The Book Club

The Dictionary

Dear Sarah,

I thought I’d stated my position on Salinger; sorry. As of 9 AM this morning, he’s right up there in my holy pantheon, one of the greats of my time. As for the man, I read Maynard’s book and thought, yeah, that weirdo–that’s him all right.

Am I in a box? You wrote yesterday that if I really thought he was great then I couldn’t bring myself to defend her. But my whole point about Maynard–and the critics–is that she is being judged for who she is/was, not for her work. That’s not fair.

Do you think less of Cheever’s work having read his journals; or less of Melville having learned he beat his wife and caused son’s suicide. Morals are organizing principles for a society. Art is the opposite. I think that to connect them pollutes both.

This is one issue that we’ve been cagily wrangling around. Do you think that we should reconsider an author based on this kind of information? And this is an easy case for me–easier than Melville or Cheever because I don’t think that Salinger did anything that bad. He picked up an 18-year-old and then ditched her 9 months later. (Footnote: I’m reading Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman (HarperCollins) about a sexual pervert and murderer who helped compile the OED–wrote thousands upon thousands of the definitions that have been accepted as the ultimate meaning of these words. The editor had no idea that reclusive polymath from Crowthorne village couldn’t ever come to lunch because he was actually in Broadmoor Sanitarium for the criminally insane. If reconsideration is in the offing–what happens to the English Language apropos of this?)

Then there is the meaning of the work and its context. Maynard helped change the perception of her book by excerpting it in Vanity Fair. People read the dirty parts and run. Publishing companies probably can’t resist the free publicity, but for the writer this can be a shoot-yourself-in-the-foot move. Books get reduced to “Page Six” items in our minds.

A publisher told me that Harrison’s The Kiss was a disappointment–over publicized to the point that people thought they knew everything in that book and didn’t have to read it. I bet that Maynard and Texier will face the same fate.

Memoirs like Geoffrey Wolf’s Dukes of Deception; Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club; Annie Lamott’s Operating Instructions, or Geoffrey Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage (new this summer from Northpoint Press) didn’t start with a giant massage from the great publicity machine. These writers aren’t insiders. They are cut from the same mold as the early greats who pioneered this form, this century–Isherwood, Genet, Colette, Virginia Woolf, Truman Capote, May Sarton. Anything in common here? This is a list of queers. And there is a reason that they seem to do the best memoirs or “auto-fiction” as Edmund White calls this form. They couldn’t stand at the pool like Narcissus loving themselves.

Reading Queer 13 (Weissbach/Morrow)–which just came out and will never make Vanity Fair’s hot picks–you get a harrowing and hilarious sense of what it must have been like to be going through puberty feeling a way that was too horrible to even have a name. As a group, gays were the original outsiders. And they used this form to tell us what they’d been through and how they, like all of us, self-invented. How the author invents himself is the universal theme of great memoirs. But Maynard and Harrison wrote what happened plainly and carefully, but never seemed to understand that they were the protagonists of their stories, actors not acted upon. They hid out from the demons in their own psyches.

The publishers are mystified at why one book works and another doesn’t. I’m not. Karr and Lamott and Sarton belie the notion that all great female leaders are lost at puberty. I care about that–deeply.

What shall we read next?