May 2011


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.

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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.