Aug. 12, 2011

Public Writer, Private Writer

Preparations continue for this winter’s publication of Defending Jacob. The cover art is locked in (sneak preview soon). Yesterday I spent six hours being photographed on Boston street corners in various brooding writerly poses. This morning comes news that the book has sold in China, making it the rare product that we export to them. (Hang on, America, just a few more books and I’ll get this darn trade deficit turned around.)

But the strangest bit, to me, is that I will soon go off on a “pre-publication tour.” In September and October, I will visit regional trade shows for independent booksellers in New England, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, southern California (Long Beach) and northern California (San Francisco). I am delighted to do this, of course. Author tours, pre- or post-publication, are rare today. Not penny-on-the-sidewalk rare — unicorn rare. So I’m very grateful to my publisher for putting increasingly scarce resources behind my book.

At the same time, I can’t help thinking that I am a hell of a lot less interesting in person than I am in my books. In person, I am a perfectly pleasant guy, I suppose, but no author can replicate the intensity and intimacy of a good reading experience. Most authors I’ve met? Meh, the book was better. That’s the nature of reading, which requires the reader to conjure the author’s voice out of squiggles on the page. Inevitably the voice you, the reader, create in your head has a special quality. It seems to come from inside you, it seems to originate in your own thoughts. A good book hijacks the inner voice that burbles constantly in every reader’s head. That’s what makes the medium so powerful: the story takes place inside the reader’s consciousness. No wonder the author’s voice seems so familiar and authoritative.

The author’s voice is not my real, conversational voice, of course. When you read my books, you hear only my most articulate, well-crafted sentences. My best and most refined self. That’s what good writing is. The rest — the clumsy phrases, the not-quite-right words or metaphors, all the inarticulate flubs that characterize ordinary speech — is edited out. Even my realistic dialogue is not quite real, the quotation marks notwithstanding. It is shaped, polished, crafted, improved. Every stammer and stumble is calculated for its precise effect. It is the way you would talk if you had a writer scripting your life. (How great would that be?)

Surely readers know all this, but they crave the writer’s personal presence anyway. They want to meet the awkward, bashful, inarticulate writer behind the exalted, hyper-articulate authorial voice they’ve heard in their heads. That’s why there are bookstore readings and author tours and Oprah (well, there used to be Oprah).

I understand the craving to meet the author, but honestly it’s a feeling I don’t share. If I walked into a bar and saw one of my personal heroes sitting there alone, an empty bar stool beside him — Philip Roth, say, or Bruce Springsteen or Larry Bird — I don’t think I would approach him. What would I say? I might gush for a while like any other fan. I might thank him for the pleasure he’s given me. But what would be the point? It’s nothing he hasn’t heard a thousand times. And what if he disappointed me? What if Philip Roth in person turned out to be less compelling than his books? What if he turned out to be, you know, human? What a letdown. Better just to leave the guy in peace. (Note: Springsteen or Bird I would not bother, but on second thought I would love to meet Roth in a bar and have a good long talk about writing. I would want to talk to him as a fellow writer, though, not as a reader/fan.)

For a long time I wondered if my own reluctance to play the big-shot writer was just ordinary insecurity or stage fright. Maybe other writers did not worry about measuring up to the voice in their books — being revealed like the Wizard of Oz, a small man behind a big illusion. Then, a few years ago, I ran across a short story by Henry James called “The Private Life.” There are special moments in one’s reading life where the writer seems to speak directly to you, moments of real connection. The man behind the book comes shivering through and you feel his presence. For me, “The Private Life” was one such moment. The story reads like a confession, a weird parable of the writer’s anxiety about meeting his public. How encouraging to hear it from no less a personage than Henry James — the dense, fusty, arch Victorian called “the master” even in his own time and without a trace of irony (irony had not been invented yet). If you want to know what it feels like to be a writer on public exhibit, read this story. I know, I know — it’s Henry James. It’s a little much. But if you’re willing to stick with a writer who can spew out a thousand words about his book tour (ai-yi-yi, is anyone still reading this?), then maybe Henry James isn’t such a stretch for you. As Andy Dufresne said to Red, “If you’ve come this far, maybe you’ll come a little further.”

If you’re not the Henry James type, here’s the story in a nutshell: A group of London sophisticates is on vacation at a small hotel in the Swiss Alps. Among the group is the famous novelist Clarence “Clare” Vawdrey, the greatest writer of the time. (Vawdrey is referred to in passing as “the master.” [cough]) But in conversation Vawdrey, alas, is a bit of a dullard. He strikes the narrator

as having neither moods nor sensibilities nor preferences…. I never found him anything but loud and cheerful and copious, and I never heard him utter a paradox or express a shade or play with an idea…. His opinions were sound and second-rate, and of his perceptions it was too mystifying to think.

In other words, the great Vawdrey is the dinner guest no one wants to be stuck sitting next to. Also in the company is Lord Mellifont, a public man, a politician who shines in social situations, never puts a foot wrong, never wears the wrong outfit or says the wrong thing.

As the days pass, a strange thing happens. Vawdrey is discovered to have a double, a shadowy figure who stays behind in the empty, darkened hotel room writing while Vawdrey himself goes out and “disappoints everyone who looks in him for the genius that created the pages they adore. Where is it in his talk?” The narrator, a fellow guest at the hotel explains: “There are two of them [i.e. two Vawdreys]…. One goes out, the other stays at home. One is the genius, the other’s the bourgeois, and it’s only the bourgeois whom we personally know.”

The politician Lord Mellifont, it turns out, has the opposite problem: “if there are two of Mr. Vawdrey, there isn’t so much as one, all told, of Lord Mellifont.” Which is to say, when no one is looking at Lord Mellifont, he literally vanishes. He exists only in public. “He was all public and had no corresponding private life,” we are told, “just as Clare Vawdrey was all private and had no corresponding public one.” (Lady Mellifont, understandably, slinks around the story with a haunted look, a wife with a very disturbing secret. Some honeymoon she must have had.)

If that sounds a little schematic and transparent, well, it is. That’s what happens when a writer, even one as masterful as Henry James, speaks from the heart. Many of James’s stories about writers (“The Middle Passage,” “The Lesson of the Master”) have this same fairy-tale quality. They are allegories of the author’s anxieties. It’s hard to be decorous and subtle when you are confessing something so deeply personal: here is what it feels like to be a writer, at least a writer with a diffident personality.

Which is why I say, God bless you, Henry James, for admitting it! I am sure no one will ever call me “the master,” but it is comforting to have this in common with the great man, at least: we are more ordinary than our books and, what’s more, we are ordinary because of our books. Everything that makes us special goes into them. The rest goes on book tours.