreeable. I don't mind hearing tall tales, and I am not above telling them myself, but I can't help wanting to know what is fact and what is fiction. So I seem to be expecting nonfiction authors to tell the truth unless they say "Hey! I'm lying!" in the beginning. Which is hopelessly naieve of me, I know.

    Interesting discussion, and very timely.

  5. great entry.. nice, comfy place you got here :)..