When fiction reading is going well for me, I translate the words into something that’s both fiction and non-. Take the novel The Name of the World by Denis Johnson, which I read recently for the first time. Here’s the first paragraph:
Since my early teens I’ve associated everything to do with college, the “academic life,” with certain images borne toward me, I suppose, from the TV screen, in particular from the films of the 1930s they used to broadcast relentlessly when I was a boy, and especially from a single scene: Fresh-faced young people come in from an autumn night to stand around the fireplace in the home of a beloved professor. I smell the bonfire smoke in their clothes and the professor’s aromatic pipe tobacco, and I feel the general unquestioned sweetness of youth, of autumn, of college—the sweetness of life. Not that I was ever in love with this scene, or even particularly drawn to it. It’s just that I concluded it existed somewhere. My own undergraduate career stretched over six or seven years, interrupted by bouts of work and transfers to a second and then a third institution, and I remember it all as a succession of requirements and endorsements. I didn’t attend the football games. I don’t remember coming across any bonfires. By several of my teachers I was impressed, even awed, and their influence shaped me as much as anything else along the way, but I never had a look inside any of their homes. All this by way of saying it came as a surprise, the gratitude with which I accepted an invitation to teach at a university.
I relate strongly to the narrator, who we learn later is named Michael Reed. The amount of emotional overlap between Michael’s and my life is scary. I too held similar images of academic life, for me perhaps set in the fifties and involving more letterman sweaters, but the same otherwise. Like the narrator, it took me six or seven years to finish college, and involved three transfers. I was also impressed by my teachers, and I also never imagined seeing the insides of their homes. This is exactly what I look for in a novel reading experience, a character who’s as much like me as possible, and telling his—our—story with a compelling, authoritative voice. Telling me, in short, about me.
But at least as important as my strong relationship to the narrator is the strong relationship I feel to the author. I read the above sentences, and I feel like I know the narrator’s shadow figure, Denis Johnson, very well. How can one write of this bucolic college tableau, “Not that I was ever in love with this scene, or even particularly drawn to it,” and not on some level feel the same way? I think of actors, who have to find something relatable in every character they play, even reprehensible ones. Can a writer fake this stuff? If he can’t, then what’s really the difference between Michael Reed and Denis Johnson?
And still there’s a third level in which I feel a deep connection to this work. As a writer myself, I feel a strong professional connection to the author for these perceived overlaps in our histories and psyches. Denis Johnson is a successful—even world-class—writer, and I hope that these emotional/biographical similarities mean that I somehow—despite all evidence to the contrary—am on some kind of path to a literary career. This guy is just like me, and he won the National Book Award! I can’t help but hope, despite my age, lack of comparable publishing success and absence of completed work as riveting as, say, Jesus’ Son, that I am somehow in the same game as Denis Johnson.
So The Name of the World hit me squarely because I relate to the narrator, and the writer, and because I want to succeed like the writer has succeeded. In other words, I’m about as perfect an audience for this novel as there is.
In all my exploration of writers and writing (B.A. in English, M.F.A. in Writing, 25 years of near constant reading and writing outside of class), I’ve rarely heard anyone mention this third, professional angle to readerly empathy. I suspect this is because, back when I was in school, writers still entertained the idea that most of their audience would come from actual readers and not other writers. There were of course “writers’ writers” back then, or those authors who were read almost exclusively by other writers—David Foster Wallace comes to mind. But I still think we were largely in the Saturday Evening Post romance of the reader/writer relationship, that is, educated people sitting down with books and magazines and being sucked in by written pieces. The author Gary Shteyngart gets credited for having said, “The number of people who read serious literature is now exactly equal to the number of people who write it.” Maybe an exaggeration, but probably the healthiest angle from which to come at a literary writing career in 2014.
Despite my deep interest in the writer of The Name of the World, I wouldn’t like the book as much if it were memoir. Imagine if the first sentence of the intro paragraph were “Hi, I’m Denis Johnson,” and “Denis Johnson” replaced “Michael Reed” throughout. I would still be interested in the book, and I’d probably read it and relate to it deeply at points. But I could never fully imagine myself into the narrator’s plight the way I can with the novel The Name of the World. In other words, the memoir The Name of the World would never quite be about me and Denis Johnson the way the novel is. The fiction tag allows Johnson, or any writer, to play both hands: he can utilize a fictional narrator, which allows the reader more leeway to see herself in the character, and he can titillate with suggestions of autobiography, which allows the reader to form empathy with the writer. Somehow these two readerly perspectives aren’t contradictory. The narrator of The Name of the World is both Michael Reed and Denis Johnson, and I’m fine with that.
May 12th, 2014 / 10:00 am