Books and Reading

Women’s Bookshelves and Clutter

A while back Electric Lit ran an article by Hannah McGregor called “Liking Books is Not a Personality.”  It addressed a minor controversy in the book blogosphere over lifestyle guru Marie Kondo.

I don’t have strong feelings about Marie Kondo and her theories of decluttering. I know a number of people who have found her “does this object spark joy” way of relating to stuff to be meaningful and if feeling overwhelmed by too many possessions is an issue for you then it might be just what the doctor ordered. I have no problem with Kondo giving this advice, take it or leave it. (My brother, who edits the journal of the Society of American Archivists, tells me that Kondo comes up frequently in a light, humorous way when discussing the management of collections. “Should we keep this manuscript?” “Does it spark joy?”)

I did, however, have some opinions on the Electric Lit article defending Kondo and decrying “bookishness.” The background is that in an episode of Kondo’s TV series she suggested that people get rid of books that do not “spark joy” and book lovers began to write think pieces about whether or not books are clutter. Some people had strong feelings on the subject.

As it was usually framed, it was one of those ridiculous either/or arguments that are essentially meaningless. No one actually values all books. Each of us have books that we treasure and books that just take up space. If you feel as though you have too much stuff, then you might want to cull your books and you probably already do. But if you value your library above anything else you might get a bit miffed at the idea of someone else viewing your books as things that take up too much space.

When the question is framed in terms of the value of books as an abstract concept and whether they, as a category, are “clutter” then a lot of people (including me) will come down on the side of the argument that a book is more than just another material object. I agree with McGregor that the strong reactions to this idea amount to a feeling of offense at “the demotion of these objects from sacred to banal.”

My main objection to the Electric Lit article is that it is framed with the type of commentary that we have far too much of these days. Rather than address the argument itself, McGregor repeatedly talks about the type of person she believes holds the point of view, and critiques them. In this case, the type of person is the educated white woman. (You can picture the privileged suburban woman sipping white wine with her book group in a well-appointed living room.) The whiteness and femininity of people making pro-book collecting arguments is referenced repeatedly in the article. And a few examples of specific white women making ad hominem attacks on Kondo become symbolic of the feelings of the entire group.  Here is the article’s summation.

Let’s end by bringing this full circle, back to the outrage so many (white) people directed toward Marie Kondo’s suggestion that books might be things like any others. The intensity with which self-identified book lovers love books is far from “natural”: it is instead the culmination of a complex set of cultural and economic transformations over the past 300 years that anthropomorphized books while simultaneously valorizing their consumption, that made book-loving into a consumer identity so well-defined that it has birthed a thousand cross stitch patterns. So well-defined that when threatened with a competing cultural understanding of what kinds of things books are, and how you might want to relate to them, many “bookish” folks completely lost their shit.

The article gives a rather interesting history of the commercialization of book publishing– a field in which the author is an expert– in support of the premise that books are, indeed, commercial objects rather than sacred ones.

One aspect of commercial book publishing that McGregor does not explicitly address is the huge market for commercially produced Bibles. It is a highly competitive, and profitable, business. But as Timothy Beal pointed out in The Rise and Fall of the Bible, while half of all Americans agreed with the statement that “the Bible is totally accurate in all of its teaching” 28 percent of them admit to never or rarely having actually read it, “while biblical literacy is about as low as it can get, Bible sales have been booming.”

Could it be that biblical literacy is being replaced by biblical consumerism? In today’s consumer culture, we are what we buy, wear, and carry. We identify ourselves by our patterns of consumer choices, by the market niches we buy into.

Bibles are, indeed, consumer objects and a lot of people, perhaps a majority, interact with them as symbols rather than as literature. While this is true, it would be hardly surprising if Christians, in McGregor’s words, “lost their shit” if someone suggested that Bibles might be clutter. (The expression “lost their shit” rather than “took offense” is mocking.)

So we are in agreement that people are giving a kind of commercially produced object a sacred meaning. Why are they doing this? Here is where McGregor and I differ. She interprets it as status posturing. White women felt threatened by Marie Kondo because their ability to signal their superior status was being called into question.

The status of the book as object is at once denied and overburdened: the physical codex is both a stand-in for the act of reading and a trophy to demonstrate that you have the correct emotional and intellectual relationship to that act. Mere book-owners may see books as things that can be repurposed as decor or given away when they’re no longer needed, but readers know that books contain other worlds — and their book collections become status symbols, signs of their heightened sensitivity.

Of course, there is a certain amount of peacocking about reading habits. I have a particular pet peeve about that staple of book blogs “Does [fill in the blank] count as reading?” Can you count an audiobook as “reading”? Is a graphic novel a book? Who cares? Unless you’re reading to impress others. But just because some “bookishness” can be virtue signalling doesn’t mean it all is.

Let us, for the sake of argument, grant the premise that “bookishness” is a form of fandom akin to say being a Trekker or a sports fan. We do not generally assume that the fan is expressing superiority over non-fans by buying a team bobblehead or going to a Star Trek convention. We tend to interpret those activities as self-expression and trying to build a sense of identification with other fans who share an enthusiasm. If you told a sports fan that his sports memorabilia was clutter you might also expect to elicit a heated response. If you told a high-school music fan that her rock posters were clutter you might also get an emotional reaction before you ever have an opportunity to explain the finer points of Kondo’s KonMari method.

I would like to offer my own alternative explanation of why someone might be bothered by the idea of books as clutter, and then of why (white) women in particular might have had their buttons pushed by Kondo.

Let me begin with a story from Peter Hay from The Book of Business Anecdotes (one of the many books I keep on my shelves to refer to in my job as a writer). Hay was once the director of a small literary publishing company based in Vancouver. One spring, Hay and his partners had to get a loan to get them through the slow post-Christmas season. They asked a banker if they could borrow against their inventory.

“What inventory?” he asked.

“Well, we have a quarter of a million dollars worth of books.”

“So these books have printing in them?”

“Yes, that’s what we manufacture.”

At that the banker turned down the loan. “The paper would have been worth something,” he said. “but you’ve spoiled it by printing on it.”

Any writer can feel the pathos in that story. I once came across a used copy of one of my books described by an online merchant as being damaged because I had written a personal dedication in it.

Books can take years to write. One of my novels took ten years. My biography was the result of six years of research. And much of that consisted in tracking down (sometimes expensive) rare books. I have three shelves of them that represent all that work. It would never occur to me to even consider, for a moment, that my life would be improved by getting rid of them.

Even the books I have written on short deadlines with a view to being light entertainment were the result of a great deal of effort and collective enterprise. Every book that is published, good, bad, or indifferent, has a team of editors who scrutinize each word, and layout people and cover artists to make it look nice. You want to believe that effort has a special kind of value.

Ideally, a book reaches across distance and time and conveys an idea to another mind. It is  deeply human endeavor. When writers and readers write blog posts about the value of books they are, in part, aspirational. We need to assert that books are more than paper, ink and glue.

When it comes down to it, a book is an object that can be thrown away, burned, torn, pulped. The book that I, or anyone else, labored over for years, and proudly signed at an author event is someone’s clutter. I am well aware of that. How bleak it seems to care so much about something that someone can easily cast away as an annoyance.

The artist in me rebels against this reality. The artist in me must affirm that the book is a sacred object. My books, the books I love to read, your book, the books that people wrote years ago. I take as an article of faith that literature matters, in all its forms even though I know that there are a lot of books that truly are not worth the paper they are printed on.

“Telling stories, listening to them, are givens of human nature,” wrote Anthony Julius in the Times Literary Supplement. “It is what we do, as a species. They are also givens of human understanding, essential to our making sense of our world. They make us; they situate us. They are constitutive both of our species identity and our social identity. They are pleasures, for sure. But they are also needs. And needs should be self-justifying. Yet we cannot assent. We know that needs are often not accepted as self-justifying, even when accepted as needs (rather than, say, wants or desires).”

Art making, and art receiving are self-justifying human needs. When we write articles in praise of books this is what we (at least some of us) are affirming.

In any case, there are certainly worse things to value and prioritize than books. There are also worse things you could do than support the creation of new literature by buying them. (Even if you do eventually donate them to a rummage sale.)

So let’s move on and talk about why women in particular might have a strong reaction against the notion of books as clutter. McGregor writes that in the 19th century:

The bibliophile was a man, and he collected books not indiscriminately but with great attention to their status, their value, and their collectibility. But, as [Diedre] Lynch [author of Loving Literature: a Cultural History] points out, women were still engaging with book culture, just not via consumer decisions. (Women would become increasingly responsible for domestic consumption decisions in the 20th century, which is when the book market begins to swing decisively towards the female readers). So what form did women’s bibliomania take? Lynch describes a kind of literary scrapbooking effort that bears a striking resemblance to contemporary fan fiction and fan art worlds…Hold onto this contrast between a highly discriminating form of curated library collection and a highly personalized, almost fannish, engagement with books. The latter, I think, more accurately predicts the direction that bookish culture has gone in the 21st century, perhaps because book buying has become a predominantly feminized activity.

It is worth noting that not all scholars agree with Lynch on the gendered nature of 19th century book collecting. Heidi Egginton in The Journal of Victorian Culture argues:

The late-nineteenth century saw private book collecting gain a renewed respectability and cultural cachet as a leisure pursuit for the upper- and middle classes… during the 1880s and 1890s, this particular type of collecting practice was used rhetorically in a range of printed material to venerate ‘gentlemanly’ book-buying, in contrast to feminine forms of engagement with old books in particular. In spite of women’s comparative lack of advantage in the market for antiquarian editions, however, I argue that such a critique would not have been articulated so forcefully had women not been taking a determined interest in rare books. Evidence from central London booksellers during this period suggests that a variety of women were making antiquarian collections of their own. Male bibliophiles who denigrated female book-buyers in the periodical press were attempting to partially invent a homosocial tradition of collecting in order to distance their own pursuit from what they saw as the more emasculating elements of modern consumerism. This was a response not just to developments in contemporary print culture, but also to the growing appreciation of second-hand goods of all kinds among affluent female consumers with aesthetic and literary tastes shaped independently of male judgments.

Book buying, and book writing, have long been feminine activities. (By the way, if you’re interested in the history of women’s book ownership there’s a blog for that.) As I have pointed out here a number of times, in Victorian England female authors outsold their male counterparts, but their works were not deemed worthy of serious study and the memory of many once influential women has not found its way down to us. (A number of scholars are now trying to recover these “lost” works and bring them to our attention.) Books by women or which women appreciated have consistently been written off as fluffy, sentimental, non-intellectual and unimportant. If Egginton is correct, women were not only major consumers of popular literature, they were also creating “serious” libraries and archives to rival men’s, but their efforts, like their books, were denigrated.

It is interesting then to see a feminist writer contrasting the masculine “highly discriminating form of curated library collection” with the feminine “highly personalized, almost fannish, engagement with books.” Then following this with an argument that the feminized form of consumption led to the emotional engagement with middlebrow literature that book blogs now celebrate.

The bookish woman is not, she argues, the inheritor of the tradition of someone like Oscar Wilde who was broken by the loss of his carefully curated collection of first editions. Women’s claim to a love of literature is suspect because they are not discerning enough. All books are equally sacred in their eyes, and that means none of them really are.

Is it at all possible a century of being judged by the cleanliness of their homes, being told that this was more important than their intellects, and that their taste in literature is trivial might have colored their reactions to an authority suggesting their books might be clutter?



Quote of the Day: On Archive Research

Working an archive—like working a coal seam—is a physical exercise that calls for stamina. Stamina against fatigue, first of all, when handling ledgers that weigh over twenty pounds, gigantic folio volumes that can only be read standing up; and stamina against the dust, which invades everything with steely determination and winds up giving the researcher an illusion that, as in transubstantiation, she is becoming parchment herself. And stamina with respect to endless hesitations and misunderstandings caused by the handwriting—all those upstrokes and downstrokes of another era, those spellings that only slowly if steadily become standardized—until the intended meaning of a text could be determined through its details. Stamina, finally, to resist the tempting interpretations, the inevitable preconceptions built on personal history; in short, to resist haste. Woe to the impatient—a group to which I permanently belong. When in a hurry to discover, you have to be careful to wait, sometimes at length, recopying endlessly like a donkey until a coherent picture emerges, until statistics cohere, until a problematic emerges. It can be long and tough, yet gratifying.

-Laure Murat, The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon 

Annotated Prison Writings and an Oscar Wilde What If?

9780674984387-lg.jpg Recently I started reading The Annotated Prison Writing of Oscar Wilde edited by Nicholas Frankel. It reminded me of what led me on my Oscar’s Ghost journey to begin with: my fascination with Wilde’s prison opus De Profundis.

It began when I read Robert Ross’s edited 1905 version. I wanted more, and turned to the version published in the Complete Letters, and that left me with more questions, which led me to biographies of Wilde, Ross and Douglas. But at the heart of it was De Profundis. I can’t tell you why, but my fascination with that document never seems to wane. There are the soaring passages about Wilde’s philosophical journey in prison that first drew me in. Then there is the question of the conditions under which he wrote it. There is the mystery of what Wilde wanted to do with the work, and the impact it had on two of his friends, the battle over its ownership and how it would frame the biography of Oscar Wilde for future generations. Every time a new version with notes and annotations comes out, I am gripped again. This is a wonderful edition, well laid out, easy to follow, full of interesting insights and to top it all off, unlike a number of the scholarly editions out there, it is affordable.

If you read Oscar’s Ghost (or even if you didn’t) and you wanted to know more about the prison manuscript that was at the heart of it all, I highly recommend this book.

An idea came to me while I was reading one of the De Profundis annotations.  One of the questions that comes up often when reading about Oscar Wilde is “What if?” What if Wilde had not sued the Marquess of Queensberry? One of the “What ifs” that tormented Lord Alfred Douglas was what if he had been able to testify in court.

One of the what ifs that struck me early on involved an event on February 14, 1895, the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest. Queensberry had come to the theater, armed with a “bouquet of vegetables” that he intended to throw at Wilde during his curtain speech. Word of his plan leaked, and he was prevented from entering. Wilde wanted to sue Queensberry over the incident and use that to stop his harassment. Had he done this, the question of his sexuality might not have been an issue and things might have gone entirely differently. Unfortunately, the theater’s management didn’t want to be involved in a scandal and they refused to allow staff to act as witnesses. What if they had? It seems like such a lost opportunity.

Today one word in one of Nicholas Frankel’s notes leapt out from the page. The word was “narrowly.”

“As Wilde relates, Queensberry was only narrowly prevented from entering the St. James Theatre…” Only narrowly prevented.

It struck me that it would have been better if he had not been prevented from entering the theater that night. Until the Wilde trials, with the exception of the rules of boxing, Queensberry was best known for one thing. He was the eccentric peer who had interrupted a performance of Tennyson’s “Promise of May” to rant against the dialogue of a fictional freethinker. He was pilloried in the press,

“Like…the bray of a donkey…the Marquis has burst upon the public with a suddenness and vehemence that are perfectly appalling,” wrote the Aberdeen Weekly Journal. “Nobody was thinking of him, dreaming of him, apprehensive of him– or wanting him.”

When Wilde’s libel case was announced, until the evidence about prostitutes came up, many journalists were predicting the case would end with Queensberry locked up in the madhouse.

Imagine, then, that a second outburst at a theater had not been “narrowly” prevented. Imagine that this character who was widely viewed as unstable, disruptive–mad even–had done it again? Imagine if Wilde, at the height of his fame, in front of a first night audience, was pelted with vegetables by this man? The sympathy would have been all with Wilde. It would matter little what he was shouting about. This was the man who publicly threatened to horse-whip Lord Rosebery. There would have been ample witnesses to testify that his lordship had disturbed the peace. Just think, that bouquet of vegetables might have changed the course of history.

Some creative soul should really write the Oscar Wilde Choose Your Own Adventure Book. I’d buy a copy.

It’s OK Not to Excel and Other Pep Talks

There is a well known writer who has lately been getting a lot of attention on twitter posting threads about how you’re a “real writer” regardless of what you write, regardless of whether it is published or read or has any kind of public recognition or success. She has moved on now to posting about how you’re “a real reader” no matter what kind of book  you read.  “Whatever you read you are a real reader, no exceptions.”

This has been annoying me, and I have spent some time trying to figure out why.

I agree that there are too many artificial hierarchies in literature. I am someone who has excelled in writing books that are considered “unserious” from The Pocket Encyclopedia to the Elvis Impersonation Kit. I know that they take skill, and that humor is not a lesser talent. I also recognize that the concept of “seriousness” is too often used to degrade work by and for women. I agree that you should like what you like and shouldn’t apologize for your tastes. While vampire romances are not something I prefer to read, I am certain there are good examples an bad examples of the genre.

Not all reading leads to great epiphanies, and there is nothing wrong with pure pleasure reading. Not all art has to aspire to immortality or greatness. Entertainment is just fine. And there are a lot of scholars who find a lot to explore in “low culture.”

So why does the statement that you’re a “real reader” no matter what you read stick in my craw?

First of all, it is a tautology. Yes, if you define “reader” as one who can read, then if you can decipher text on a cereal box you’re a reader, but then, so what? What do you get from calling yourself a “real reader?” You must view it as an honorific if you’re hung up on being one. I don’t hear people reassuring anyone that she is a “real TV viewer” regardless of what she watches, or a “real music listener…”

Focusing on whether you can claim to be a “real reader” is strange to me as it focuses on the personal identity of the person holding the book rather than the value of the contents of the book. It is a symptom of a culture in which how one brands herself–how she is seen by others– matters more than who she is when no one is watching.

Of course the quality of literature matters, or what are we doing here?

The author in question said that she was getting a lot of replies from men who said they never use the expression “guilty pleasure.” This is a gendered concept.

Women talk about romance novels being a “guilty pleasure” whereas men discuss the merits of the various authors in their pulp genres like sci fi and westerns.

If guilty pleasures are gendered, then so too must be the reassuring response that you’re a “real reader.”

Here is what I hear in the expression “guilty pleasure.” If you feel “guilt,” it means you aspire to something better.

When I read that the idea of a “guilty pleasure” was somewhat foreign to men, a lightbulb went off. The problem that I have with the expressions about “real writers” and “real readers” is that they are person praise not process praise. In other words, instead of praising people for achievements, it praises them for their inherent qualities which are seen to be immutable.

Person praise says “you’re a real reader.” (Regardless of what you read.)
Process praise says “congratulations on reading Remembrance of Things Past.”

I’ve written about this concept quite often here. Here’s an excerpt from a previous article:

Back in May, I posted an article called Unstoppable! Self-Esteem, Boy and Girl Style.  In the article I took a self-esteem program aimed at young women and flipped the genders to see how the encouragement felt when aimed at boys.

At the beginning of this article, I asked you to think about what an empowerment or self-esteem program for boys might consist of. You probably imagined something like the Boy Scouts or Outward Bound.  Young men test their limits, practice a sport, enjoy the outdoors, discover skills they didn’t know they had.  In short, they do.

When we try to “empower” girls we tell them to think positive and feel pretty.  If it is “empowerment” it is a strange use of the word “power” because it is entirely passive. The program focuses entirely personal qualities that make one attractive, not achievements and actions.

Today I was reading the BPS Research Digest and I came across a study that bolsters my subjective point of view.

Laboratory research pioneered by psychologist Carol Dweck has shown the short-term benefits of praising children for their efforts rather than their inherent traits. Doing so leads children to adopt a so-called ‘incremental mindset’ – seeing ability as malleable and challenges as an opportunity to learn. Now a new study co-authored by Dweck and led by Elizabeth Gunderson has made the first ever attempt to monitor how parents praise their young children in real-life situations, and to see how their style of praise is related to the children’s mindset five years later…The key finding was the more parents tended to praise their pre-school age children for effort (known as process praise, as in “good job”), the more likely it was that those children had a “incremental attitude” towards intelligence and morality when they were aged seven to eight. This mindset was revealed by their seeing intelligence and moral attributes as malleable. For example, such children tended to agree that people can get smarter if they try harder, and disagree with the idea that a naughty child with always be naughty…Finally, the study revealed that parents tend to use more person praise with girls and more process praise with boys, echoing similar results in earlier research. In turn, later on, boys tended to express an incremental mindset more often than girls. This tallies with the picture painted in the developmental literature that girls more than boys attribute failure to lack of ability, especially in maths and science.

Person praise values self-esteem over achievement.

To go back to the example of reading, a girl who felt “guilty” about not reading good literature sets to work to feel better about herself. A boy who feels bad that he is not well-read sets himself a goal of reading better literature.

As I pointed out in another post:

There is nothing wrong with loving yourself just as you are, of course. But when this message is given to only one gender, you end up with a constantly re-enforced dual message. Men achieve, women need to learn to be content while not achieving.

The study that I cited earlier notes that when children are given process praise they perceive of the challenge as learnable, improvable, masterable. They keep trying. It is not that they have failed because of an inherent quality, it is because they have not yet mastered the task. Children who receive person praise on the other hand, internalize everything. “I couldn’t build the tower because I am not good at that.” Personal qualities are seen as inherent and less changeable. If you are not a good builder, there is little reason to try. Those who receive person praise rather than process praise are more likely to give up.

After a lifetime of process praise for boys and person praise for girls, men and women react to rejection differently. Men tend to think, “I have not yet mastered this process, I need to keep trying.” Women tend to think, “Maybe I am not good enough.”

When I get into a writer funk, as I do from time to time, there is one thing you should never do to try to cheer me up: and that is to say that I am a “real writer” whether I achieve anything or not. That does not make me feel better, it is like pouring salt in the wound. Why? Because I am ambitious, and I’m tired of feeling that I should apologize for being upset when I fail to reach goals I set for myself. Don’t tell me that it’s OK that my book didn’t get reviews, or that I couldn’t find a publisher for my novel, because I don’t want to feel OK about that. I want to be dissatisfied with that. It hurts when you fail to live up to your ambitions, but feelings pass. The solution is not to pretend that the ambitions don’t matter. The solution is to get back up and keep working, to regroup, find another route, and keep trying. You may not get there, but you are taking the steps. If you want to get me out of a writer funk, remind me of things I have achieved. Get me fired up about what I can do next. Don’t tell me that I’m beautiful just as I am.

I want to see women succeed, and I think a good first step is to stop giving each other these “It’s ok not to excel” pep talks.

The Wildean and Credit Where It’s Due

img_0203 The new edition of The Wildean is coming out this week. I’m pleased to have an article in it. (It’s on the relationship between some of the solicitors involved in the Wilde case and the blackmailers.)

There will also be a joint review of my Oscar’s Ghost along with Nicholas Frankel’s The Unrepentant Years by Matthew Sturgis. I don’t want to give any spoilers, so I won’t say much about my article or the review right now.

There was one small thing in the review that I did want to address because I believe in giving credit where credit is due.

In talking about my research Sturgis mentioned that one of the sidelights that I “opened up” was “the extraordinary transformation of Ross’s one-time lover and ‘secretary,’ Freddie Smith, into a novelist of independent means…..”

I feel compelled to say that I cannot take credit for unearthing the story of this fascinating transformation. It was Maria Roberts who spent the hours at the British Library in the challenging task of trying to document the life of a closeted gay man named Smith (if you will excuse the anachronistic phrase). She was the one who discovered Smith’s second career as a novelist. She even tracked down all of his books and wrote summaries of them. I just bought a copy of her Let Them Say and passed along what I learned from it.

Because it is an independently published book on a niche topic it is not well known or widely reviewed, but Roberts is an excellent researcher and if you are fascinated by the Wilde circle, especially how Ross and his friends carried on Wilde’s legacy after his death, you will find a great deal of interesting detail in two of Roberts books. I gained a great deal of insight into the Robert Ross circle through Roberts book on Smith and her biography of Christopher Millard, Yours Loyally.

I was also fortunate enough to have the benefit of Roberts insights through a regular correspondence. Maria Roberts is also the first person listed in the acknowledgments in Oscar’s Ghost because she was incredibly generous with her time and knowledge and her research help allowed me to see many more primary sources than I would have been able to otherwise. It was one of my greatest fortunes in researching Oscar’s Ghost that I met Roberts when I did. I am glad to have another opportunity to publicly say “thank you.”

If you’re not already a subscriber, I recommend The Wildean to anyone who can’t get enough information on Oscar Wilde. I hope you will also check out Maria Roberts’ books.

What Book Reviews Have in Common with Dating

In many cultures there is a tradition of incorporating a deliberate flaw into a work of art. This shows humility and a recognition that only God (or the gods, as the case may be) is perfect. In Japan they celebrate the concept of finding beauty in imperfection is called wabi-sabi.

To put in a flaw on purpose seems redundant to me. I am quite capable of creating work with flaws without making a special effort, thank you very much.

Still there is something comforting in the idea that art should be imperfect.

Putting your work out in the world has all of the anxiety and vulnerability of dating.

As I have often said, a book is a relationship. It is not completed by the writer but by the reader. So of course a writer is anxious for reviews: to know how the this thing she spent so much time and energy crafting has been received.

Some relationships are better than others. Some books and readers fall in love and others just don’t hit it off.

Putting yourself out there you open yourself up to rejection. Rejection hurts. It hurts in proportion to the amount of love you invested in it.

It would be flattering to hear “you’re perfect in every way.” That rarely happens, in love or literature–or at least in the context of dating, when it does, it doesn’t last. The best case scenario is when two people find each other screwed up in ways that they are willing to accept because they like each other so much otherwise. Relationships have a way of making you aware of your flaws and foibles.

Book reviews are like that too. The best of them say “This was a worthy book but…”

There are different kinds of criticism that show up in reviews. There’s stuff you simply disagree with. It’s a matter of taste and you wouldn’t change a thing. I find I am not bothered by this sort of review.

It’s the stuff where you read and think, “You know, I could probably have done that a bit better,” that tends to sting more.

The problem with a book review is that unlike a relationship, there is no way to work on it. Once you are getting reviews the work is done. It’s printed and set.

So there it is, with all your human imperfections on full display. The existential reality hits you that this thing that you love, that you made the best you could, fails to match its Platonic ideal. It will never be as good as it was in your head.

That’s the time it helps to think about those deliberate flaws in art. It’s not supposed to be perfect. Human beings made it. This wonderfully imperfect thing is beautiful.

How Big Are Pockets in England?

Last week I obtained a copy of the UK edition of the updated Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation. Besides the spelling of “tyres” I noted a few differences in the books. Most notably the prominence, or lack thereof, of the author’s name on the British book cover.


Whereas the Americans were fine with focusing on life’s little vexations because it is entertaining, the British (who prefer Aaarggghhh to Ughhhhh!!) seem to be marketing the book (curiously to its author) as self-help.


Also note the lack of an author bio on the back of the UK edition. (Did I do something to piss them off in England?)

The last little oddity is that the books are different dimensions. On the left (as you can tell by the prominence of the author’s name) is the U.S. edition, which is taller and thinner. The UK edition is shorter but wider. Does this point to some international variance in the size of pockets?


George du Maurier’s Trilby: A Victorian Phenomenon

Interesting Literature today has a nice feature on George du Maurier’s Trilby, a novel that figures prominently in Oscar’s Ghost. The popularity of Trilby was such that the idea of mind control, and a person surrendering his will to someone who seduces him or her through art, was an undercurrent in Oscar Wilde’s trials. In writing De Profundis, Wilde was reacting to a narrative that he, like Svengali, was able to influence impressionable young minds. In his attempts to posthumously rehabilitate Wilde, Robert Ross would also focus on the question of influence. By strategically leaking concealed parts of De Profundis, he tried to demonstrate that Wilde was no Svengali and that it was Lord Alfred Douglas, not Oscar Wilde who had all of the influence. Trilby was arguably the first modern best seller. It was far more popular than Oscar Wilde’s works were. Yet today Trilby usually comes up in trivia related to the origin of hat names, whereas Wilde’s work is endlessly studied. This article explores some of the reasons why.

Interesting Literature

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle doffs his hat to a half-forgotten Victorian sensation

Here’s a question for you: what was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era? And who wrote it – Dickens perhaps? George Eliot? Robert Louis Stevenson? It was none of these, though they all enjoyed huge sales. Instead, the accolade arguably goes to a man who was principally known, not as a novelist at all, but as a cartoonist. (I say ‘arguably’ because reliable sales figures for nineteenth-century books are not always easy to find.)

The cartoonist’s name was George du Maurier and the novel is Trilby (1894). Du Maurier had made his name as an illustrator: in 1895 he was responsible for the famous curate’s egg’ cartoon (with its complaisant curate assuring the vicar, concerning the bad egg he’d been served up, that ‘parts of it are excellent’)…

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Personal Memories and Historical Memory

CoverHaving been immersed in Oscar’s Ghost for some time, I finally had a chance to do my first pleasure reading in more than a year. I found, on my shelf, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. (It seems they made a movie of this book. It is one of those novels that is so internal, it is hard for me to imagine its translation to film.)

I was looking for something refreshingly Oscar Wilde free. My forthcoming book, Oscar’s Ghost, if you were not already aware deals with a long and bitter feud between Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas and the man who would become his literary executor Robert Ross in the years following Wilde’s death.

Inevitably, it seems, I was not permitted to exorcise myself entirely from Oscar’s Ghost. The Sense of an Ending deals with memory, how we create narratives to explain ourselves to others and our lives to ourselves. We remember episodes that confirm our stories, forget episodes that do not. We make assumptions to fill in missing information, and these assumptions in turn color and shape our memories of events.

This led me back to Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross. Their feud had many complex causes, but at its heart, it had to do with the past and who would win the right to interpret those events. Who, or what, had been responsible for Oscar Wilde’s downfall? By the time their feud broke out, the two friends had largely gone their separate ways. They had entirely different views on politics and ran in different social circles. Each had a different interpretation of what had happened all those years ago. Those interpretations had consequences for who they believed themselves to be.

One of the pitfalls of writing a biography is that there is a compression of time. We read about the actions of Ross and Douglas in their 20s and a few pages later they are in their 40s. We see the continuity, whereas the men themselves experienced many shifts in perception and developed new ways of understanding themselves and their pasts. In twenty years, there were episodes and attitudes that had been put aside or forgotten. Each man had constantly rewritten his story emphasizing certain moments, contextualizing others and forgetting others still in order to remain true to his story of himself.

Old letters played a huge role in Ross and Douglas’s conflict. It began with the revelation of Wilde’s prison letter, De Profundis, a letter full of recriminations against Douglas. Douglas did not read the full text, which was in Ross’s possession, until years after Wilde’s death and it challenged his memories of his relationship with Wilde in a way that was traumatic for him. In the legal battles which ensued, Ross produced old letters that Douglas had written to him in his youth. The letters had the tone of a wounded adolescent, rebellious, fascinated with sex, and melodramatic about love. By now, he was a middle aged man, a new and zealous convert to Catholicism who disapproved of the excesses of his youth.

I was drawn back to the conflict when I read Barnes describing his protagonist reading a nasty letter he had written to an old girlfriend after a break up decades before.

I reread this letter several times. I could scarcely deny its authorship or its ugliness. All I could plead was that I had been its author then, but was not its author now. Indeed, I didn’t recognise that part of myself from which the letter came. But perhaps this was simply further self-deception… My younger self had come back to shock my older  self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being.

If you have ever found an old diary or letter you wrote decades ago, you will relate to this passage. What a strange experience it can be reading words that were written by someone with a biographical connection to you who is still, somehow, not quite you– the person you believe yourself to be today.

Our memories are not always historically accurate, although we believe them to be. This is important when considering the story of Douglas and Ross. Wilde’s imprisonment and early death was a traumatic event for each, and each did a lot of internal work to understand his own role in it. Neither man’s account can be taken entirely at face value. When Ross’s accounts in the context of the legal battles fail to conform to what can be documented, or when Douglas’s views of his friendship with Wilde are more rosy than the De Profundis account or his memories of his own attitudes and emotions shift, we are inclined to view them as liars. In fact, they were something else. They were human beings with the same fallible and changeable memories as the rest of us.

10 Great Literary Impostors

Cross-eyed Nerd ManIn honor of the release of the novel “Identity Theft,” which tells the story of a young employee who plays the role of his rock star boss in order to seduce a fan, I have compiled a list of some of the great impostors in literature. Impostors and mistaken identity have captured the imaginations of writers, readers and theater-goers for generations.

1. The Comedy of Errors- William Shakespeare (ca. 1590)

Mistaken identity drove the action in two of Shakespeare’s comedies. In The Comedy of Errors a pair of identical twins are separated at birth and by great coincidence the estranged twins each hire the second pair of twins to be their servants. Both sets of mismatched twins arrive in Ephesus on the same day causing all manner of confusion and rollicking farce. Shakespeare was not the first to write on this theme. His plot was borrowed and embellished from from the play The Menaechmi, written by the Roman dramatist, Plautus. In The Menaechmi only the masters were confused with one another, but Shakespeare one-upped his source by giving the identical twins identical servants who could also be confused with one another.

Shakespeare returned to the theme of separated twins in Twelfth Night. In this play the twins are male and female. They are separated in a shipwreck. The female twin, Viola, believes her brother is dead. So she disguises herself as a man, the obvious thing to do, and becomes employed as a servant to a duke. She falls for the Duke, but can’t tell him. The Duke is in love with a woman named Olivia, and he sends his man to court her. Olivia, instead falls in love with the messenger. It becomes even more confusing when Viola’s lost brother, Sebastian arrives and is confused for her male alter ego. All of this would have had an extra layer of humor for contemporary audiences because in Shakespeare’s day all roles were played by males. So Viola would have been a boy, pretending to be a girl, dressed as a boy.

Shakespeare also used mistaken identity to much more dramatic effect in Henry V. Before leading the men into a battle in which they are vastly outnumbered, the King goes out among the men in disguise and has the opportunity to hear what they really feel about the campaign and their king.

2. Tartuffe- Moliere (1664)

300px-Tartuffe1739EnglishEditionTartuffe is actually subtitled “the impostor.” It is the story of a vagrant who poses as a pious man in order to gain entrance into the home of a prominent man and to break up his family and gain the estate.  Thanks to Moliere’s play, the word “tartuffe” is used in France to denote a hypocrite who fakes religious piety. (It is reputed to be used this way in English as well, but I’ve never heard anyone actually use this word, have you?)

Tis a mighty stroke at any vice to make it the laughing stock of everybody; for men will easily suffer reproof; but they can by no means endure mockery. They will consent to be wicked but not ridiculous,” Moliere once said.

If you like foreign language films, by the way, I would recommend a creative modern telling of the story, the 2007 film Moliere. The film imagines the playwright living a fictional scenario that resembles his famous play. He poses as a priest named Tartuffe and the events that follow inspire him to write a new kind of comedy.

3. The Government Inspector-Nikolai Gogol (1836)

41DA13ELubL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In this play, corrupt officials in a provincial Russian town start to panic when they hear a government inspector is to arrive and report on their behavior. As they rush to cover up their mis-deeds, they learn that a stranger has recently arrived in town and assume that this is the dreaded inspector. The supposed inspector is actually a civil servant named Khlestakov. Initially he does not know why he is being invited to important people’s homes, being offered food, drinks and bribes and even the daughter of the mayor’s hand in marriage. The play ends when Khlestakov’s real identity is exposed and a letter arrives from the real inspector general, who wants a meeting with the mayor.

4. A Tale of Two Cities- Charles Dickens (1859)

brucetale-1r0q6v2If you know nothing else about Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, you probably know two lines, its opening “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” and “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Rarely has mistaken identity been so noble. Charles Daray is a good-natured aristocrat. He bears a striking physical resemblance to a barrister named Sydney Carton whose life has not amounted to much. Carton suffers from un-requited love for Darnay’s wife Lucie. It is the time of the French revolution, and as an aristocrat, Darnay is in danger. Lucie’s devoted pursuit of him puts her and her father at risk as well. Carton decides that the only way to save Lucie is to sacrifice himself and allow Darnay to marry her with a new identity. Carton visits Darnay in prison, drugs him and has an accomplice carry him out of prison so Carton can take his place at the guillotine.  The words spoken by Carton as he goes to his death (quoted above) are some of the most famous in literature.

5. The Prince and the Pauper- Mark Twain (1881)

220px-PrinceAndThePauperTom Canty lives as a beggar in one of London’s poorest neighborhoods. He is beaten by his father if he does not come back with enough money. He escapes from this hard life by daydreams about the aristocracy. One day Tom wanders over to Westminster and spots Edward Tudor playing on the other side of the fence. When a soldier roughly pulls Tom away, Edward sees it and rebukes the soldier. He invites Tom into the palace. Each envies the life of the other. Tom would like to live a life of comfort and luxury, Edward would like to live a life unconstrained by upper-class social convention. They play dress up in each other’s clothes. A guard, mistaking Edward for the beggar, throws him out and the prince and the pauper change position. After a series of adventures with Tom learning to behave as someone of royal birth and Edward trying to convince the outside world that he is a prince and not a pauper, the tale ends happily. Just as Tom is about to be crowned king, Edward steps forward and Tom, feeling guilty for his charade, confirms his identity. Tom is made the “King’s Ward” and Edward, because he has had the experience of poverty, grows into a just ruler.

6. Cyrano De Bergerac-Edmond Rostand (1897)

Cyrano-De-Bergerac-09-12Rostand’s 1897 play was written in verse. It was loosely based on a real person, but the love story it recounts is fiction. Cyrano is a gifted soldier with a keen wit an great charisma. He also has a huge nose. He worships the lovely Roxanne from afar certain she would reject someone with such a face. Roxanne is in love with the handsome Christian. Christian has a beautiful face, but he is lacking in verbal wit. Cyrano agrees to write letters to Roxanne on his behalf. The beautiful letters express Cyrano’s own love and they work. Roxanne falls in love– with Christian. When Steve Martin adapted this as a film comedy, he gave it a happy ending. Roxanne discovers the secret and realizes she was in love with Cyrano, not Christian all along. In the original, Roxanne only discovers the truth about the letters when Cyrano has been mortally wounded, and he denies having written them to his death.

7. The Importance of Being Earnest- Oscar Wilde (1895)

theimportanceofbeingearnestThe Importance of Being Earnest, subtitled “A trivial comedy for serious people,” contains a rare double dip of mistaken identity when Jack, who has been posing as someone named Earnest for years discovers his real name actually was Earnest and therefore his pose has been a pose. Jack (or is it Ernest?) apologizes for this turn of events by saying, “it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.”

8. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz-L.Frank Baum (1900)

Dorothy and her friends, the cowardly lion, the scarecrow and tin man, go on a long adventure to find a magical wizard who they are told has the power to grant all of their wishes. After getting on the wrong side of a wicked witch, battling wolves, crows sent to peck their eyes out and winged monkeys, they finally get an audience with the man himself only to discover that he is not a wizard at all but a guy from Nebraska who was blown off course in a hot air balloon. The ersatz wizard’s real name, incidentally, is Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs. He doesn’t want to play the role of the Great and Powerful Oz any more. He just wants to go home to Nebraska and work in a circus. The moral of the story is not to put faith in powerful authority figures, but to trust that you have the power to make your own dreams come true. It is a thoroughly American tale. 

9. Pygmalion-George Barnard Shaw (1913)

Cover-play1913Professor Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can take a poor London flower girl, Eliza Doolitte, and pass her off as a society lady by teaching her proper diction and manners. Eliza successfully pulls off the act, passing as a swell at a garden party. But she is left wondering what is to become of her now that she does not entirely fit in with either class. The play was a commentary on the rigid British class system of the time. It was adapted into the musical play and film My Fair Lady.

10. Superman-Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (1938)

action_comics_222_by_superman8193-d4gcfhzThere are many more traditionally literary examples I could have included. In the 1930s no one yet thought to call a comic book a graphic novel. But the popular masked characters of the era represent, I believe, a cultural transition in our depiction of the hero from someone whose good deeds remain unrewarded and unknown (as in A Tale of Two Cities and Cyrano De Bergerac) to the modern hero who saves the world and is celebrated for it. In between we had, in the early 20th Century, the emergence of the masked hero who preformed good deeds using a secret identity. This allowed him to be both celebrated and anonymous. There was no greater example of this than Clark Kent/Superman.

Do you have a favorite literary example of mistaken identity? Feel free to join the discussion in the comments.