Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Guest Post by Joan Frank: If You Really Want to Hear About It

In my alternate life as a book reviewer, I come across a practice that’s more and more pervasive, and it happens like this:

A first novel by a very bright, up-and-coming young author arrives for review. At the back of the novel the publisher has attached a section called (I'll invent a title to camouflage it) “Additional Info and More About Me.”

This section features the writer's photo—way handsome—followed by a little snack-tray of personal chat: a self-deprecating, witty narrative about his life, background, the writing of the book, and a quick tour of the books he's presently reading. For a farewell flourish he lists all the titles he'd first wanted to give the novel in my hands, and his funny reasons for rejecting each.

The purpose of these sparkling riffs is of course to draw readers. The “More About Me” section—promised in a shiny, medal-like sticker on the book’s cover—offers a literary amuse-bouche.

Of course I skip straight to this section, the same way I leaf through gossip magazines at the supermarket checkout. And in an instant, I want to tell the writer (and his publicist) with a groan: No, no, no. Please don’t do this.

It isn’t that the author's small talk isn't fun or tasteful: it's downright demure, compared with the antics of many websites and trailers. But a website or a video trailer—so far, anyhow—exists in a separate physical (or virtual) space. If you make a sandwich of the actual novel slapped up against the author’s jolly scrapbook-noodling, it strikes me that you not only devalue the novel—you make it almost irrelevant. Why should a reader bother with a flimsy, made-up story when she can zero in, between the same covers, on the tasty dirt of the writer’s life?

My guess is that most readers will skim the novel after having sucked up the more salacious stuff at the back—and only then if there happens to be nothing else to do.

And there’s always, always something else to do.

To survive, literary fiction—last time I checked—must create urgency, even inside the quietest tale. A reader’s got to need to push through, compelled by the story’s voice, or because she's curious about what happens next, or both. She’s got to care. One of the lines that still reverberates across decades, from J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, is Holden Caulfield’s tense refrain: If you really want to hear about it . . . Those words served as Holden’s sword and shield—and bait. Very few, he understood, really give a toss. It's a story's job to lure them.

I’m not arguing for piousness, exactly. I like the junk food of gossip as much as anybody, and to be fair, reading about artists' personal struggles (in their letters, for example) can inspire as powerfully as their works. Just, please—invoking that famous old New Yorker division between its advertising and editorial departments—can't we keep the elevator doors separate?

A writer offers a piece of fiction by way of saying Here is a dream I made. The reader takes it into her hands, answering I accept your dream for the duration of its reading—if it can hold me. The dream is a world. Unlike a website, film, or television show, a book doesn't commend itself to dreams when bound together with a series of outtakes, commercial tie-ins, funny bloopers, action figures, key chains, and the author tweeting what he ate for breakfast. Those latter forms of outfall may show up—but please, don't leash them to the art.

Introductions and acknowledgment pages aside—when personality profiling is packed cheek to cheek with fiction, it strikes me that the primacy of the “real” voice nearly always trumps. Some delicate membrane dissolves, a little sickeningly. Readers' sympathies naturally flow toward the "actual"—melting fiction's dream, rendering it gossamer, sometimes even silly. What's more, a reader can sneak back anytime and check out those dishy pages whenever she gets bored with the story (the poor story!)—like porn stashed in the back of a textbook.

So when that delicious suspension—okay: for this moment, this dream and no other—is punctured, what's left? The novel becomes an infomercial or larky exercise, winking the neon message Ha, Just Fooling Around.

A new genre? Possibly. And for some, that might be ideal—but I can't really say I want to hear about it. There's little time, and so much wonderful work out there yet to read.


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