Thursday, January 08, 2009

Writers Reading: Shakespeare Wrote For Money by Nick Hornby and Speak What We Feel by Frederick Buechner

And so we reach the end: Shakespeare Wrote For Money (A) is Nick Hornby’s third and final collection of his Stuff I’ve Been Reading columns for The Believer. In the five years he spent duking it out with The Polysyllabic Spree (the variously numbered cult-like editors of the magazine who insisted he refrain from snark) Hornby employed a deceptively light approach to the question of what compels a person to buy a book, and what further compels a person to read a book to its conclusion. Hornby's tone may have been breezy, but he inevitably zeroed in on some weighty conclusions.

Consider the following two responses he had to recent works. The first addresses The Road by Cormac McCarthy (A); the second Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher (A).

It is important to remember that The Road is the product of one man’s imagination: the literary world has a tendency to believe that the least consoling worldview is the Truth. (How many times have you read someone describe a novel as “unflinching,” in approving terms? What’s wrong with a little flinch every once in a while?) McCarthy is true to his own vision, which is what gives his novel its awesome power. But maybe when Judgment Day does come, we’ll surprise each other by sharing our sandwiches and singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” rather than by scooping out our children’s brains with spoons. Yes, it’s the job of artists to force us to stare at the horror until we’re on the verge of passing out. But it’s also the job of artists to offer warmth and hope and maybe even an escape from lives that can occasionally seem unendurably drab. I wouldn’t want to pick one job over the other — they both seem pretty important to me. And it’s quite legitimate, I think, not to want to read The Road. There are some images now embedded in my memory that I don’t especially want there. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have a duty to read it.


Just recently, I read an interview with a contemporary literary novelist who worried that books by other writers who use pop culture references in their fiction would not be read in twenty-five years’ time. And, yes, there’s a possibility that in a quarter of a century, The Abstinence Teacher will mystify people who come across it: it’s about America today, this minute, and it’s chock-full of brand names and movies and TV programs. Yet some fiction at least should deal with the state of the here and now, no matter what the cost to the work’s durability, no? This novel takes on an important subject — namely, the clash between two currently prevailing cultures opposed to an almost ludicrous degree — that is in urgent need of consideration by a writer as smart and as humane as Tom Perrotta. My advice to you: don’t read writers with an eye on posterity. They are deeply serious people, and by picking up their books now, you are trivializing them. Plus, they’re not interested in the money. They’re above all that.

Personally, I am in complete sympathy with Hornby’s final judgment on both works: I wish I hadn’t read The Road, and I love The Abstinence Teacher. More significantly I am, as ever, dazzled by Hornby's stealthy approach to the matter of taste. Notice how he addresses the issue of a writer’s — and a reviewer's — motivations: McCarthy fits the au courant definition of an “unflinching” author, which surely destines him to literary longevity; Perrotta, on the other hand, fits the definition of au courant just a little too neatly, dooming his work to a short shelf-life. While the chattering literati would deem McCarthy (whose Blood Meridian turns 25 in two years’ time) the “better” writer, Hornby has the temerity to suggest that Perrotta’s motivations might just be nobler, that his vision is possibly more compassionate, and that his end product is to be recommended because it might very well improve the reader’s life by providing delight along with an expanded sense of the Other.

These points are worth hammering home — again and again and again, even for months and years at a time. But I can understand when a writer tires of hitting the same note for five years’ running. Hornby mentions that in the five years he's written the column, he's reviewed three of his brother-in-law's novels (Robert Harris - w). Hornby is silent on the fact that two of his own novels were published in that same time frame. He gives every indication of being entirely delighted with the family arrangement, but I have to say that if either of my brothers-in-law were writers there would be quite the fire under my ass to produce something more substantial than scintillating blog-posts.

Frederick Buechner is facing a conclusion as well, albeit one more definitive. Currently trifling with a bit of writer’s block at the age of 82, the possibility that Buechner's 2001 publication, Speak What We Feel: Not What We Ought To Say (A) is his last complete book seems quite likely. Subtitled Four Writers Who Wrote In Blood, the book is Buechner’s compassionate appraisal of four very specific lives and their most noteworthy work: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mark Twain, G.K. Chesterton and William Shakespeare.

I was reluctant to pick up this book in part because my familiarity with the subject matter was glancing at best. Shakespeare figures the highest for me, but it’s been a few years since I last sat down with King Lear, the play in question. After that, I was facing the easy charm of Twain, the not-so-easy charm of Chesterton, and the unknown Hopkins. To my surprise, when Buechner was finished I wasn’t just inspired to dig through my old university textbooks in search of Hopkins and Twain, I was also keen to give Chesterton another look.

Buechner has developed the reputation as a literate pastor, which is unfortunate insofar as the latter calling often negates (for some people, including myself) the former. But what makes Speak a moving read is Buechner's ability to enjoy his subjects for who they were: the closeted gay priest; the atheist tormented by fate; the strange large man whose nervous near-collapse generated volumes of religious treatises; and, of course, the Bard. In this unwelcome moment when schoolyard taunts pass for cultural dialectic, the common pastoral impulse toward the apostate Twain might be one of correction. But Buechner's view of the man and his words and his life is humane, and uncluttered by religious score-keeping; for Twain, Buechner has nothing but a profound and affecting admiration.

Both books can be quickly read and digested. And they both stick to the ribs, I think, because they don't just address high-falutin “literary” concerns, but life concerns. And what's the point of being well read if it doesn't, in some way, improve your life?

Links: WP Flashbacks -- Nick Hornby "Spree"-mentions, here and here; Frederick Buechner here.


DarkoV said...

Great post, WP.
I've been going through Mr. Hornby's last collection as well, though at a very slow pace as I want to extend the limited pleasure to its maximum.

As far as your note on "...something more substantial than scintillating blog-posts...". A pish-posh on that and on you!
Any posting by you is eagerly awaited and always worth the multiple read. Every reading vessel has its worth, depending on the content within.

Whisky Prajer said...

I've found the early stuff well worth returning to. There's a lot of snap there, especially in the first collection.

And thank you: I am, of course, happy doing what I do (otherwise I'd be doing something else).

Cowtown Pattie said...

Here, here, Dark-Dude! I concur.

Now, come ON, be honest, WP, you may have wished you hadn't read The Road, but that is the perfect conundrum, no?

You and I weren't going to miss out on a McCarthy, now were we?

To 'splain, Lucy - here's a quote from an old BBc comedy, Only Fools and Horses:

Uncle Albert: During the 1939-1945 conflict with Germany - I was sailing on a frigate, HMS Sphinx, in the Adriatic. Now in those days a ship's crew was full of stress and fear.

Del Boy: Especially when they saw you walking up the gangplank!

Uncle Albert: So our old skipper, Captain Kenworthy, used to allay all those fears by creating a counter-worry. Like one day he announced there was a cholera epidemic on the ship.

Del Boy: I bet that cheered you all up, didn't it?

Uncle Albert: It took their minds off the U-boats and sharks.

Del Boy: Well, thanks for that, Unc. It's lucky your Captain Kenworthy never became a Samaritan. You wouldn't be able to get a tug under Chelsea Bridge for falling bodies!

Whisky Prajer said...

What a shame there isn't You Tube link to this bit! It kind of reminds me of this.

And maybe it would be more accurate to say that when I was finished with The Road I wished McCarthy had written a different novel. Not, as you suggest, that the experience is going to dissuade me from buying the next.

Cowtown Pattie said...

I was exposed to British humor at a young age - my dad adored Benny Hill and let me stay up late (10 PM) to watch it with him.

The content might have been a little blue, but Benny was too funny.

Years later, my dad would often call to tell me to turn on a certain channel to catch favorite reruns.