Years ago, when I was a book editor always trolling for new projects, I asked a productive senior scholar at an Ivy League university for recommendations of people she thought were doing good work in her field. I already had a notebook full of leads—young scholars and professors at out-of-the-way places who had published interesting journal articles—but was looking for a few more names.
She shook her head, rubbed her eyes, and said in the voice of a disappointed parent, "No one. No one is doing any good work."
I don't know whether I caught her in an unguarded moment, or if that was something she would have said aloud to a roomful of her peers. I guessed the latter. It saddened me at the time and does still.
Scholars who are paradigm-shifters, Cassandra-like critics, or challengers of the status quo often see themselves as standing alone. But even if you're not perched on the shoulders of giants, even if you are the giant (at least in your own view), usually others have informed and shaped your big ideas, if only in little ways. Not to acknowledge that is ungenerous, and wrong. It must also be a terrible, horrible no good way to live.
I thought of that scholar's remark recently after a conversation with a friend of mine who likes to suggest better ways for me to do my current job, as an associate professor of creative writing. He often tags along when I go to readings. One day he announced that the next time he meets some creative-writing types, he wants to ask them not which work had influenced them but which one they wished they had written.
That's a different question, and a good one. Frankly, it kind of annoys me because I wish I had thought of it. It gets at a feeling you have—or at least one I have—when you read something and it's so good that you hate the author.
You don't admit that, of course, even to yourself. You just start getting kind of twitchy as you read, skimming ahead, and holding your breath while not realizing it. You think: This is kind of like what I do. But it's better. A whole lot better. Hey, you think, that's an idea I've had, or a topic I've written about, but there it is, with someone else's name on it and there's no mistaking it: This work is superior to what you've done. You start scouring the prose for false steps, pick and poke at the argument to find loose ends in the hope of being able to unravel the whole thing. You want to revel in the flaws. You look at the author photo and think, Oh goodie, she's got bad hair. Or remark on how pretentious he looks with those big black glasses.
You allow yourself to wallow in such petty, bitchy thoughts for about three minutes and 17 seconds. You are, after all, human, and we are a petty, bitchy species. But then you get over yourself. Or at least I usually do. I uncoil from my jealous state to stand up and admire the art and craft of a good writer. It is a much happier thing to read with pleasure than with irritation.
Once I can move away from the false notion that someone else's talent takes something away from mine, I read like a fan. That is the way editors approach manuscripts. When, as an editor, you hear a manuscript singing, you can send that siren a contract. You call him or her "my" author. When it's published, you say it's "my" book. It is and isn't, of course, but the sense that you are part of a team, that you had something to do with this thing you believe in, is one of the juicy bits of the job.
When I started to do my own writing, I lost that sense of camaraderie for awhile. Writing began to feel like a competition. I started keeping track in my head of other people's successes and measuring my accomplishments against theirs, even though they had no idea who I was.
After my work began to get published, one of the things that surprised me was how generous readers can be. Even before it was easy to track down someone's e-mail address, I would get cards and letters from strangers, people who bothered to take time out of their days to tell me that they liked what I had written. (I even got chocolate and a gold necklace from a stalkerish type, but that's a different story.) Such deliberate acts of kindness fueled me and reminded me to do the same thing: to read, once again, like a fan and reveal myself as such. Now when I read something I love, I am often moved to write gushy, embarrassing e-mails.
On the other hand, and there is, always, another hand, it jars me to see how awful writers can be to each other. If a book is received with polite applause and read by a small number of people, the author will be beloved. But god help any writer who gets a wave of positive reviews in the mainstream media and racks up serious sales. I have stopped asking writer friends if they enjoyed Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, a novel of big heart and nimble brain, because the response tends to be so snide.
Too much praise by too many people and all of a sudden, everyone hates you. How does the author get blamed for gushing reviews that overpromise?
In the preface to What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell's excellent collection of New Yorker profiles, he writes, "Nothing frustrates me more than someone who reads something of mine or anyone else's and says, angrily, 'I don't buy it.' Why are they angry? Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head—even if in the end you conclude that someone else's head is not a place you'd really like to be." I am always surprised—though I shouldn't be—when readers react like that. Just as I am surprised when someone says they can't enjoy a novel because they don't "like" any of the characters. I don't have to like them; I just have to find them interesting.
With academics, while the purpose of writing often is to persuade, even when other scholars agree with the thesis, there is a tendency to pick around the edges of the argument and use that to denounce the value of the entire work. One wrong move -- failure to mention the work of a friend; not developing the thesis in the way others would, if they were writing it; a writing style that is too clever -- and the work is toast. Burned toast. A failure.
I am, I think, a more compartmental reader. I learned a good lesson about the value of narrow vision from a biologist I know who had lots and lots of friends, many people with whom I could not stand to share breathing space. The biologist would focus on the one or two aspects of each person where he found value. Everything else—bad hygiene, rude behavior, narcissism—he would ignore. It has helped him lead a rich and well-peopled life. I am not yet practiced at doing that with humans, but I have learned to do it with books.
When I think about that embittered senior scholar who could think of no good work in her field, I wonder if that absolutist position—that a book has to be good in every way and in every dimension—was her downfall. Did she, out of habit, despise the world because that was what she thought is expected of a thoughtful, refined person? Or was it that the best works were things she wished she had written and couldn't bring herself to praise?