I feel sorry for the books I see for sale on blankets on the street, or on a bookshelf in a display room at Crate and Barrel, or on a night table in a lodge my family and I once stayed at in Minnesota.  I feel sorry for them because the golden age of reading has passed (a friend of mine has objected to this extreme characterization, particularly the word “passed,” so let me say that perhaps we are instead currently in a bronze age of reading), and these lowly books are the most inessential examples of collateral damage: ignored, unloved, untouched.  In many cases I might well save my pity.  I don’t know, for instance, that I need to feel too bad for Rue McClanahan’s autobiography, My First Five Husbands.  She’s probably no Willa Cather.  (On the other hand, I loved “The Golden Girls,” and they are all now dead but one.  They are the ones I should feel sorry for––and I do.)  But I know that as time passes, the chances decrease that someone––anyone––will pick up various  oddball or unknown books that they come across by chance.  The obscure title will stay obscure, because the books just look too old now, and besides, we are all simply overwhelmed and overstimulated, and we can’t take many more things in our midst.  Our apartments and houses are sliding with books that have meaning from our pasts.  Books that, as the psychoanalysts would say, we have cathected.  

I used to read everything I could find; as a young girl, I had been forbidden by the librarian to take out a particular book that seemed too sophisticated for a third-grader.  “No, Margaret,” the librarian said in her pious voice.  “When you’re older.”  I burned to read that book; I lay awake at night and built it up in my mind until it seemed to be the best book ever written.  And I knew that when I could finally get my hands on it, everything would change in my life.  My grandmother would never die.  Neither would my dog.  Utter happiness would pour down upon me.  As it turned out, The House on Hollow Hill possessed no special qualities.  It did not change me, and it certainly did not stop death.  I seem to remember the plot having something to do with four children circa 1956 getting awfully spooked late one night.  I was crushed.  How could something so forbidden be so dull?

Books, back then, were often hot objects, containing the promise of deep fantasy and deep feeling.  But as technology thrust its way into the world in a loud, difficult birth, we didn’t quite know where to look anymore, and it seemed that the world suddenly became overrun with books, those objects we’d lived comfortably among forever.  Now they were like the stray cats that haunt the Colosseum in Rome.  Wherever you turned, you could find an ancient, long unread Ngaio Marsh paperback with a picture of a constable on the cover, and the price: 50 cents.  Or a self-help book from the 1970s, warped so badly that it seemed to be willfully flexing its own spine.  Or, of course, something from the Rue McClanahan ouevre.

I want to save these books from being forgotten, but not because they are particularly good.  I’m OK, You’re OK does not need to be revived in a New York Review of Books Lost Classics edition.  But I guess I mean that I want to save all books.  Or at least I want to save all readers: those increasingly obscure figures who find their attentions stretched to such a degree that remembering the paragraph they have just read is quite the feat.  For a long time I blithely said that A Passage to India was my favorite book.  This was true.  Then I began it again recently and the opening involved a long description of the city of Chandrapore.  I had not remembered this, or at least, when I last read it, the length and detail of the opening had not bothered me.  Back then, the world was different and books appeared before you with just the right frequency.  We were not overwhelmed by them, but felt able to discern among them easily, going from one to another as if they were stepping stones in a river.

Now, in this current  world of too many books and devices and interruptions––many self-imposed––I sometimes linger on even the worst of the worst––the books that don’t deserve my time or sympathy, but get both because they are part of something powerful and partly lost.  Rue McClanahan, I am about to find out if this book is your My Antonia

You know how once in a while you look up from the craziness of life and say to yourself something like, “Hey, we live in the UNITED States of America.  Surely we can be more… united.”  Well, I just looked up from the craziness of life and remembered that my blog is called Written on Ambien.  So surely it can be more…sleep-inducing.  Wouldn’t that be great; a blog that put you to sleep?  Everyone would read it.  You’d have more hits than TMZ and Politico on the day of Kim Kardashian’s election to the House of Representatives.  Sleep is the elusive thing for many many people, and certainly for some of us who answer to the name “Mom” or “Ma” or “Get me juice.”  For more on this topic, read Pamela Paul’s excellent piece (in which I am quoted a little) in the Style section of today’s NY Times.

When I lie down to sleep sometimes at night, a gremlin comes and seduces me away from  thinking restful thoughts.  Instead, the gremlin says, “Let’s go on a magical tour of all the social blunders you have ever made.”  And I, for some reason, say “Okay.”  I’ll have been lying in my perfectly nice bed, thinking about that time at the publishing party three years ago when I told the writer I had read her book and found it to be “moving,” and then she actually said, “Which part did you find the most moving, Meg?”  I stood blinking, the canape turning cold in my hand; my hand turning into an old crone’s claw as time passed.  “Um, the end,” I said, thinking this was clever.  All writers save their moving stuff for the end.  “Do me a favor,” the woman said.  “Walk me through what you think happens at the end of my book.  Because some readers are confused about the part with Marina and the priest.”  All I could do was throw the canape down my throat and immediately pretend to choke and run out of the party.

Revisiting this scene from life with the help of a gremlin at midnight, I found that it was not entirely sleep-inducing.  So the gremlin took me elsewhere.  “Why not,” he whispered in my ear, “think about the deaths of yourself and everyone you know?” If trying to sleep means automatically thinking of subjects and images that upset you, then what is the point?  I know the computer screen is counterproductive to sleep.  Something about that blue light stimulates and dog-whistles us into wakefulness.  Much is written about so-called “sleep hygiene,” which involves only using the bed for sleep and sex.  (Can you imagine that?  Where would we eat fondue?  Where would we write novels?  Where would our sons make science projects?  Where would the guinea pigs frolic?  And the coyote?)  And I know that a good night’s sleep is the prize, the jewel in the crown, the thing that you hear women boast about on the crosstown bus.  (“I got EIGHT hours!” a woman told her friend recently, and many heads swiveled.)  Maybe she was talking about community service as punishment for a very, very minor crime she had committed, but I doubt it.

Please, gremlin, even seven hours would be nice tonight.

As a novelist who has just published a book for “young” (as opposed to old”) readers, called “The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman,” I have been asked lately about the difference between giving readings to kids and giving them to adults. I can only say that never before have I been asked at an adult reading––as I was asked recently by a girl in the audience at a grade school––”Is the photograph in the back of your book the way you used to look?”

Now, that photo isn’t all that old. But the question stung. Still, the kids were waiting, and I had to answer. “Yes,” I said with a slight quaver in my voice, “it is.” Lest you think I don’t enjoy kid audiences, that isn’t true at all. I’ve absolutely loved talking to the kids I’ve met on the road over these several weeks since I’ve been living out of a suitcase and wearing the same very few outfits that from a distance do not seem creased. (Ironing while staying in a hotel just seems wrong. Not morally wrong, but wrong nonetheless.)

The other day in Toronto, I was mobbed by a group of fifth-graders, and I felt like a cross between Michael Ondaatje and Judy Blume. (That’s a collaboration I for one would definitely read.) They wanted my autograph, and I signed every book and, more to the point, every shred of paper they handed me. With kids you can write things like, “Keep reading!” With adults––well, maybe with adults you should write the same thing these days, begging them to keep reading fiction, before the novel goes the way of, say, (old person reference alert!) Necco Wafers, or “Nanny and the Professor.”

Also, it’s not that adults don’t ask provocative or disturbing questions at readings. “Will you read my manuscript?” a woman once blurted out to me, a propos of nothing, during a Q & A. A simple “no” would have sufficed, I guess, but I was aware that my answer was being closely watched, and so I muttered something about how a writer has to carefully guard her time, and then I moved on to the next question, which was, of course, “Where do you get your ideas?”

A few distinctions:  Kids can sometimes be blunt, and adults can sometimes be demanding. Their attention spans are perhaps about the same length. Kids can be placated with bookmarks; adults cannot. Kids want to know how much you were paid to write your book; adults want to know how much they will be paid to write their book, and whether I have the name of an agent. Kids sit on the floor, and sometimes lie all over one another like kittens. Adults sit in chairs, occasionally with their eyes closed and their mouths open, trying to give the appearance of pensiveness, but actually giving the appearance of sleep.

Both kids and adults can sit and listen, rapt, if the reading is good.  I am happy giving readings to people who are besieged by solicitations from “Highlights,” as well as to those who are being hunted down by AARP.  Regardless of age, a good audience is a good audience.

There was no novelist on the Casey Anthony jury, and I think there should have been.  For while maybe there wasn’t enough direct evidence to tie the defendant irrefutably to the dead body of her young daughter, there also wasn’t enough alternative, credible narrative not to.  I can’t imagine a novelist––a good one, anyway––sitting in that jury room and not rendering a “guilty” verdict to at least one of the most serious charges.  Something terrible happened to Caylee Anthony, and most people believe her mother was involved–even, apparently, the jury that acquitted her, who later, through one of them, admitted they cried and felt sick to their stomachs when they reached that verdict.  The prosecution didn’t prove their case, they said.  But the other story fed to them makes no sense at all, and depending on who was on that jury, that might well have been grounds to convict.

Our lives are all about stories; they are what compel us most.  The lawyers for the defense and the lawyers for the state stood in that courtroom in Orlando and separately told the jury elaborate narratives.  The defense didn’t need to do this, but it did.  Each side created a distinct, discrete tale that was meant to be followed closely and responded to as if it were some kind of demented, insomnia-inducing bedtime story.  And at the end of the narrative, the jury was supposed to decide whether the story felt plausible, whether it felt “real. “ (After all, the whole event was broadcast on “TruTV.”)

This is nearly identical to the way a fiction writer assesses her own work. Whenever I finish writing a novel, I print the thing out, take it to a coffee shop and sit coolly reading through the pages as if I’ve never seen them before.  The questions I most want answered, looking at my writing, are:

Does it make sense?  Do the characters’ actions seem believable, based on what I know about their personal histories and past experiences?

Is the dialogue genuine?

Do I understand these people’s motivations?

Have I created a world unto itself, in which the characters live and sometimes die?

Have I made even the occasional act that would seem inhuman if read about in a newspaper article, seem somehow human?  Awful, but still human, given the fact that it was carried out by a human we have come to know?

In her essay “Fail Better,” Zadie Smith says, “When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world.”  Jeff Ashton and Linda Drane-Burdick told the jury the story of Casey Anythony as a way of expressing their way of being in the world too—what they think happened, why it matters, and why we should believe it.  Jose Baez and J. Cheney Mason (the names of all these lawyers are still vivid to me and to most people who followed the trial, as are the witnesses in the case: Jesse Grund, Dr. Vass, Roy Kronk, etc.  All of them seem like the names of characters in a novel.  Though frankly, naming the slightly clueless, perhaps slightly prevaricating meter-reader “Roy Kronk” seems a bit heavyhanded.  I myself would have resisted that impulse and toned the name down.  Roy Dowling.  There: much more real.)

Of course, not all novels feel authentic, nor do they give the feeling of lives lived,  Some of them don’t even try.  Their authors have other things in mind.  James Patterson, whose factory-line process of writing and desire to eat the world were detailed in the New York Times Magazine last year, writes the kind of fiction that appeals to the majority of fiction readers in this country, even though, by most objective literary standards, it’s horrible stuff.

Put simply: the prosecution fashioned a quiet, powerful, detailed description of a family that could have been written by our best contemporary novelists.  I felt, as I listened to them talk, that I understood what life had been like in the Anthony house at 4937 Hopespring Drive.  If I were writing the actual novel of this case, I might even call it 4937 Hopespring Drive.  The story hung together, it made sense, it was appalling and effective and true.

The defense wrote a James Patterson novel.  It was slick, anemic, filled with dialogue that sounded phony.  (“Look what you’ve done!” an irate George Anthony thundered, standing over his nubile daughter’ sleeping form.”)  It didn’t hang together, the characters didn’t seem like people, their motivations were nebulous, and the backstory was ridiculous.  The whole volume was salacious, sloppy and essentially soulless.  Its writers didn’t even seem to care that it was those things, nor, in the end, did they need to.

Maybe my inclination to see the Casey Anthony saga in novelistic terms comes not only from the fact that I myself am a novelist, but from something more basic:  Casey Anthony is herself a novelist-in-waiting.  Zenaida Fernandez-Gonzalez, aka “Zanny the Nanny,” the “wealthy” Jeff Hopkins, or Eric Baker, tragically killed in a car accident––these characters and their individual storylines spun from her the way they would spin from a writer: inexplicably, sometimes effortlessly.  No one understands where writers “get their ideas,” and no one understands where Casey Anthony does, either.  Many observers have speculated that she will make millions by writing a tell-all, or at least a tell-some.  But clearly fiction is the way for her to go.  Thanks to the jury in Orlando’s apparently limited need for authentic, coherent, complex narrative, Casey Anthony’s first  novel may very well have a big print run.  She’s a natural.

My Kindle, in plain view on the subway or bus, keeps my fellow commuters from knowing whether I have good or bad taste in books. Not only that, but their own ebooks keep me from knowing their taste in books.  These electronic readers keep me from judging people!  I hate that.  I am a person who stands strategically near the bookshelf at a cocktail party and squints at the spines of books, swatting away canapé-carrying waiters in favor of Isak Dinesen, all because she had a farm in Africa.  I have long held the view that you could fall in love with someone based mostly upon what they like to read.  Really shallow or disturbed people could carry Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell, or Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, and I might fall in love with them.  But what am I supposed to do now, since everyone is hiding their preferences under a black leatherette cover, or even under a whimsical one, designed to look like Hello Kitty, or For Whom the Bell Tolls?  Fortunately for me, I am married and not in the market.  But as for those people out there who are now deprived of the opportunity to form instant opinions on a Brooklyn-bound train at night, based on another person’s relationship to literature: I feel sorry for them.

Conversations that spring up around Kindle use tend not to be about content, but about mechanics.  “Say, is that the new version?” a stranger might ask, leaning close, or, “How’s the contrast on that thing?” in place of the remark,”Why, I love The Man Who Loved Children, too!”  But perhaps there’s a chance here for people not to judge one another at all.  Apparently there’s a new TV show that’s grasping at the “American Idol” market, called “The Voice,” and the whole premise seems to be that the celebrity judges listen to a bunch of singers without looking at them, and then decide whether or not to let them proceed in the contest.  As soon as they let them advance, the judges’ chairs whirl around so they can get the visual effect, too, and think: Oh my God, oh my God, I actually allowed a fat person (or a person with deeply pocked skin) to potentially become a celebrity.  Maybe the radical way to think of all this is that people who carry ebooks should not be judged by the likes of me or you.  There are a lot of kinds of books that a person can read, depending on mood.  And really, who knows what lurks behind the leatherette?  Maybe it isn’t even a book at all, but a series of random words strung together.  Or maybe, inside the Hello Kitty cover carried by a handsome thirty-year-old banker, resides a novel called Hello Kitty: a Tokyo Adventure.  I don’t know what people’s relationship to reading is going to be in the future.  I have no idea how brainy young people will fall in love.  Perhaps it will only be about pheromones, buffness or banter, and never ever involve the sexual stimulants known as Cormac McCarthy or David Foster Wallace or Virginia Woolf.

Books, those shape-shifters, are changing fast.  They are becoming elusive, hidden, and perhaps soon they will be entirely internal, screened on our brain-pans for an audience of one, leaving the hands free.  But even so, I know that I’ll keep reading, I’ll keep writing, and I guess I’ll keep judging people in whatever secret ways I can.

With the publication of Arthur Phillips’s playful, complicated novel The Tragedy of Arthur, featuring a character named Arthur Phillips; and the publication of the late David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, which includes a character named David Wallace; not to mention past novels such as Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock, featuring a Jewish novelist character named, well, you get the idea, I have to wonder: what’s the deal?

My initial thoughts lead me to suspect it’s mostly a male deal.  Please, reader, correct me on this if I’m wrong. Can you think of a novel by a woman in which a character bears the writer’s name, or at least a version of her name?  Did Doris Lessing ever write a book with someone in it named Doris Lessing, or Doris Lesser, or Loris Dessing?  Is there a Joyce Carol Oates book I’ve missed that features a woman named Joyce Carol Oates, or Joy Skarolotze?

And if not, why not?

Or perhaps, more to the point, why are men drawn to putting themselves in their novels in overt ways?  Is it somehow a variation on the old “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” song about male and female genitalia:  “Some are fancy on the outside.  Some are fancy on the inside…?”  Do men need to strut their stuff more directly in a novel?  I actually think all novels are, in their own way, examples of stuff-strutting.  It’s not that women don’t appear in their own work, but they may do so in quieter ways. They may not go all postmodern and feel the itch to share the joke with the class and create a puzzle, a Chinese box.  Instead, they might be happy to be the cat on the windowsill that’s just contentedly eaten a bird and still has a bit of feather and blood on its chin; or perhaps they know, in their heart of hearts, that they are the monstrous dictator of a violent, imaginary nation.  It’s just that it doesn’t necessarily occur to them to give either the cat or the dictator the writer’s name.

Or maybe, even more radically, women writers less frequently feel the desire to “put themselves in the book” directly or even indirectly.  Maybe they don’t always need to “be” there, exactly, but simply want to have their sensibility make a meaningful appearance, in some form or other.  As Zadie Smith has said, she writes to express her way of being in the world.  I am very hesitant to say that women writers do one thing, and male writers do another.  It’s a reductive way of viewing the world, but certain trends have emerged.  I know that the use of a writer’s name in a novel might mean something very different from the use of another writer’s name in another novel.  But perhaps when men include a version of their name, which can take the form of a blustery in-joke, a desire for the meta, for something cryptic and elusive, a code to be cracked, a mirror to be held up, and for the self never to really leave the premises, they really are writing to show their way of being in the world.

I guess, in a way–but only in a way–I envy them.  Which is why I am in the early stages of a novel featuring a woman novelist named Peg Holitzer.  She is exactly like me, only evil.

When will I finish it?  Don’t hold your breath.

So a bunch of us who have new books out in recent days got together last night around a restaurant table for some margaritas and guacamole, hoping to talk candidly about our hopes and fears for the future of a literate and literary society.  It was an ad-hoc group, thrown together at the last minute, and not everyone could come, because some writers were still touring.  Those of us who could make it wondered together about certain essential issues to writers, such as whether language actually matters in the same way it used to back when we were in school reading Roland Barthes and George Eliot.  We fretted together about the falling-away of books, and how we might all stick together and support one another in our future literary endeavors.

We all sat around a big round glossy table at Rosa Mexicano, and I must say, we made quite an illustrious group.  The writers included: myself; Stiegg Larsson’s two lawyers; Shirley MacLaine; the guy who wrote ___ My Dad Says; and the kid from Heaven is For Real, who needed a booster seat and ordered his margarita virgin, but that was not a problem.  Or, as the waiter put it, “No problemo,” and everyone laughed, to break the ice.

MacLaine immediately began chatting, and said that in an earlier life, back when she started writing,”during the Ottoman Empire, I seem to recall,” she added, “I had to hide my writing implements or they would be trampled.”

Larsson’s lawyers shook their heads in solidarity, and then returned to their intense scrutiny of the bowl before them, and the roughly-chopped avocado glop inside it.  “One is meant to… scoop the green material?” Lars Stensson, of Stensson & Stensson, asked me quietly, clearly appalled.

“Yes,” I told him.  “Scoop it.”

Scoop! That’s my favorite novel by Evelyn Waugh!” cried the surprisingly lyrical writer Barbara Eden, and we all looked upon her with admiration.

“Apparently she hasn’t been living in a bottle after all,” cracked the guy from ___My Dad Says, of whom we were all jealous not only because of his sales, but also because of his recent, unprecedented, tripartite essay in the New York Review of Books, on Knut Hamsun.

“I also love Brideshead, naturally,” Barbara Eden continued, and then the kid from Heaven is For Real raised his glass to Evelyn Waugh, “whether she’s up there,” he said, pointing to the ceiling, “or down there,” he added, tipping his head downward.

We all snickered under our breath at his ignorance of Waugh’s gender.  “Though really, he is so young,” I said to Barbara Eden, but she didn’t hear me, for she was already jotting down notes on her napkin for her next book, a novel–perhaps something Elizabethan.  “He has just entered the literary life,” I told her anyway.  “He will have plenty of time to learn.”