J. C. Hallman

 

 

(USA)

 

 

 

To B or Not to B

 

What seems odd now, at a remove, is that I fell in love at pretty much the same time I forgot how to love books.  Or maybe that makes perfect sense.  Several months after my photographer-girlfriend, Catherine, and I seduced each other with sexy letters bridging the three-hundred-mile gap between our homes, she came to join me, packing her belongings into a U-Haul and moving into my dinky apartment in a small city where for the few years previous I had worked toward building a “life of the mind,” reading many books and producing a couple of my own, and to pay the bills working as a “tenure-track” instructor of undergraduate literature and writing.

On the relationship side, this was a glorious time.  The transition from our racy scribblings to real life was imperceptible at first, and when Catherine and I weren’t living out epistolary fantasies people stopped us in the street to tell us how happy we looked together.  As though we needed to be told!  On the book side, however, I experienced a dark turn of mind.  This actually began before Catherine hauled her life north, even before we began our portentous correspondence, and it’s probably more accurate to say that a sickly, preexisting blot on my soul had begun to grow.  What happened – I think – is that immersion in teaching and publishing exposed me to the literary world’s dark, institutional inner workings, and truth be told even a quick dip into those inner workings would have been enough to trigger a crisis of faith.  The exact nature of my dilemma had remained opaque, but it was clear that an essential innocence had been lost.

I got my first glimpse into the nature of this crisis one night a few months into that happy but troubling time, when Catherine and I went to a nearby university to hear James Salter read from his work.  Many years before I’d read and greatly admired A Sport and a Pastime, Salter’s homage to sex and France, and Catherine had read the book just recently, and she loved it too, and so while Salter can’t be said to have inaugurated our intimate life – that was sui generis – it is fair to say that he was there right from the start, bobbing in our imaginations as we laid the foundational bricks of our union.

This had as much to do with France as with sex.  After graduate school I had almost moved to France – I picked New Jersey instead, a sore point still – and Catherine had lived in Paris any number of times: to this day France is essential to her identity and aesthetic.  Neither of us particularly enjoys hearing writers read from their work – far too often the physical presence clashes with the on-page self – but when we heard that James Salter was coming to town we knew we had to go.  Because of sex and France, yes, but also because Salter had just recently written a blurb (kind words intended for use in publicity materials) for a book I had edited, an anthology of “creative criticism,” published about a month earlier.  It seems obvious now that editing this anthology was among the earliest expressions of my crisis.  No one edits anthologies for money, and I had edited mine in a spirit of gasping desperation.  Salter’s blurb was auspicious for two reasons: one, because I’d never met him, not once, not even to shake his hand; and two, because he was widely known as a writer who didn’t blurb.  Not ever.  When you get a blurb from a writer who doesn’t blurb, well, that’s a particular treat, because he or she has selflessly sacrificed a kind of hallowed status.  That meant that Salter’s blurb for my anthology really meant something.  So of course we had to go to his reading.

Sadly the event was under-attended: sixty or so undergraduates and teachers spread thin through a lecture hall built for three hundred.  Salter was unfazed by this.  Standing there reading, he was the precise opposite of fazed: a model of calm serenity.  I realized that I enjoyed Salter’s on-page and off-page presences equally well.  He had had an amazing life, full of adventure and literature and amazing dinners – before the reading began, Catherine and I stopped at the vendor table and bought a copy of Life Is Meals, a book of days Salter had produced with his wife, Kay – and you could see all of it on him: Mustached and dapper, he looked like a seasoned explorer holding court at an adventurers’ club.  When he finished reading and the time came to answer a few questions, Salter let the initial awkward silence pass for a moment, and then pivoted theatrically on his feet to present us with a flattering three-quarter portrait of himself.  He elbowed the lectern, and huffed a swaggering Dean Martin impersonation into the microphone: “Well – here I am.”

I loved that.  I loved that he said that, and for me that was all he needed to be.  But other people actually wanted to ask questions.  For a time, Salter batted away the usual student queries about influences and work habits, but then he stumbled – and this was the crucial moment of the evening – when a man off to our right stood up and posed a question into a wireless microphone, speaking in an Eastern European accent.

“What is the purpose of literature?”

“What?” Salter said.  “What’s the question?”

“What is the purpose – of literature?”

Salter squinted and shook his head, stepped away from the lectern.  He cupped a palm by his ear.  “What?  I can’t – ”

The man was young, dark-haired, thin to the point of emaciation – he might have walked out of Kafka – contrasting in every way Salter’s sturdy, octogenarian vigor.  There was some additional back-and-forth, and after the young man repeated his question two or three more times he began to grow embarrassed: Perhaps his English was not as good as he thought.  But it was.  Everyone in the audience understood the question, and that began to look suspicious.  Might Salter’s inability to even hear the question indicate that it was a particularly penetrating question?  Could he have been dodging the question, like a politician, because it was the only good question?  In any event, the audience wasn’t going to let the miscommunication stand.  A couple of helpful people sat up in their seats and repeated the question in raised, insistent voices, and were you to have walked into the lecture hall at just that moment, you might have thought they had an interest in the young man’s cryptic query, that they were converts to his cause.

“What is the purpose of literature?  “What is the purpose – purpose – of literature?”

To be fair, the young man’s accent was fairly thick, and Salter’s ears were probably not what they once were.  As well, Salter had been going on for more than an hour by then, and what is sometimes true of reading even enjoyable books – there comes a time when you simply want them to be over – had long since become true of the event.  So most people didn’t mind when Salter, having finally grasped the question, flicked it away with the back of his hand and mumbled something about his pay grade.

“You need an expert for a question like that,” he said.  And of course he meant a literary critic.

I nearly leaped out of my chair at this.  Which was fine, because that was what everyone else was doing, leaping out of their chairs.  It was the final question Salter took and it was time to head for the doors.  But I was raging inside.  An expert?  James Salter, you’re the expert!  Quite unwittingly, and entirely accidentally, I’m sure – because recall he’d just blurbed my anthology of writers writing about literature, the anthology that had inadequately addressed my blooming crisis – Salter had lent public support to one of the most deeply rooted problems of modern literature, namely that we leave it to scholars to preside over its most vexing question: what it’s for.  Catherine, holding my hand, could tell that I’d wandered off into a mental snit.  As happy as we were in those days, she knew that some part of me was suffering, and her response so far, and this was simply lovely of her, had been to buy me books.  Once, during a visit before she moved in, she left me two books by Roland Barthes on the kitchen table: Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes and A Lover’s Discourse.  I needed the latter more than the former, but I read the former right away, immediately incorporating it into something I was working on.

As we got in line to have Salter sign Life Is Meals, Catherine gave my hand a few quick squeezes in that way that newish couples have of communicating understanding during moments of stress.  These squeezes offer a wise piece of advice: hold it together until we’re out of earshot.  I was grateful for that.  But there was also something Catherine didn’t know.  In response to my inward rage, a name reflexively popped into my head, in the way that solutions to puzzles appear suddenly in the mind, that kind of organic unveiling.  I thought, Nicholson Baker.

I kept thinking this, over and over – Nicholson Baker, Nicholson Baker – as we edged toward the front of the line.  Catherine, my ballast, my rudder, kept squeezing my hand – hold it together, hold it together – and when we finally reached Salter he was incredibly charming, a truly dashing off-page presence.  I reminded him about my anthology, which he politely recalled.  We handed him Life Is Meals, but before he signed it, in the nick of time, Catherine spotted Salter’s wife a few steps away, and asked her to sign the book as well.  I practically burst into tears at this.  Catherine had been thoughtful and quick-witted at a moment when, for all practical purposes, I was stunned and thoughtless.  And for a moment after that, for just a flash of an instant, the four of us stood there over the now doubly signed book, Catherine and me and the Salters, like friends.

 

*

 

Who is Nicholson Baker?  That’s an excellent question, and I can honestly say that at that moment I didn’t know.  Which isn’t to say I hadn’t heard of Nicholson Baker.  Of course I had.  Obviously he was a writer, and that’s why his name came to me on hearing a plaintively posed question about the purpose of literature.  But that’s all I knew.  And that’s perfectly normal.  I’d heard of Nicholson Baker, and hearing of writers has always been essential to the experience of being a reader.

I can remember being a very young reader – not actually a child, as I came to the world of literature late (sometimes the institutions of literature appear to work like the institutions of chess or math or music: unless you’ve had professor parents force-feeding you books from the age of four, you’re forever behind in your ability to intuit the fundamentals of language) – and thinking of it in just this way: you begin to read, you become a “reader,” and you begin to hear of writers, to discover the writers you must take in.  The essential writers.  A close friend, a near mentor, explained further: You don’t have to read everything by those writers of whom you’ve heard and must take in, you just have to read their representative work.  Kafka?  The Trial and The Castle will do you fine.  Nabokov?  Lolita, and you’re done.  Woolf?  Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and toss yourself into the river!  Opinions differ on precise texts, but that’s the basic theory behind what’s commonly referred to as “the literary canon.”

I had started my reading – my canon-dabbling – and I loved it.  I loved reading the greatest hits of the essential greats.  But I also became aware of another category of writer, those of whom one has heard but need not necessarily read.  The noncanonical.  This, I knew, was not the category that most writers aspired to when they took the vows of the writing life, yet it was by far the more populated field.  And truth be told you can’t completely ignore the noncanonical category of writer, as a critical facet of modern literary life is participation in awkward cocktail party conversations about obscure authors.  For the most part, a cursory investigation into these writers’ careers will suffice: passing acquaintance with a few book titles, a plot summary for emergencies.  There are many, many nonessential writers, and for me Nicholson Baker was one of them.

I don’t even remember the first time I heard the name “Nicholson Baker.”  The world works like this.  We hear new names, every day we are more or less inundated with new names, some of them belonging to writers we haven’t heard of.  From a book-marketing perspective, this is probably science.  The whole goal, I’m sure, is to provide exposure for the names of writers we haven’t heard of, to plant names subconsciously into the minds of populations of potential readers (because we’re forever unconsciously recording the names of writers we haven’t heard of so that we don’t appear underread during awkward cocktail party conversations), in the hope that someday, after the planted names have taken root, after some saturation point has been reached, at least one of them – one name – will make the magical leap from being a writer of whom you’ve heard but need not necessarily read to being a writer you’ve heard of and must read.

After the Salter reading, that’s about where things stood in regard to Baker and me.  I did, in fact, wait until we were out of earshot to rant to Catherine for a while about how it simply couldn’t be left to literary critics to decide what the purpose of literature was.  But I didn’t say anything at all about Nicholson Baker.  And actually it wasn’t the first time, of late, that Nicholson Baker had popped into my head.  A number of times in the weeks before the Salter event I’d wound up thinking about Nicholson Baker, usually in response to seeing his name in an advertisement or hearing it on the radio, but sometimes, as at the reading, experiencing a spontaneous outbreak of Nicholson Baker in my mind.  This was curious.  Wouldn’t it have been wise for me to have already acquired at least a passing Nicholson Baker familiarity?  It would – yet I hadn’t.  Why not?  The obvious answer was that Nicholson Baker had not yet been canonized.  Baker was a quite popular writer – that’s why I’d heard of him – but he was not a writer that everyone had heard of, a writer whom everyone must read.  Rather, he was a writer many people had heard of, a writer whom people should read.  That’s why I hadn’t read him.

Then, maybe a month after the Salter reading, something changed.  I began to worry that somewhere along the line I’d made a mistake, that some part of me had prevented another part of me from doing what I should have done a long time ago: read Nicholson Baker.  These sorts of moments (e.g., epiphanies, inspirations, revelations, etc.) are often described as a kind of biological “click,” followed by a sensation of “release.”  That’s what happened.  I clicked and released.  And suddenly I began to feel a certain literary attraction to Nicholson Baker, an attraction that, viewed from the perspective of my crisis, loomed with the promise of an antidote.  A salvation.  In other words, Nicholson Baker had become a writer I needed to read.  He had entered my personal canon.  And in response to that, I did what I’d always done when I realized there was a writer I needed to read.  I ordered one of his books, U and I, which I realized I knew a little bit about: it is a fretting, hand-wringing exploration of John Updike.  I’d learned of this book while editing my anthology, but here’s the thing: I hadn’t read it then, and I didn’t read it now, either.  I stopped myself.  Or wait, that’s not quite right.  Here’s what really happened.

The book arrived in the mail – as is all too frequent these days – and I unsheathed it with Christmas morning verve.  The paperback had a happy blue cover – the blue of French artist Yves Klein, Catherine observed – and I passed my fingers over the slick, glossy surface and placed the book on my nightstand.  One night I opened it.  I liked it.  I thought it was great, in fact.  I didn’t know if it was Nicholson Baker’s greatest hit, but I thought it was very funny and good.  Then, for some reason, I stopped reading.  The next night I started again – and stopped again.  Because I liked it.  This is what happened.  I clenched.  Then I seized.  I clenched and seized.  So the real truth is less that I stopped myself from reading Nicholson Baker than experienced, every time I picked up U and I, a mysterious cycle of clenching and seizing.  It seemed I was torn on the subject of Nicholson Baker.  I had some kind of pent-up resistance.  From somewhere came the fleeting thought that I had ordered the book not because I was genuinely attracted to it, but because some clever marketing campaign had succeeded in planting in my brain a desire to read it.  How could I know whether my attraction was true?  I was stuck.  I couldn’t read Nicholson Baker because I had to.  It seemed to me that Nicholson Baker might be a writer on his way to canonization, and where once this would have triggered in me a desire to read him, it now left me paralyzed, unreading.  I was forced to ask myself anew: Who is Nicholson Baker?

 

*

 

I had no idea!  He wrote U and I and sounded English, is all I could have told you.  “Nicholson Baker” sounded to me like an English writer, and for some reason that repelled me.  This made no sense at all.  There were, it’s true, a number of English writers I studiously avoided (e.g., Julian Barnes, Graham Swift, Martin Amis, etc.), but there were also a number of English writers I absolutely cherished (e.g., George Orwell, Bruce Chatwin, Geoff Dyer, etc.).  So why had I lumped Nicholson Baker into the category of English writers to avoid?  Probably because of his name.  It sounded to me like an heirloom name, and no one but the stiff-upper-lipped English (those with names like Julian, Graham, and Martin, as opposed to George, Bruce, and Geoff) would pass along a name virtually guaranteed to earn black eyes in prep school quadrangles.  The impulse to name a child “Nicholson” could belong only to a sentiment dangling from the last frayed threads of empire, a sentiment that perceives such suffering as character building and therefore healthy (in other words, fascist), and what, I asked myself – now that I seemed to be on the brink of actually reading Nicholson Baker – could such a gene pool really offer me by way of wisdom, particularly when that sad, beat-up, Harry Potter of a writer (or, to allude to another thin British allegory, “Nicholson” is the name of a hobbit!) eventually chose to put his full name, as opposed to “Nick,” as he was surely known to his friends, on the front of his books?  The humble-sounding surname aside, it seemed I had been wise in thus far avoiding all work by Nicholson Baker because even a fool could tell he was snotty.

Or scratch that, because it was me who was being snotty.  Snotty all around, in fact.  For I’ve actually enjoyed books by Julian Barnes, Graham Swift, and Martin Amis (Flaubert’s Parrot, Waterland, and The Information are in my opinion the canonical works), and truth be told Nicholson Baker wasn’t even English, a fact I discovered when I glanced at the author’s note in my copy of U and I.  He was an American writer, born and bred.  This revelation hit me less like a sensation of click and release than a devastating psychological crumbling in the face of the uncanny.  How could I not have known this?  I’d heard of Nicholson Baker, and apparently I had a very faint acquaintance with his oeuvre, but how could I have been in possession of even a fraction of the knowledge one should have of a non-essential writer and still not know what country he hailed from, particularly when it was my own?  Looking back at it now, that’s when it became clear that there was something peculiar about my relationship with Nicholson Baker.  Something that could not be explained solely by marketing efforts launched on behalf of an author for whom I’d begun to feel a mysterious draw.

 

*

 

The author’s note also informed me that Nicholson Baker was only ten years older than I was.  This annoyed me.  Nicholson Baker published his first book in 1988 at thirty-one years of age, and since then he’d been more or less regularly banging out tomes.  He was a writer, in other words.  As a writer myself I had a somewhat later start, and I was admittedly far less essential, less canonical.  I had to allow for the fact that I was intimidated and jealous.  After all, I’d been reading – seriously reading – for roughly a quarter century, and I hoped that in that time I had canon-dabbled my way to a certain level of expertise.  But then, all of a sudden, here comes this guy who was only ten years older than I was, and he was already, magically, absolutely essential to me, while I was completely inessential to him.

This is part and parcel for writers these days.  Writers who magically become essential have the added burden of breaking down walls of pent-up resistance in fellow writers.  For example, I was also annoyed – for no good reason – that I had no idea what Nicholson Baker looked like.  If I had known what he looked like, then perhaps I wouldn’t have been repelled by the thought that he was English.  Was Nicholson Baker hiding?  His author’s note was cagey, but I believed that the eye hovering ghost-like behind the “I” on the right side of the cover of my copy of U and I – a clever double entendre by the designer – belonged to Nicholson Baker.  The image was a bit out of focus, but Baker appeared to have a beard.  A beard that probably indicated insecurities of his own, for obviously it was a mask (and I won’t even discuss the roundish Harry Potter–like spectacles he seemed to be wearing).  I easily recognized the faint image of John Updike behind the “U” on the cover, of course.  He was clean-shaven and apparently had good vision, and I even knew where John Updike hailed from – I’ve read the canonical Updike – but Nicholson Baker, by comparison, appeared to be hiding, appeared to be reluctant to step out from behind, let’s say, the bars of his book cover.  Nicholson Baker’s author’s note was cagey because he was caged.

And doesn’t that begin to get at how it feels to be on the brink of giving in to a newly essential writer these days, to transcending your own selfish concerns long enough so that you can open your soul to the soul of another, to a writer’s soul?  Gone are the days when one could hear of a book or a writer and experience the slow, delicious process of a long-building sensation of attraction: an initial, casual familiarity that gradually becomes a crush, which accelerates into longing, and which then, very suddenly, becomes a satisfying splurt into the freedom and joy of reading.  It doesn’t work that way anymore.  We’ve been blurbed, book-packaged, keyworded, and target-advertised into a kind of prison-camp oblivion.  These days, why does anyone read the writers they read?  Do readers choose books, or do marketing departments choose readers?  Are we truly satisfied by whatever winds up on a celebrity’s book club list?  Do we browse or surf?  Do we read or scroll?  It’s not that we’re brainwashed.  We know what’s happening.  We’ve all become savvy – all too savvy.  Anyone who picks up a book in a bookstore knows full well that they might be being duped by its campaign.  Even a gut-level attraction to a writer of whom we’ve caught an enticing glimpse seems suspect to our new cyborgy selves.

Of course my crisis – and this was my crisis – was nothing new at all.  Gone are the days when people were not saying things like “Gone are the days…”  Still, I think there’s something unique to the current state of modern literature, to today, this moment, right now.  These days, it’s not you, the reader, who is set free by reading, it’s the writer.  By reading, you free the writer from obscurity, from the cage, the prison of his or her book.  But even that’s been said before, most notably by Samuel Butler who said, “Books are like imprisoned souls till someone takes them down from a shelf and frees them.”  Which proves my point, for I did not pull Butler down from a shelf and quote him.  Rather, Catherine, who had been watching me serially pick up and put down U and I for weeks, lovingly gave me a copy of photographer Abelardo Morell’s A Book of Books, full of inspiring literary quotations and wonderful photos of old, decaying codices.  Butler was in there…and so was Nicholson Baker.  He’d written the introduction.  That’s why Catherine gave it to me, as a gentle prod to go ahead and read a writer I clearly needed to read.  Baker’s introduction – I skimmed it – describes the “impenetrability” of books, their prison-like “rectangularity” and “thickness.”  He didn’t quite say it, but he implied it: these days, we break into books.

That was true on a larger scale too, I thought.  Libraries, long a core institution of the literary world, are no longer libraries – they are correctional institutions.  Many, many books are incarcerated in libraries, serving life sentences, as it were.  Of course this is troubling, in that it suggests we have imprisoned our soulfulness.  But it does create an opportunity for romance.  These days, readers must recognize when an author needs to be rescued, needs to be sprung from the prison of his or her book, held in the prison of a library.  In the end, it’s all prisons within prisons.

 

*

 

Speaking of prisons, did I mention that I teach?  That as I was trying to launch a career as a writer I was a teacher of undergraduate literature and writing?  I broach the subject again because it’s relevant to my thinking about Nicholson Baker.

The truth about writers teaching literature and writing is bleak: These days it’s rare for writers to pursue almost any other sort of work.  There may be noncanonical writers here or there who do something other than teach to put bread on their tables, but more likely than not you haven’t heard of them.  As a general principle, writers teach.  Essential writers may teach only cursorily – leasing out their names to diabolical institutions, limiting their contact to responsive graduate students – but nonessential writers teach undergraduate courses like galley slaves, and the problem of course is that to be a teacher, to be shackled deep in the hull of some slave ship institution, is to not be a writer at all.

The psychological effect of sacrificing writing for teaching – and this was the other part of my crisis – trickles down onto students, who quickly come to seem like a bane and a vice.  In class, as the teacher, as the “professor,” you sit there among them, trying to talk about books with the sort of sustained ardor you would need to produce a book of your own, and some of the students are sneezing, and you can see the snot dripping from their noses because they’re not yet old enough to have developed any kind of refined sense of nose etiquette (thirty is the new twenty, we’re told; twenty, therefore, is the new five), and some of them are covered with pimples because they still haven’t figured out that regular washing is generally a good idea, and some of them are asleep because they’ve decided that they would rather be vampires than people and so they stay up all night long to try to make that come to pass.  From your perspective it’s frustrating, because even though you evilly relish these shallow and mean-spirited thoughts about students, another part of you is actually quite fond of the students.  Too fond, perhaps.  For example, you completely identify with your male students, the men, the man-boys, who remind you of yourself at that age, even the ones who are clearly more masculine or athletic or intelligent than you were back then.  And then of course there are the female students, the women, the girls who, because your frustrations with teaching have left you lonely and in a state of perpetual inner rant, provide you with material for escapist fantasy.  There are women in your classes that you actually can’t wait to get home and masturbate to, the memory of how they cock their head when you’ve gotten off some really interesting point about Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women (her greatest hit, incidentally).  Of course, some of these women think about you when they masturbate, too.  You know this to be true, you can see it in their eyes sometimes.  That girl with her hands under her desk as she gazes steadily before her, appearing to be completely ignoring everything you’re saying, she’s not sending a handheld electronic device message to her stupid eighteen year-old boyfriend who wouldn’t know cunnilingus from scratch and sniff – no, she’s in a state of thrall, and she’s thinking about you, she’s masturbating right there in class while you make some quite interesting, and apparently arousing, point about Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women.

And that’s the state of modern literature in higher education these days: it’s all about masturbation.  The “professor” is always masturbating to his female students as soon as he has the chance, and some of his female students really are masturbating to him in turn, and virtually all of the man-boys in class are masturbating too, though not to the teacher or the girls in the class, but to the tiny porn stars they call up on their own handheld electronic devices, a more or less constant activity in the modern classroom.  The impact of handheld electronic devices on higher education is a subject deserving of significant attention, but for our purposes it will be sufficient to note that a good portion of a teacher’s job these days is to inspire students away from their handheld devices – to rouse them, even to arouse them.  The trick is that one must accomplish this without either annoying students to such an extent that they exact petty, late-adolescent revenge on course evaluation forms that are of ever-increasing importance in the modern academy, or violating sexual harassment policies that are inconsistently interpreted but enforced with draconian zeal.  Complicating matters, many canonical texts are quite lurid, so masturbation comes up as subject matter fairly often, but even on those rare occasions when a “seminar” seems to be about something other than masturbation, it’s still intellectual masturbation in that a public conversation about an event intended as a private encounter between two souls amounts to masturbatory activity.  By which I mean desperate and craven.

Which isn’t to say masturbation is bad.  It isn’t.  It’s how we learn what our bodies like and our sex lives go on to be either good or terrible to the extent that we learn how to communicate this information to others.  That kind of communication, intimate and intended to generate physiological reaction, is exactly how reading once was and ought to be, but no longer is.  And my crisis, to the extent that I had begun to understand it, had a great deal to do with the fact that these days a significant portion of the world’s literary commerce is conducted in classrooms.  More often than not, people begin to read not because they’ve become attracted to a writer and long to have a kind of virtual sex with him or her, not to have an experience that echoes the multivalent intensity of physical love, of two people made metaphorically naked by a willed suspension of ego, with only the silky membrane of the parchment, the page, between them, like a bedsheet – no, these days, most people begin reading with books assigned to them in the modern classroom, and they read these books dutifully, for “credit,” and then participate, because they’re graded on this too, in the exhausting but unsatisfying circle jerk known as “class discussion.”

 

*

 

All this might sound radical or shocking.  But it shouldn’t.  Here’s why.

“Creative writing” began as an attempt to use language as a technology of intimacy, as a way of sharing intimate passions, thoughts, and sensations with strangers.  Creative writing is a fetishization of self, a self that is stacked up and tied up in the book – bound, after all – and presented for sale so that many people across time and space can share and savor that preserved self.  Or scratch all that.  Because creative writing did not begin that way at all.  Literature did.  Or that’s what literature became after oral and written storytelling transcended overt historical and journalistic utility.  “Creative writing,” on the other hand, began another way.  Not long ago a prominent and well–intentioned critic claimed in a highly esteemed magazine that creative writing first came into use as a phrase in the 1920s.  He was wrong only by about eighty years.  The first to use the phrase was Ralph Waldo Emerson in “The American Scholar,” a lecture delivered at Harvard in 1837.  What did he mean by it?  Well, if we make the assumption that Emerson was not trying to establish the modern definition of creative writing – a catch-all for the agreed upon genres of literature – then a question naturally arises: Why did Emerson think we needed to be told that writing could be “creative”?  Why indeed, unless the world had arrived at a moment – the first faint hints of modernity, say – when it was opting for language that was stale, dead, and insipid.  For Emerson, creative writing wasn’t a loose allusion to creation, to procreation, to the grand scheme of two people coupling to make something beautiful out of nothing, it was a direct citation of it.  “-ive” is the operative portion of the phrase.  “-ive” is the suffix of similization.  In the end, creative writing means “writing that is like fucking.”  It’s from the Greek.  Or the Latin.  Long story short, Emerson re-fetishized the self (he got a leg up from Montaigne), Whitman borrowed it (along with a great blurb) and installed it in a “body” of work shrieking off the page, and for a good long time after that everyone happily fucked the body electric.

Which brings me back to Nicholson Baker, to what was beginning to look like my plan for him.  But there was a problem – or rather, two problems.  Because when a teacher of literature and writing begins to form a plan for a writer, his or her first reflexive thought is to incorporate the writer’s work into a course.  That was problem one, because it’s generally held that in order to teach an author a “professor” really ought to have at least some level of familiarity with the author’s work.  I had not read Nicholson Baker, and I had a pent-up resistance to doing so.  I could get through that, surely – I had a plan for it – but even if I succeeded I would run afoul of problem two: teachability.  I can go on for hours about teachability – ask Catherine, I have – but, in short, a teachable book, in academic terms, is a “good” book.  And a good book has two main features: one, it can be understood even if students divide their attention between it and the much more important tasks that need to be completed on their handheld electronic devices; and two, it does not say anything that might discomfit a typical eighteen-year-old sensibility, which means it resembles television.  Teachability was a problem because, at least on this scale, I didn’t think Nicholson Baker was a particularly good writer.  True, I was guessing.  I hoped for the opposite, in fact.  Because privately – and this was core to my crisis – I knew that good, teachable books were actually bad books.  And beyond not having read him, I couldn’t teach Nicholson Baker because somehow I knew that he was a terrible writer who was actually a great writer.  What I really wanted to do with Nicholson Baker was have Emersonian sex with him, rather than try to masturbate to him with a bunch of kids who didn’t know the first thing about pulling themselves, or me, off.

 

*

 

So I was back to square one – not that I’d ever really left it.  To read Baker or not to read Baker.  To B or not to B.

Actually it wasn’t all that bad.  Once I decided that teaching Nicholson Baker would be an abomination, I composed a few musing, meandering pages about one day possibly reading Nicholson Baker.  Then I set them aside and went about my life, choosing for my courses the least bad, teachable books I could think of.  Class sessions proceeded with all due masturbatory rigor.

During this time, my paperback copy of U and I performed an odd transformation.  Day by day I monitored a gentle curling of its cover stock, a slow metamorphosis as the pristine, tightly bound book borrowed moisture from the air and twisted the cover into the shape of a question mark, a question mark asking me why I was not deliriously consuming this book I would so obviously enjoy.  But my pent-up resistance held, and I was able to keep the book at bay.  In the mean time, Nicholson Baker kept on with the job of being a writer, traveling, giving talks and readings, and probably doing a whole lot of reading and writing.  As a result of all this activity, I began to notice an uptick in the frequency of Nicholson Baker appearances in my life.  By now I’d grown accustomed to regular but infrequent thoughts about Baker, but now I experienced an acceleration of Baker materializations.  They marked off an almost pulsing rhythm, a primal drumbeat of Baker that made him seem unshackled, unimprisoned, and utterly essential.

For example, I stumbled across a reference to Nicholson Baker on a prominent literary blog.  Baker had appeared recently at a Canadian book festival, an event that the blogger claimed was woefully under-attended, like Salter’s reading.  Apparently, Canada was filled with people who had no real knowledge of Nicholson Baker, like me, or who had heard of him but felt no pressing need to see him in the flesh.  In any event, Baker provided a nugget – via the blog – of spot-on Australian-style wisdom: “Writing,” the blogger said Baker said, “was a process of ‘re-engaging our excitement in the world around us by going out on a long journey,’” which he likened to the path of a boomerang.  Precisely, I thought.  Provided you can embark in the first place.  Then I learned, via another blog, that the original manuscript of a short story by Nicholson Baker was being auctioned off for charity.  I was too late to make a bid.  The manuscript sold for $51.  Drat!

These few appearances proved to be only the first wet mists of an approaching Nicholson Baker waveThere were further mentions of Baker in online forums, he sneaked into my hometown to give a reading while I myself was doing a reading in another city, and he wrote a piece for the New York Times, a review that was accompanied by one of those pencil sketch caricatures that high-end publications produce so that you have at least some sense of what a writer looks like, and which are probably the very best indicator of when a writer has reached the absolute brink of canonization.  When this image made its appearance in my life – via my handheld electronic device – I was struck by two things.  First, I was struck by Baker’s undeniable Santa Clausian mien and the fleeting thought that if he were actually canonized he would literally be St. Nick.  And second, I was struck again – truly whacked this time – by the fact that Nicholson Baker was still only ten years older than me, because if Baker can be said to look like Santa, then it had to be allowed that I myself was closer to an elf (and in fact a former romantic partner once described me in a short story as resembling a garden gnome).

It was also during this period that I received an additional reminder of my own writerly stature, as compared to that of Nicholson Baker.  I received a review – a remarkable review.  Wonderful!  But what was most remarkable about it to me, beyond my being flattered and affirmed by all the flattering, affirming things it said, was that it began with a preamble about the state of modern literature that only too well captured my professional predicament: I had failed to establish my writerly significance.

 

In this age of perpetual presence…it’s all too easy to lose track of those writers who appear only when they have something particular and finished to share.  Strangely, my two best examples of this kind of writer both go by their initials.  The first is journalist D.T. Max, who will appear in The New Yorker or elsewhere once or twice in a blue moon, always leading me to think: oh yeah – that guy!  I love that guy!  Where’s he been?  The other writer is J.C. Hallman, whose work always excites and intrigues me – whenever, that is, I am reminded he exists.

 

Ouch.  The most remarkable thing about me, it seemed, even according to those who remarked on me, was that I was not more remarkable.

Which left me sort of sad and overcome.  The in-all-other-respects-positive review wreaked havoc on my ego, but it did wonders for my pent-up resistance to Nicholson Baker.  I could feel myself steeling, heart-hardeningly, against him.  Which was timely because I was soon awash in a whole new tide of Nicholson Baker appearances, a breached-levy flood of praise and events that made him seem less alluring and necessary than kind of tiresome, like a down-on-his-luck uncle who doesn’t know when to quit sleeping on your couch.  What had initially struck me as a sweet and seductive campaign to murmur the sweet nothing of Nicholson Baker’s name in my ear now seemed like a pharaoh’s effort to chisel the glyphs of Nicholson Baker’s entire itinerary into the sandstone of my brain.  This led to a grim conclusion: These days, books are not only imprisoned, readers righteously monitor the cell doors.  If once upon a time we happily waited for books, stood vigil for their arrival, then what we did now was stand guard against their escape.  Even worse, I had begun to conspire against myself.  No longer was I merely waiting for Nicholson Baker to appear in my life.  One night I actually broached the subject of Nicholson Baker, mentioned that I’d put together a few rambling pages about him and had begun to toy with some kind of vague plan.

Catherine and I were at a bar that night, having a beer with a close friend, one of those meaningful, hugely substantial friends you have who reads not just from the canon, but even writers like Nicholson Baker, simply because he loves writers and books.  He agreed that Nicholson Baker might soon be canonized, but he nonetheless claimed that Baker was an underappreciated writer.  Certain literary innovations, our friend said, often attributed to other already canonical authors, had first been introduced by Nicholson Baker.  For example, a recent trend in using footnotes to create parallel narratives echoing the mind’s layers of consciousness (e.g., David Foster Wallace, Junot Díaz, etc.) had initially been employed in Nicholson Baker’s first book, a novel called The Mezzanine, which our friend said was about a man going on a short escalator trip after purchasing a pair of shoelaces.  I admit it: I enjoyed hearing this.  I was entirely tickled, in fact.  I was tickled because I pre-got the clever jokes: escalators and levels of consciousness, shoelaces and footnotes.  It was evidence that Nicholson Baker was not just an underappreciated innovator, he was a writer perfectly primed for me.

Then the unthinkable happened, in the sense that it happened and I thought about it: I heard something else about Nicholson Baker.  Something downright troubling.  It was a couple months later, and I was back in Philadelphia, at another bar, having another beer with another friend, a writer friend.  For a good twenty minutes I had been musing openly about Nicholson Baker, musing about all the things that I’d been musing about to Catherine for months now.  I wanted to write about Nicholson Baker, and what needed to be done, I’d been saying, what no one had ever done, was tell the story of a literary relationship from its moment of conception, from that moment when you realize that there is a writer out there in the world you need to read, so you read them.  My friend was an excellent audience for all this because he’d heard of Nicholson Baker too, but hadn’t read him either.  Perfect!  He couldn’t tell me anything at all about Nicholson Baker apart from his private store of cocktail party trivia.  Which included the troubling tidbit.  My friend made preparations to reveal what he knew, leaning forward and glancing from side to side at a jolly team of barhoppers that had taken tables all around us.  He sized them up for threats – you never know.  Then he spoke in a sort of discreet whisper-scream, so I could hear him over the hammering percussion of the bar’s eighties dance music.  Some time ago, my friend said – a book or two ago, say – Nicholson Baker had plopped himself in literary hot water by writing something that seemed to apologize for the Holocaust.  An infernal electric scrape surged along my spine at this news.  My torso shivered and jiggled in a way that might have appeared elegant had it been set to any other kind of music.  The Holocaust!  No wonder Nicholson Baker had been hiding behind the bars of his book covers – hiding so well I couldn’t seem to avoid him.  My friend sat back in his chair with an expression of sickly glee.  He had no further details.  It was a cruel rumor, pure and simple.  My eyes twitched, following a whole new round of mad inner musings.  Did Nicholson Baker have a dark side, as is sometimes found in writers on the canonical brink?  Or was this nasty rumor an expression of some kind of collective pent-up resistance to Nicholson Baker?

It didn’t matter.  Something cleared in that moment, and the rough outline of my inner musings instantly became a trajectory, a mystery – a story.  Even though the marketing whisper campaign had come to seem more like war drums echoing deep in the jungle, and even though I had begun to worry that I would wind up smothered under an avalanche of Nicholson Baker appearances in my life, there had arrived a kind of literary “tipping point,” and all at once I could feel myself tipping.  I was hanging off the cliff of Nicholson Baker, I’d grabbed the last sapling trunk growing out of the cliff wall above the falls of Nicholson Baker, and I was staring down into the abyss of Nicholson Baker, into the spray and the mists, ready for the release, the plunge.  Who is Nicholson Baker?  At that moment, I had only a few scant facts, some ads and rumors.  But I was ready to begin my long journey, my boomerang quest.  And isn’t that the only way a literary study ought to begin?  Isn’t that – honestly now – the only way to begin a study of how studies of literature ought to begin?

 

 

(First section of B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster – February 3, 2015)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

____________________________________________

 

BIO

 

J.C. Hallman is originally from California.  He is the author of six books, including B & Me, In Utopia, The Hospital for Bad Poets, and The Chess Artist.  Among other honors he has been the recipient of Guggenheim and McKnight fellowships.  He lives in New York City.

 

www.JCHallman.com

 

Articles similaires

Tags

Partager