The Year of Pleasures

One of the things I love about my new, non-publishing life in New York is how much time I have to read. Between forty-minute subway rides and my lunch break on the steps of the iconic, lion-laden library, I even have excuses to open my book and whip through a couple of chapters.

In February, I started a book by one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Berg. She is a realist women’s fiction writer who does what I revel in: writing about the day-to-day and making it not only interesting, but moving. In The Year of Pleasures, Betta is a recent widow struggling to make a new life without her husband, John. Their marriage was particularly strong as they were truly best friends and, because of infertility, they had no children to distract them. Because John died of cancer, Betta had time to prepare and to make promises to him, like that she would move away from their house and start a new life somewhere. So the book opens with her stopping in a small town south of Chicago and deciding that this was where she wanted to live.

The book is filled with beautiful lines, imagery, and observations. Betta takes moments to observe the birds sitting on a telephone wire or to watch children playing in the street. But overall, the story felt flat-lined. Nothing much happens, and when it does, it doesn’t really explore the full-breadth of that experience. For example, in the small town Betta sees things like laundry flapping in the wind and white-picket fences, and there is never one hint of the downside of this idyllic setting. Moreover, Berg has romanticized Betta’s relationship with John so that there is barely a negative memory. John himself seems perfect. Certainly in memory he would be romanticized, but there is no glimpse that this is what is happening.

To put it another way, everything that happens to Betta in the novel is good, except for the fact that her husband has died, which doesn’t happen during the actual plot. Because something is happening, the plot is moving forward, but it isn’t moving in an interesting or compelling direction because the reader isn’t worried about what will happen to the character. When the book ended, I was still waiting for the story to start.

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Meeting the Wizard

Recently I had the opportunity to pay $36, travel two hours by public bus, and go to a reading/book signing by one of my favorite authors, Jodi Picoult. At first, I jumped at the idea; what could be better than hearing her words read by her and listening to her talk about writing? But then I began to rethink it. What if she was disappointing? What if in real life she wasn’t as awesome as her books? What if she’s actually mean? It is hard to read something without thinking about the author and what she was thinking when she wrote it, although modern criticism encourages this detachment (see The Intentional Fallacy). As a writer, I know that often things I write have nothing to do with me, but as a reader, I imagine everything as an extension of the author’s experience. So if I meet Jodi Picoult and she doesn’t live up to my expectations, would I ever be able to enjoy a book of hers again?

I decided to protect my illusions and skipped the reading.

This led me to wondering about the benefits of getting to know an author. Everyone has experienced the swell of curiosity after reading a good book; you just want to know everything about the author and how they came up with the idea and how you can extend your experience of the fiction through meeting them. Writers become even more obsessed with meeting their idols to pepper them with questions like what their writing schedule is like and how they come up with their ideas and how long it took them to be published. A cult of personality is created around the great writers that lasts long after their deaths; on my vacation this past week to the Florida Keys we visited Hemingway’s home (although we got there too late for a tour) where you can see the rooms in which he wrote and meet cats descended from his pets.

Me in front of Hemingway's House

But what is the point of trying to meet the wizard behind the curtain? The questions authors give eager writers rarely have any impact on the aspiring novelist’s writing; the fact remains that you have your own rhythm of when you write and just because Jonathan Franzen says to write in the mornings doesn’t mean that will work for you (I have no idea if he said that; I made it up for an example). Seeing where Hemingway wrote doesn’t hint at the secret of his genius. Elizabeth Berg writes in her book Home Safe about a writer visiting her idol, E.B. White’s, home and feeling much closer to him and imagining she has so much more insight into his work. Then she says:

“As she stood in White’s work space that day, it occurred to her that she was grasping at straws when it came to really understanding anything about the man; you could read his work, even biographies about him, and imagine a certain kind of person; but the reality of him would forever be a mystery…She thinks it was Margaret Atwood who said that wanting to meet a writer because you like their work was like wanting to meet a duck because you like pate.” (p. 63)

This captures for me what is the pointlessness of meeting a writer. It is the piece of fiction that you fell in love with, not the person. And, after all, most writers are shy, introverted people; it follows that their best work, their masterpieces of brilliance, are what they write, revise, and set out for you to read, not the speaking engagements they do to get money or the empty rooms in which they wrote. Meeting the writer will not extend your experience of the fiction; only reading more of their works will do that.

I imagine many people have different opinions on this, and I would love to hear them! Also keep an eye on Sarah Martinez because she has a lot to say on this subject.