The Best Blurb I Never Had

Making the rounds this week is a wonderful Los Angeles Review of Books essay about the time a young writer named Joan Williams asked William Faulkner for a blurb for her book.  Glen David Gold’s line-read of Faulkner’s grizzly reply touches on many things that interest me, like the life of Faulkner (especially, his UVa writer-in-residence years), the highlights and low-lights of literary friendships and favors, the fine art of blurb-making and ellipses insertion (a craft I learned many years ago as an intern in Granta’s offices), the horror of transactional relationships, the lost art of letter-writing, and (spoiler alert!) what happens when an older, famous writer strikes up a relationship with a young, unestablished one.

Some years ago, a prize-winning writer who you probably have heard of emailed me.  I was in the middle of an onerous task at a corporate job I wasn’t suited for when the message flashed across my screen.  “Please forgive the intrusion,” it began. I almost fell out of my chair.  This writer — who had been assigned reading for me in college a few years before — called my writing “smart” and “interesting.”  He wanted to know what else I was working on.

What followed was not my ticket to fame or the start of a steamy affair (either which would have made a much better story than the one I’m telling now).  To my regret, it was not the start of a lasting literary friendship, either.  We exchanged emails — some earnest, some chatty (his were filled with profanities) — about life and writing, and the writing life, while I got started on a freelance assignment he’d set up for me.  We planned to meet for coffee but he was traveling extensively, and anyway, I didn’t want to meet until I had made some headway on the freelance assignment — or had other “smart” and “interesting” work to show him.

We never did get coffee.  I happened to be visiting my parents in Virginia during the short window he was in New York, but the real problem was that I wasn’t sure if I was exactly who the famous writer hoped I was.  I had just finished graduate school, where I had read things, and developed ideas (a “promiscuous mind” full of them, as the only graduate school professor to give me less than an A put it) but I wasn’t sure, exactly, what it was I was supposed to be writing about — or doing, for that matter — next.  For lack of any better plan, I threw myself into my full-time job and the busy social life of a single girl living in downtown Manhattan.  I hoped things would make more sense eventually.  When they did, maybe I would write about it.

In the meantime, my pen pal’s emails were getting ever-so-slightly more familiar and affectionate — nothing untoward, but there was a shift in tone.  I studied his words with even more scrutiny than I’d given them in college.  I read parts of his messages to my older brother on the phone.  “Sly dog,” my brother said.  I started flinching every time I saw the famous writer’s byline.  Writers:  They’re just like us (this was a concept I mastered when I was an intern at Us Weekly).  They Google strangers.  They don’t know what they’re looking for.  They don’t know what they mean.  Our correspondence tapered off.

A few more years have gone by and to my surprise and relief, things do make more sense, as I’d hoped they would.  I’m happy with my new, different job, my boyfriend and my outer-borough life.   And the writing?  It’s coming along — slowly.  I’m finding my footing.  Maybe I should be in more of a hurry, but I’m not. “How much of a balancing act to determine your real value to another person,” Gold writes.  Let me add: Or indeed, to yourself.

Whatever Spell

There’s a scene in Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives where an unhinged author starts to drive himself mad waiting for a particular writer’s review of his latest book. Given what he knows about the critic, he’s sure the review will be scathing, and will destroy his career.  Rather than wait to see what this critic comes up with, the author challenges him to a duel to the death.

To keep myself out of fatal sword-fights, I find it helpful to look at John Updike’s rules for book critics from time to time when I need a little bit of refocusing in the book reviewing department:

Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

Daniel Mendelsohn takes a similar position:

Even Aristophanes — who was, we should remember, a comedian and not a critic — seems to have been made uneasy by the sadistic aspects of criticism. “I cannot judge anymore,” his Dionysos apologizes when the word-weighing is over.  “I must not lose the love of either one of them. / One of them’s a great poet. I like the other one.” The lines remind you that loving and liking are as much a part of criticism as are hating and hacking; and that the impulse underlying good criticism ought to be affection for literature rather than animus toward writers.