Wednesday, January 7, 2009

My correspondence with Mr. AYW

Not long ago I had an email exchange with an Acclaimed Young Writer, a successful novelist, a regular on the readings circuit whose several books have won critical lauds and sold well. He initiated it with a note telling me that he'd chanced across this blog, was enjoying it, and was happily surprised by a mention here of one of his books. (That mention is no longer up.) He said he hoped I liked his book and to let him know.

In fact I had just finished reading his book, and had just finished thinking about whether I would blog about it. I'd decided not to, partly because I was sick with the flu and didn't feel I could write as clear and thoughtful a posting as I should. Now, having received an email from the novelist himself, I thought about whether I should answer his question honestly and tell him what I thought of his book. Probably my mulling about this wasn't all that clearheaded, given the fever and all. Probably I should have just let it go. I didn't. I decided instead to send him a substantive reply including my reservations about his book.

Those reservations centered on this white writer's treatment of Black characters, one in particular. So, while praising his writing, and yes, he's a good writer, which he already knows, I criticized his handling of race. My criticism was rather gentler than it would have been had I gone ahead and blogged about the book (although, having now read several reviews and articles about the book and the author I can conclude that apparently no one else has even raised a peep about this issue, which I find appalling though not surprising) but I did express it. My email was courteous and respectful but it did not demur from saying what I thought.

Soon enough my inbox showed another email from the acclaimed young writer. His reply to my reply held to my courteous, friendly tone. He thanked me for my "kind words and thoughtful response" to his book and responded briefly and, to his credit, not terribly defensively to my critique. Then he got to the meat of things: an eight-paragraph-long treatise, complete with quotations from several of the bourgeois literary pantheon, on why a political approach to reading, and even more so to writing, is a fallacious and indefensible aesthetic position.

Well my my.

Where did that come from? He, after all, had asked me what I thought of his book. I'd never asked him what he thought of my reading habits.

He had not, in fact, simply chanced upon my blog. He'd found it in the course of a google search of himself, actually a google search of his name plus the phrase "best books of 2008." This I know from the service that tracks visits to my blog. Yes, Mr. Acclaimed Young Writer was hungrily searching for more acclaim. Can't fault him for that, and so what? Writers are a notoriously neurotic lot; if I ever manage to get my novel published I'll no doubt search high and low for any hint of praise. Once he found his way here via the google search, he pored over the site until he found one little mention of his book (again, it's no longer up). My hunch is that, singlemindedly searching for his own name as he was, he had not in fact looked at this blog very carefully at all, let alone been enjoying it, before he emailed me. This blog whose title is "Read Red" with the subtitle "ruminations on the reading life of a communist." Once he'd received my communist reader's criticism of his book, however, he sized me and my blog up and decided to school me on what a sorry, shoddy approach communist reading, let alone class-conscious writing, is.

And thus ended my correspondence with the author of what several critics did indeed find one of the more noteworthy books of 2008. It will take another post, which I hope to get to soon, to address the substance of his stance against political fiction, unoriginal, tired and steeped in bourgeois sensibility as it is. His argument hews faithfully to the line espoused by the entire literary establishment; since one purpose of this blog is to oppose and expose that line for what it is, and since I haven't done so explicitly in some time, by golly I'll have to step up to the plate.

There's another topic buried here, which I'll also try to bring to light soon. It has to do with my own relationship to literature in the abstract and, concretely, to actual writers. Such as the actual author whose email started all this, or the one whose book I read and loved and emailed asking if I could interview her for this blog but who never replied, or the ones who've ignored my requests that they link to my blog, or the ones who have read my (critical or laudatory) posts about them and their books but not contacted me; and the ones who do link to me and do reply to my queries and are open to the thoughts and ideas of a red reader. Such as, also, the state of my so-called career as a writer and what effect this blog will have on it. It took me years to stop worrying about how blogging as a communist reader would muck up my chances at publication and just make the leap, and I'm not worrying about it any more, not exactly, but I do think about it, by which I mean I think about the whole question of writing and publishing and politics and activism and, well, that's what this whole damned thing is about, isn't it, so this is, as always, to be continued.

I don't think Mr. AYM is still checking in here, red reading being so decisively not his cup of tea, but I'm grateful to him for giving me much to think and blog about.