March 27th, 2009

Mr. Cheever, I hardly knew ye

Even before *Once* came out, I was amazed at how generous readers were in sharing what they thought of my work. It’s not like I’m deluged with fanmail, but a good number of people have bothered to send me a note, or say a word to me at an event, to share their reactions to my stories.

And though really that’s why anyone wants to publish anything–to get people thinking about these characters and situations that have been in the writer’s head–I didn’t really know how thrilling it would be see my imaginings refracted through other imaginations like this. I’ve enjoyed everything expressed to me, including “I just didn’t get it” (more than once)…it’s important for me to learn about ways my work can misfire. No one ever got better by dwelling on successes.

Of course, everyone’s been pretty nice–I’m sure I wouldn’t appreciate negative feedback if it came in the form of people yelling “you suck!” at readings. But there is one comment that’s come up a couple times, always voiced as a compliment, that does trouble me: variations on “I feel as though I’ve read your diary.”

A big scary hurdle of publishing is accepting the idea that I can’t control how people read the work once it’s out there; if people enjoy thinking of all the characters I write as manifestations of Rebecca Rosenblum…uh, I guess I have to go with that.

But I wish they wouldn’t. And not only because I am not a terribly autobiographical writer and that’s not how *I* read the characters. Of course I use real life sometimes–it is right there, after all. Besides, all my ideas come from inside my own head, so they all reflect me to some degree (I believe I’m paraphrasing Margaret Atwood there, but I can’t find an attribution). I’m sure if a person with the right degrees read any book with enough attention, he or she could construct a reasonably accurate psychological profile of the author.

My concern is that that doesn’t seem a terribly good use of anyone’s time, or their $19.95. You can hang out with me for free, after all (and then there’s the blog…). Also, I haven’t spent a lot of time coding myself into the book–I don’t know that there’s great reward for the reader in figure out the details of any author’s life through fiction. But I *did* spend a *lot* of crafting the imaginary characters on the pages–I worked really hard to make them fleshed-out people who live in the work, who talk and walk and think like people who might exist, even if they don’t.

Autobiographical detail: in my first year of university, I fell in love with a couple stories by John Cheever’s. That summer, I bought a collected works and read all of the man’s short fiction in chronological order. When I was done, I recall storming down the stairs of my parents’ house and announcing, “When he got old John Cheever was a misogynist.”

I was genuinely upset because I felt that this author that I loved hated me, or my kind (or would have, had he been alive at that point). And I was upset and confused, too, that even some of those later, woman-unfriendly stories were *good*–that I liked them and related to the characters stuck in realities I didn’t believe in. It was all very disorienting.

My father, a Cheever fan (but not a misogynist), tried to comfort me by saying, “Well, Cheever had some issues.” Really, he didn’t see why I was so distraught. The stories were what they were, after all, no matter who wrote them, and it wasn’t like I was ever going to have to sit next to Mr. Cheever on the bus (him being dead and all).

What my father did not say was, “Actually, Cheever was a homosexual.” Because he didn’t know, it turned out when I called to check (good times, being associated with me: early morning phone calls that begin, “Hi, it’s me, did you know John Cheever was gay?”) My dad didn’t sound that interested in Cheever’s sexual orientation when I told him, and really, why should he? Maybe a life in the closet affected the author’s perspective, and maybe he was simply consumed by virtiol. As readers, all we’ve got are some brilliant stories, some that are both hateful and incohrent, and some that keep both the brilliance and the bile.

We all have a point of view that we’re stuck with most of the time. I think the true thrill of narrative art is losing myself in other perspectives, one I’ve created or one someone created for me. Mainly I don’t care where they got the idea from, because I’m never going where the ideas came from; all I have is the imaginative space.

Facts confuse the matter. Once you have a few details about someone’s life, either by meeting them or reading some biography or hearing some gossip, it’s hard not to start mixing up the narratives. What looped me this week was the news of Cheever’s homosexuality. I found out from John Updike’s review of a new bio; found out that I’m the only one in the free world who didn’t know, and then realized that it doesn’t matter.

It never matters how true the story–it matters how *accurate* the writing is, how it feels. Because sooner or later, the author will be dead, and eventually all the facts become blurred. And though that’s when we’re left with only the story, I think that’s mainly what we had all along.

Which is all to say, read stories any way you like, mine, your own, and anyone’s. Myself, I prefer to stay out of the frame.

Sweet summer all around

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