Many of you Blog Babies are also writers – either aspiring, accomplished, published, or retired. The latter group doesn’t need this advice, but if I may offer a few words of wisdom to those of you who are working on manuscripts now, it would be this. Do not ever gratuitously criticize another writer in public. I’ve been asked to write book reviews for years and have always refused, because the only review I could write would be for a book about which I felt unqualified admiration and support. The reviewing process is a divisive one, and writers should be the safety network for one another. And the reviewing mechanism is, at (let’s just say) the largest scale, profoundly venal: add those things together and you have a wide brush with which I would prefer not to be painted.
I was recently asked in an interview to choose between two contemporary authors, neither of whom I like, and my immediate response was to say, “I’m sorry, I’m not familiar enough with their work to answer that question.” It was half-honest, half-an end-run, but it worked. But the most important reason to be kind is because, as happened in our conversation about Jincy Willett, she magically appeared. If I had been even slightly unkind about her I would been sick, particularly if I’d been snarky for the sake of it when in fact I love her books. So remember that: in the public arena, graciousness counts for a good deal.
There are exceptions, such as when someone has committed a crime against literature or his readers – pathological liars and the like. A friend of mine was trying to write an article for a major magazine about an author with a cult following, and he got the idea that she was going to publish private information about him (which she never would have done) and so he began threatening her viciously. She eventually had to be hidden in the Conde Nast empire, and assigned guards. The abuse with which he battered my friend was scary in the way that out-of-control, narcissistic bullies are always scary, and I have no intention of forgiving him. I also would never speak of him. And of course there’s James Frey.
But really the best way to air your grievances is in a small party of trustworthy friends, like my Otters, who will let me rail against whoever is producing the most egregious mediocrity and being rewarded for it at the moment. No one knows about it, no one is hurt. In public it’s the better part of valor to discuss who you love, and why. There ought to be far more people who are thrilling (at any given time) than the opposite. So I hope it’s a regular feature – the books and writers we love and for whom we must sing praises. Because frankly, they are better writers and more deserving of our attention. Let the false quantities slip away, as they are bound to do.
I’ll start with just a few of my canonized loves:
Gregory Maguire is a national treasure: let that be said right away. I had loved his books and found the depth with which he combined myth and fairy tales and historical figures to be astonishing, but with Wicked, and it’s sequal, Son of Witch, he stepped out into something altogether different: the imaginative as free and wild, while also very grounded in the craft and narrative. Wicked is one of the most important books, from an ethical standpoint, I’ve ever read. Three cheers for Gregory Maguire, a great man and a great novelist.
Helen de Witt appeared with this tour de force novel and then faded from view. She had issues, similar to those experienced by Spalding Gray; by which I mean, jumping into the Hudson and being saved at the last minute (as opposed to Spalding, who did not want to be saved, I think). At base this is the story of a single mother trying to home-school a child genius. Beyond that it is simply one of the best, most moving novels I’ve ever read.
Given the tragic loss of David Foster Wallace, I think it would behoove us to read the great and important books about depression, particularly depression and creativity. Kay Redfield Jamison has two: An Unquiet Mind (her own experience w/ bipolar illness), and Night Falls Fast, a study of suicide. And then the first rate, chilling, Darkness Visible, by William Styron. I would also recommend, rather idiosyncratically, the Eden Express, by Mark Vonnegut, a memoir of his descent into schizophrenia. He’s such a good writer that you can actually feel the horror descend on him. These are all frightening books, but important.
I’ve never hidden my love for DeLillo, but after Underworld (robbed! robbed of the National Book Award!) I couldn’t imagine him writing a gentle, heart-piercing novel of 9/11, but that’s exactly what he did in Falling Man. Perfect, perfect.
All right – I would love to hear your take on national treasures, or whether as writers we ought to behave as colleagues (or if that’s something leftover from my small-town upbringing) and what books fall under the categories of greatness.