March 2011


It’s been called to my attention that an earlier novel of mine, The Wife, has been included on the Neglected Classics list of the UK newspaper “The Guardian.”  I am trying to decide if I should feel bad about this, or good. (My motto tends to be: When in doubt, choose “bad.”)  But I suppose it’s possible to turn this into something useful; for instance, I could tell people that I was chosen for The Guardian’s  “…Classics” list.  That wouldn’t be lying.  (Of course, I have also thought about thanking The MacArthur Foundation on the acknowledgements page of my next novel.  That wouldn’t lying, either, if I didn’t specify exactly what I was thanking the foundation for.)

I feel sometimes that novels are all Little Engines That Could, or Should Have, or Almost Did, or Didn’t.  Novelists are an increasingly obscure lot, as if we speak in a click-language.  And yet there’s still a whole world of novel readers out there, and once in a while a novel breaks through to another level, which is highly gratifying to the writer.  With The Wife, I didn’t quite break through to that level, but apparently to another level that I hadn’t known existed before: the level of books that mean something to certain people, who perhaps can’t understand why they don’t mean something to more people.

The writers on The Guardian list, if we all got together for a little celebration, would in some cases perhaps circle the room drinking as much free scotch as possible and muttering darkly about our state of neglect; or, in other cases, would bounce from spot to spot, feeling happily classic.   When I imagine myself at that party, I see myself as uncertain of what to do––staying neutrally by the table with the crudités and dip, feeling neither entirely classic nor entirely neglected.

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I remember the moment when my mother said to me, “Meg, maybe you should start thinking about checking out some books from the adult section.”  We were standing in the “teen corner” of the Syosset Public Library, which at the time consisted of  just a few stands of shelves, and perhaps the “Hang In There, Baby!” kitten poster.  It was true that I had worked my way through all these books, going from high-school pregnancy (“My Darling, My Hamburger; “Mr. and Mrs. BoJo Jones” to mental illness (“Lisa, Bright and Dark” to drugs (“Go Ask Alice” and “Tuned Out), and now I was basically done.  But instead of starting over, I was supposed to leave this island of emotional disturbance and gallop across the industrial carpeting to… what?  Virginia Woolf?

I didn’t realize, of course, that “adult” fiction was filled with as many messed-up and marginal people as teen fiction was. ( And today, of course, in both categories, they’re all thirsty for human blood.)  Back then, good kids got themselves into bad situations, and I wanted to read about it.  My mother, seeing that I had mastered these absorbing but perhaps not too challenging books, thought I was ready for the next step.  The harder stuff.   It was as if, in her mind, one kind of reading naturally led to another, the way pot led to heroin in the books I liked. But I felt threatened when she wanted me to move on.  I wasn’t ready for the onslaught to adult life and all its unmanageable obligations and strange entanglements.  Everybody talked so much in those books!  They talked and talked about their feelings.  They stared at the sky at dusk.  In a weird way I have never moved on.  I’m sure the teen corner of the Syosset Library is now a veritable space-station of high-tech, and that the “Hang in There, Baby!” poster has been replaced by a 3-D poster of a girl cutting herself.

Though I write “adult” novels, filled with unsatisfied adults who, at least in my upcoming novel “The Uncoupling,” talk about sex the whole time while not actually having it, when I see myself in relation to books–my truest self–it’s me in a Huk-a-oo blouse in the teen corner, reading the same books I’ve read before, which are filled with dangers but feel so very safe.

I see that Tina Fey’s book comes out the same day that mine does, April 5th.  I hear she’s shaking.  All right, she’s not shaking, she’s not thinking about my novel, she’s not calling me up and asking, “What do you think, Meg, can we do a reading together at KGB?  And would you mind it if I practiced my reading for you first?  I’ve never done one of these before.”  And I would help her enunciate.  No, no, no, this is a fantasy.  She’s got her own thing going, in arenas the size of the Colosseum.  Lives will be sacrificed there, and the crowd will roar and smell blood, and at the end they will leave satisfied.  At my own readings, however, there will be a podium and a glass of water.  Someone earnest will introduce me, and I’ll try not to read in that lilting singsong voice that we all learned at Fiction Reading School.  You will have to decide which event you’d like to attend.  You must choose between me and Tina Fey.

It’s funny the way the person whose book comes out when yours does will always be connected in some way to you.  (Even only in your mind.)  It’s like the odd celebrities who die around the same time.   For instance, Harold Pinter and Eartha Kitt died on the same day.  In heaven, Eartha was lolling on a piano singing, “Pintah baby…” while Harold studiously ignored her.  So perhaps I am the living Harold Pinter to Tina Fey’s living Eartha Kitt.  Or vice versa.  Either way, I have to say that I can’t wait to read her book.

Now my novel officially comes out in less than a month.  For a long time it wasn’t going to be coming out “for months,” as I told people with a dismissive wave of my hand, when they inquired.  I didn’t really have to deal with the idea that eventually it would come out. Instead it became this theoretical thing, as real as the child in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”  But then the months passed and I had to look at actual proofs.  “First pass.”  “Second pass.”  People at my publisher began to talk about my novel as if it were REAL.  They were just like the Edward Albee character Honey.  I thought they were insane.  This… thing didn’t really exist, did it?  But they said it did!  I agreed to make dates to give readings.  I good-naturedly said yes to events that I couldn’t really feel would transpire.  Seattle?  No problem.  LA?  Why, sure!  There was so much time between then and April.  Anything could happen.  Surely time would somehow stand still and I wouldn’t actually have to… publish eventually, would I?  Instead, it would be like a careless bargain I had made with Rumpelstiltskin long ago:  Yeah, yeah, sure, you can have my child.  Yeah, yeah, sure, you can publish my novel…  But now Rumpelstiltskin is coming to pick up his precious winnings!  And my book will appear in print.

Every writer lives in denial when she’s writing.  The writing is everything.  You can make mistakes, you can write badly, you can wander off into a side-trip about a whale––all because you know that you’ll be able to fix it later.  But now there is no later.  On April 5th, Rumpelstiltskin will appear.

I think there should be a reality TV show called Writers.  I would watch that show.  It would include a literary novelist; someone trying to write a blockbuster; a poet who acts far removed from everything because she knows she’ll never make a living doing this; a seasoned elder stateswoman-type who gives readings all over the country from the novel she wrote in 1975; and, finally, a young Eve Harrington figure, fresh out of an MFA program, who secretly wants to unseat the elder stateswoman.   Everyone would compare reviews, or the word-count of their day’s work; or print runs.  “How was your Kirkus?” they would ask each other in sexy voices.  Once a season one of them would go off to Yaddo or Macdowell, where they would be filmed lying listlessly on a narrow bed, eating all the Milano cookies that had been delivered outside their door in their lunch basket only five minutes earlier. Then they would look at the clock:  10:15 AM.  That comedic tough-luck sound-effect  would play:  Wah-wah.

There could be a pivotal scene on Writers in which two novelists go and give a reading at a big urban public library in another city, and after they’re done reciting their passages, one about violent death, the other about awkward sex, an audience member raises his hand and asks, “I’d like to know why two normal-looking ladies would possibly write about such abnormal subjects.”

This actually happened to me on my last book tour.   It wasn’t reality TV, but it might have been.  Truly, I don’t understand why Writers would be any less fascinating than the world of housewives in various glamorous locales–quite a few of whom, I should add, aren’t even really housewives.  But all of us, in one way or another, are indeed writers.

At the very end of the show, one of the writers,who is waiting for the publication of her book in a month (why, just like me)––would be very happy to find out, when checking her iphone in some inappropriate moment (during therapy, or a mammogram, or a fight with her husband), her novel, like mine, was picked for the Indie Next List for April:

http://www.news.bookweb.org/news/april-2011-indie-next-list-preview