The Book Club

Bring on the Bolivian Genius

Dear Cynthia,

I certainly wouldn’t argue that art should be judged according to a Baptist rulebook. But I think it’s naive, and absolutist and kind of meaningless to say art and morality are completely separate; it sounds to me like an article of faith that we inherited from the modernists and repeat like puppets, without thinking it through for ourselves. The kind of morality I’m talking about has nothing to do with purity, and everything to do with curiosity and sympathy. I would never, ever want to censor writers who lacked these qualities, or get pundits or governments involved. But I feel perfectly entitled to decide for myself that they’re not what I need to be reading.

Why do I cut Cheever and Melville some slack? It may be arbitrary; a question of taste: I think they’re better writers. But the circumstances are different, too. Cheever was a bisexual living in the most closeted of worlds. Melville was marginally insane. Salinger’s dilemma, his hatred and withdrawal from the world, seems to me more self-imposed. I don’t condemn him to hell for going out with an 18-year-old who was, emotionally speaking, about 7. It just confirms my misgivings about his work. The idealization of child-like innocence is like nails on a chalkboard to me. To borrow a Salingerism, I think its phony. Simplistic. A pretentious, existentialist version of JonBenet Ramsey.

I’ve been trying to figure out why I was able to get through Maynard’s book, but not Harrison’s. You’re sure right about the publicity problem. Harrison was flogged to death. I went in gritting my teeth, set up to hate her, and I did. But it also has to do with the way she stylized her story. There was a tightness to her writing; from the first page it seemed more like a weird, unconscious performance than an attempt to understand. Maynard is a little more humble. For the first half of her book, I feel like she has just a smidgen of distance. Not much, but a teeny pinhole of light is peeking through.

Are gay people incapable of narcissism? I rather doubt it. They may have a jumpstart on outsiderness vis a vis the establishment, but so do most blacks and many women and some Jews and even a small number of lonely or simply independent-minded straight white men. Whatever situation you’re born into, it’s hard to reach a point of real insight and write it up with style. You seem much more up to date on the memoir industry than me. I admire you, but I’m not sure I envy you. I can read a book like this with pleasure once in a while. But too many contemporary memoirs and my imagination muscle longs for a workout. I think reality, like Salinger, is vastly overrated.

Let’s take a break next time–let’s read something different. The breakthrough novel by a 23-year-old Bolivian comic genius. A haunting epic poem by a wise old lady in Manila. A crappy thriller by an apprentice systems analyst at Microsoft. Anything, please, but the real-life story of an emotional wreck.