Monday, October 17, 2011

the interpreter of egos

It was like meeting a character in a book, one that you've come to know intimately. Conversations have been had while you're sitting in pajamas, bangs standing straight up, cold tea sipped between long passages of dialogue.

Two weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend the New Yorker Festival for two events, one of which was a panel discussion called "The Writer's Writer," with Jhumpa Lahiri, Nicole Krauss, and Jeffery Eugenides. I went because of Jhumpa. I've only read one of her books at this point (yes, I'm late to join most trends), but the collection of short stories that is Unaccustomed Earth  was enough for me to proclaim to passersby on the street, "she's amazing! My current favorite modern female writer!" and mean it.

On a side note, that quote is real. During a lunch break walk on 9th Avenue, I struck up a conversation with an older man around 60 who, it turned out, was also a writer. He smiled at me as I rounded a corner, and I returned the favor. "Where are you from?" he asked me, as way of introduction.

"All over, but Virginia mostly." (Yet another tangent: how do you answer this question if you haven't lived in a place for eight years, your childhood spent elsewhere, college and current address conflicting? I hate to say "all over," because it sounds like I am a nomad. I could just as factually say California. Perhaps I'll start rotating the answers and test which gets the best response.)

"Virginia? What do you do?" We were nearing the middle of the block.

"I am a writer." I was feeling bold that day.

"So am I. I just finished my book and submitted it to a publisher. Who is your favorite writer? Flannery O'Connor?"

I took that as a compliment. "Well, currently I'm in love with Jhumpa Lahiri. She's," (say it with me), "amazing! My current favorite modern female writer!"

Needless to say, when I read Lahiri was slated to talk, I signed up, spent two hours pounding on the keyboard, feverishly refreshing the Ticketmaster page, and told everyone I knew that within days I would have audience with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

The talk itself took place on a rainy Friday night in an auditorium that had been transformed into a kind of posh literary club; banquettes, lemon bars, and cocktail tables included. Led by the New Yorker's fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, the authors took their seats in directors' chairs across the stage. Nicole Krauss wore a striped red, white, and blue sweater with jeans. Jeffery Eugenides had perfected the L.A. author look with his dark goatee, causal tweed sports coat and relaxed posture. Jhumpa wore a black pantsuit with a copper sheen that glowed under the lights, her hair pulled back into a severe bun. She did not smile.

In fact, for most of the evening she wore a scowl. While Nicole and Jeffery indulged Deborah Treisman in discussion of the term a "writer's writer," Jhumpa gave off an air of annoyance. Although the night's topic did little to incite, Jeffery and Nicole took up the yolk with grace. (In fact, I was so worried with the lack of enthusiasm in the opening minutes, I thought they might agree that the subject was too meaningless to warrant discussion.) But they soldiered on; Nicole offered a long list of obscure authors who fell into the category of "a writer's writer," including Bruno Schulz, some of whose work went missing after WWII, and W.G. Sebald. These were writers whose work had not reached large audiences, not for lack of substance. Jeffery at least made the case that a writer's writer was one whose work could be broken down into single sentences that sustained a famished mind with mere morsels. Jhumpa equated the term to a notion that was particularly American. Outside of the U.S., she argued, figures and sales do not carry the same weight.

It was fascinating, seeing her in the flesh: unsmiling, nearly scowling, shooting down the topic of the panel within minutes of being introduced. She made little effort to conform and little to evolve. Perhaps the topic was flimsy, but it was clear there would be no compromising. Interestingly, many of her characters react to the world in the same way. However, I should be quick to note (like Nicole Krauss did during that night's panel), that an author is not his or her work. An author is the person behind the work, and the two should not be confused. If we as readers are to judge anything, it should be the work alone.

And I agree (although in the current setting, the contrary might be true in terms of marketing, with the surplus of meaningless celebrity endorsements, and mastheads with portraits.) One of my favorite lessons from undergrad: Kill Your Darlings. Do not hold on to lines or images simply because you love them. Love them, but do not immortalize them on the page. That night, I knocked down an idol, which is a dangerous thing to have.

This Friday night epiphany was a freeing one for a writer who, like so many others, I'm sure, compares herself against the gods of literature. It does matter what I am. In the words of Shakespeare
"Presume not that I am the thing I was." 

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