Reading Matters: Public #Respect for Writers

I went to my Fiercely Independent Community Bookstore on Friday evening for a reading by Maine resident Eleanor Morse, author of the recently published White Dog Fell From the Sky. Typically, about 25 to 40 people attend these readings, and most show up at the last minute. The reading at 7pm was to be preceded by a half hour of what was billed as “Zimbabwean music” which could’ve meant anything from a recording to the Maine Marimba Ensemble (none of whom are Zimbabwean but they specialize in traditional and contemporary Zimbabwean music). I figured I’d listen to the music, snuggle into a corner seat out of the way of latecomers, and if the music was canned, I could always, ahem, find something to read.

It didn’t work out that way.

At 6:32 the main room of the store was jammed. Forget sitting – there was barely room to stand. The instrumentalist and vocalist were indeed playing and singing from the side room. I wandered back and thought I’d snagged a reasonable spot to stand.. but they kept coming, and coming, and coming… I ended up on the steps to the basement. I couldn’t see the table where the speaker would be, or the musicians, or, really, anything other than a wall of people in front of me. I had to leave; I was getting claustrophobic, and I wasn’t going to be able to see or hear anything from where I’d ended up.

Now, it might sound like I’m complaining, but I’m not – I’m rejoicing! On this Friday night in January, in Maine, at least 100, perhaps 150 people came out to hear a 62-year-old female author talk about her novel set in Botswana during South Africa’s Apartheid. It helped that Oprah listed it as a Must-Read for January 2013. It helped, of course, that she’s a local (she’s from Peak’s Island, and the store owner said the latest ferry had deposited half of the island’s winter residents in time for the event). And I suppose it helped that we’re in our January Thaw and it was well above freezing. But still, the enthusiasm of that attendance, the mellow intensity in that store, more than compensated for any disappointment I felt at missing the talk.

This is good news.

Skip to Saturday morning, with me working on calculus (yes, I’m taking yet another math course) and half-listening to UP with Chris Hayes, part of the weekend-morning liberal porn block on MSNBC. I could’ve sworn I heard him say George Saunders would be at the table next, which, of course, would be silly; UP features political, economic, and social policy wonks, activists, commentators, and academics, not fiction writers, not even fiction writers known for their anti-consumerism viewpoints.

But it was indeed George Saunders, whose recently-published collection Tenth of December includes several terrific stories I’ve read from TNY and BASS, like the great title story, the truly astonishing “Semplica Girl Diaries” and the heartbreaking “Home.”

But it wasn’t just George Sanders. It was also Ayana Mathis, whose The Twelve Tribes of Hattie I started last week. And Victor Lavalle, who I’m not familiar with (but perhaps I should be; The Devil in Silver looks interesting), and Michael Chabon whose name I seem to have been mispronouncing all along.

Four literary fiction writers. On a political commentary show? Yes – discussing President Obama’s political narrative, multiple voices, a foot in two worlds… politics and literary theory collide.

It’s all available online [addendum; no, it isn’t, just one segment is still available here] in four six-minute segments. Yes, it is political. Yes, everyone there likes Barack Obama. Yes, there are some places they could’ve gone, maybe should’ve gone, but didn’t. But the storytellers are gathered around the Pastry Plate (which is so popular to viewers, it has its own Twitter account with 2000+ followers; no, not me, I have enough trouble following people, let alone carbohydrates) to talk about storytelling, and they do.

Some highlights:

Section introduction (Chris Hayes):

Perhaps more than any other national political feature in recent memory, Barack Obama has used speeches and big rhetorical set pieces to define his character, tell his story, and propel actual political events….
Given Barack Obama’s remarkable gift in storytelling and the impending second act of the drama of his presidency, we thought it would be enlightening to invite some genuine experts in storytelling to give their thoughts on the narrative President Obama is creating.

George Saunders:

What he’s really doing is saying to the listener, ‘I trust you deeply. I’m going to be as honest as I can, I’m going to tell you the weirdest marginal truths, and because you’re as smart as I am, you’re going to lean forward.’ In fiction that’s an important principle, to assume the best of your reader, don’t puppeteer, don’t condescend.

Ayana Mathis:

It is this question of creating a narrative of yourself… and it is a combination of public perception and his own perception of himself.

Victor Lavalle:

People who are drawn to fiction are asking the writer, “Do a good enough job to help me become invested in someone else for a time, so I can see our common humanity, our common pain, our common everything, and maybe come out of here with the sense that I’m not the only one feeling this loneliness, this sadness…” that’s part of the pact of writing fiction vs nonfiction.

Chris reads a quote from the January 2010 Junot Diaz TNY essay, which may have inspired this whole angle; even Flannery Connor gets a quick mention as an aside.

Then there’s the usual closer of the show, “Now We Know,” a report of something each guest has learned this week. Mathis talks about her discovery of the use of a blossoming pear tree in two disparate works, Saunders comments on the value of humor thanks to some galley proofs he read, Lavalle bemoans the poor quality of bootleg DVDs, and Chabon worries about this giant thing scientists just discovered floating around out there in the universe, a cluster of quasars so huge it can’t possibly exist. It was the most fun Now We Know segment in a long time. That’s what happens when you talk to writers.

Two public displays of affection for books and writers: What a great start to the weekend.

Michael Chabon: “Citizen Conn” from The New Yorker, 2/13&20/12

New Yorker Illustration by Jashar Awan

New Yorker illustration by Jashar Awan

Many intense and fertile partnerships, whether creative or romantic, suffer from an imbalance in the relative importance that the respective partners attach to the partnership, to its history and its very existence. There is so often a subject and an object. The object, almost by definition, tends to be the more clueless of the two. – Michael Chabon, Book Bench interview

The world is divided into two kinds of people: those who leave easily, and those who are easily left. Well, no, of course it isn’t that simple, since everyone plays both sides at some point in his life. But for those of us who have been, predominantly, the one casually left behind, this story is a heartbreaker, but perhaps less of a mystery than for those who never let the door hit them in the ass on the way out.

It’s a story of the creative team behind a popular comic book series from the 50s and 60s. And again, the world is divided into to kinds of people (though not really): those who appreciate comic books and the history behind them, and those who were raised to consider them the devil’s toilet paper. In spite of my nearly-genetic membership in the latter class, I loved this story.

It’s told from the point of view of the rabbi at an assisted living facility. She’s more of an observer, though she tries, unsuccessfully to play catalyst throughout. It’s an interesting POV, with many connotation.

“Can I make you some tea, Rabbi?” Mr. Feather said.
Naturally, I wanted to reply that he ought not to bother, that he should just sit down and rest and let me put the kettle on for him. But over the years I had seen enough of the assiduous cruelty of children and grandchildren, in suppressing old people’s vivid hunger for bother, to know better.

In his Book Bench interview, Chabon admits he has no idea where she came from, but she was suddenly there: “I think she was a good choice, because her ignorance of comics and comics history makes her a good stand-in for the reader, while her obligation to pay attention makes her a good stand-in for the writer.” I’m struck by the assignment of those values. This feels important; it feels like a smart way of analyzing the choice of narrator. It feels like the sort of thing MFAs spend $25 grand to learn.

I’m also interested in the title: the story is told from the rabbi’s point of view, to me it’s “about” one character, but it’s titled for the other. I’m still mulling that over.

The story concerns one Morton Feather, a resident of the ALF served by the rabbi, and his estranged partner-in-crime-fighting-superheroes, Artie Conn. Feather is dying, and Conn is seeking forgiveness for a deal with the devil he made forty years before, when he signed away their rights to the material they’d created in exchange for a lump sum payment. Their partnership, and their work, had suffered after that; the comics they created went down in quality, until finally, Feather was fired, while Conn stayed on and enjoyed considerable success in the business.

Sounds simple. But Conn has made every effort to right the wrong. He’s arranged for significant payments, and gives ample credit – more than is due, in fact – to Feather for his success after the breakup. Still, Feather will not speak to him. Still, Feather holds the grudge. The rabbi is bewildered. What does he want? What is the hurt that is unhealed? Feather won’t say.

“If the circumstances were different, I’m sure I’d be able to look back on my career in comic books with a good deal of pride and affection. But, unfortunately, for various reasons, which, I hope you’ll forgive me, I prefer not to discuss, I can’t think about that time or my work then with anything but a bitter taste in my mouth. A taste of ashes. It’s all ruined for me. That’s the sorry truth.”

The reason is hidden in plain sight. When the offer to buy the rights is made, Feather retains an attorney and prepares to fight. Conn, however, agrees to sign. When Feather learns this, he doesn’t try to convince Conn; there’s no scene, no fireworks; he just dismisses his lawyer and signs on the dotted line. And his work loses its inspiration; the comics they continue to produce together are never the same again.

We’re told this – by the rabbi’s husband, a comic book fan and historian who has idolized the pair since childhood – less than halfway through the piece, yet the story still plays on the mystery of Feather’s refusal of all remuneration and contact with Conn. I assumed I was being hypersensitive again. I thought, there must be something else. Like the rabbi, I wracked my brain. A rebuffed sexual advance? A love triangle? Something said privately, something so cruel it still stings decades later? But there it was, plainly spelled out – and the story itself glossed over it, and returned to it only on discovery of an old yearbook Feather bequests to Conn (a pretty aggressive act, actually, kind of a final “screw you” that doesn’t quite hit the mark with its target), an afternoon the two men, as boys, spent discussing science fiction in the library at school where they hid out from the crowds (another scene that broke my heart, since I spent so much time in my junior high school library I was recruited as a library aide), before Conn’s family moved and they didn’t see each other again until they were teamed up at work years later.

It’s with that yearbook, and the beautiful scene of these two lonely boys discovering each other for one single lunch hour, that the rabbi understands the importance of the relationship to Feather, even if Conn doesn’t:

Perhaps what had snuffed out the flame of Mort Feather’s wild and minor genius was not the fact that Conn had sold out their partnership, and their possible legal claim to a considerable fortune, but that, with a stroke of his pen, he had wiped out the history of a blessing, refuted – to make a balloon payment – the lone, certifiable miracle of Morty Feather’s life: his friendship with Artie Conn.

At which point, I said: “Duh!”

The rabbi goes on, in a second insight which, though beautiful and poignant, feels like one too many:

I prayed that one day, here or in another place, Mr. Conn would find the forgiveness that he sought from the shade of the boy he had once chatted with, for an hour, about life on other worlds, on what had been, though he was blind to it, the happiest day of his life.

I don’t mean to be flip. I’m having trouble typing because of all the tears. And I suppose, if Chabon had made his rabbi a little less clueless, we wouldn’t have had the story. But it just rings false, somehow. I didn’t need the extra poignancy of the earlier meeting to recognize how slighted Feather must have felt when Conn accepted the buy-out. Why did the rabbi?

In spite of my quibbles (I don’t get the Swiss army knife, either, though I enjoyed it), I was engrossed in this story from the beginning. It reads beautifully. It moves at a perfect pace. And as I’ve already said, it touched me greatly. In fact, it’s maybe one of the few stories that made me feel smarter than the characters. Maybe even smarter than the writer, in some respects.