When a Self-Declared Genius Asks You to Read His Masterpiece
In a Letter to a Total Stranger, Why I Read What I Read
I think nearly every writer who’s ever published a book receives the occasional email from a stranger asking you to read his or her opus. If you’re a writer with a day job in an English Department, it’s worse. Some of these strangers assume that English professors are like friendly judges in some great literary American Idol, just waiting to read the next contestant. Also, your email is easy to find. Usually I try to send a few words arranged as generously as possible. Sometimes, though… Like the other day. A writer named Alan—I won’t mention his last name, even though he clearly craves the attention—sent me a link to his self-published something, followed by a P.S.: “Feel free to continue to ignore my work, just be prepared to pay a price for it that you might never have imagined.”
“Dear Alan,” I responded, as generously as I could, “I’m sorry, but I can’t figure out where we know each other from. So I’m puzzled by you P.S. I’m certainly not ignoring anything, but there is a far more to read than can ever be read. When I catch up on my students, my deadlines, and new work by close friends, I’ll be sure to check it out.”
Alan was not appeased. “Your entire profession,” he wrote back, “has preferred to bury their heads in the sand and refuse to credit my literary/creative genius and/or the outrageous pedagogical stupidity that you have all implicitly supported. And either way I just want you to know that you need to think about the price of this behavior. That one day people will know that your profession is either incredibly inept and or outrageously dishonest. And either way that likely will translate into a crisis for the humanities that you likely are not nearly prepared for. So just be warned. And understand that I will be continuing to work to bring about this very unpleasant and undesirable scenario.”
I know what the right thing to do in such a scenario is, of course—nothing—but I wasn’t kidding when I told Alan I had work by friends on which I needed to catch up. So I decided to combine my correspondence with my reading responsibilities.
You’re trolling me, but I’ll take the bait. I gather you’re a writer who feels unappreciated by English professors? You should know I’m not much of a traditional English professor—I’ve a BA in American history, and that’s it. My “profession,” if it can be called that, is “writer”; same as you, evidently. You write, I write. You seem indignant that I’ve not read your work; you don’t mention whether or not you’ve read mine; and you can’t imagine that there might be work by those besides you—besides me!—worth reading.
For instance, work by young writers, students, for whom I’m often the only reader. You could say, “Sure, but those kids are privileged, they can afford college.” Fair enough. But reading their work is the job that allows me to afford groceries. It has the added benefit of being deeply pleasurable, in part because so few students presume their own genius. They tend to be grateful for a single reader, even one who’s slow, sometimes, because he procrastinates by answering crank emails from strangers.
Another category of writer worth reading: Friends. “Oh, great,” you might say, “a chummy clique of established writers.” That’s true. But then, there’s the fact that we weren’t always “established,” and the reality that for all but the most famous or most self-satisfied writers, being “established”—published and sometimes paid—doesn’t mean you don’t depend on friends to ping back like sonar when you drop some new work into the abyss of public words.
Here’s what I’ve read since you first wrote to me instead of clicking on your link: Yesterday I received in the mail a copy of my friend Ann Neumann’s new book, her first, The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America, beautifully published by Beacon Press. So Ann’s established now, but she sure wasn’t when she used a small inheritance from her father, a telephone lineman, to quit her job as a university administrative flunky and undertake the travel that had never been possible for her before. She’d write long story-filled emails from the road. I wrote back that I thought they were great, that she should do something with them. And she did, though not what I expected. She didn’t write about travel, she wrote about the death that spurred the travel, her father’s, and then she kept thinking about death and dying, and although she had spent many months attending his slow and painful death she decided that to understand what she’d experienced she needed to experience more of it. So she got herself trained in hospice, and spent most Wednesday nights for years with the dying. Listening to their stories, sure, and once buying an old man his last set of guitar strings; but also wiping asses and cleaning sores. All of it. And because that didn’t answer all her questions she began studying “the literature,” broadly defined, and interviewing “experts,” broadly defined. Along the way she started publishing her findings. These were her first publications, at age 40-whatever. Editors asked for more not because she was a “name”—Ann who?—but because they were good. She had writer-friends to whom she could have said, “Read this if you want to remain my friend!” She didn’t. We read because we were her friends, and we kept reading because she became a writer.
Here’s how The Good Death opens:
I placed a tiny, white pill on the US Army spoon my father had used to eat cereal for nearly forty years. From a white plastic bottle, about the size and shape of a small flask, I extracted five drops of pink liquid morphine. I released each drop one by one onto the spoon and used the tip of the dropper to push the Ativan in slow circles until it dissolved. Then I sucked the mixture back up into the dropper. Morphine takes your pain away. Ativan calms you down. I wanted to lick the spoon.
But she didn’t; she wrote the book that follows those lines. This is something I’ve come to learn about writers: They’re the ones who write. When aspiring writers ask me how to make a book—and I know, Alan, you’re not asking, but there’s an implicit cry for help in writing a stranger to demand that he read your work simply because he’s a writer—I say, “First, you write one.” Because I think what a lot of people are really asking is, “How do I become recognized as a writer so that a publisher will want me to write a book so that I can be recognized as a writer?”
First, you write.
I guess mortality’s a theme this week, because I also read “Good For You,” a new essay in VQR by my friend Scott Korb. I can’t remember how I met Scott, but I know that we met because we were both writers, or, more accurately, both wanted to be writers, and that we found we enjoyed talking to each other about other people’s stories and that doing so led us to read each other’s stories, which is what we’ve been doing for years now. So, naturally, I made time to read Scott’s latest, which is why, Alan, I didn’t have time to click on the link you sent accompanied by a threat. Scott’s new essay is about hope and vanity and kale, and about his wife’s cancer, and about the second child they’d longed for, who they may never have. It’s a tangled DNA strand, this essay, twisting around through digressions and other people’s stories that at first seem hard to follow. But they all come back. That’s something I love in Scott’s writing—he’s generous reader who infuses his work with the ideas of others. He doesn’t make their ideas as his own so much as he makes them company for his own—a chummy clique of established writers, if you will—and the whole gang of ideas then proceeds to moments of complicated emotion stated with elegant simplicity:
The oncologist manages the medications, and she saw no benefit to my wife continuing with monthly injections. Done. She continued to prescribe the drug Tamoxifen, though, which is believed to cause birth defects, and she’ll continue to prescribe this for years, until my wife is forty-two. I knew all along there would be no more children before then. But I was there because I still thought another child was more likely than it seemed when the oncologist shook her head (not unkindly, perhaps with sympathy) when she used the phrase “forty-two-year-old eggs.”
Parents and mortality—definitely a theme these past few days. Another piece I read is “Two Weeks in Paris,” by Mike Ladd, in Ghettoblaster. While I did go to college with Mike, and had even maybe given him his first publication in a student literary magazine, I didn’t know him then and haven’t seen him in more than 20 years. So why would I read him before clicking the link in your menacing email? Because he’s a friend of my friend Tanja Hollander, a photographer with whom I was on assignment in Paris when terrorists launched coordinated attacks across the city on November 13, and because Tanja and I, seeking to navigate the city that horrible night and in the days that followed, depended in part on advice from Mike. That kind of friend-of-a-friend. And also, yes, because back in college Mike had been one of those “most-likely-to-succeed” types, a writer and a musician who we were all sure would be famous. He did succeed—he’s recorded many critically-acclaimed albums, one of which, Still Life With Commentator, with his friend Vijay Iyer, I just bought and am listening to as I write this—and he makes his living and supports his family as an artist. Success!
Fame? I didn’t know about Mike’s work until Tanja sent me the link to Ghettoblaster, which yes, I clicked before yours. Just as he likely didn’t know I’m a writer until November 13 when Tanja texted something to the effect of “Do you remember Jeff Sharlet? He’s a journalist now, and I’m here in Paris working with him, and we need some help.”
So that’s how I came to feel it was important to read Mike’s essay, his diary of being a dark-skinned dad in Paris after the attacks, an African-American sometimes mistaken for Arab. He insists the city still belongs to him and his kids as much as anyone, takes them to a birthday party the day after to prove it; “I wanted to be outside and unafraid.” He writes of the war he’d like to “refuse for my children,” and the awareness that it may not be his choice. And he writes of friendship:
I spent the afternoon in Saint Denis with a friend and his wife. He’s Palestinian, an emcee and a producer. He grew up in a refugee camp in southern Lebanon, a city outside a city outside a country. We spoke of what’s been going down, the police raid on the attackers. The night of the attacks was hectic, they live across from the Stade de France where the bombs went off. The stadium looms over the neighborhood like a massive spaceship that needs a jump- start. We talked of hip-hop, the attacks and all the wars connected. From 1980 till today, from 1850 till day before yesterday when the Russian plane was shot down. We talked about growing up in the shadow of guns, he in southern Lebanon me in Boston and later Brooklyn and the Bronx. He, still a refugee, me an expat from an empire but both still in transience finding refuge in each others’ company. We spoke of the big money we feel is behind all this violence. We spoke of Fallujah. We knew fighters on opposite sides of the battle, we shuddered and gave pause when we spoke of combatants eyes, we knew how bad it was by word of mouth and that was enough. We ate ridiculously good hummus and an omelette. He felt there were many Daesh supporters in town. His wife and I feared the rise of the National Front in next week’s regional elections. We shook it off in the gloom of the spacecraft that was attacked, ate more hummus and turned up Vince Staples. We smoked and huddled around coffee in the tight concrete front yard the November cold finally kicking in.
But it’s January now, Alan, which means Friday was my friend Bill Boyer’s birthday. Last night, we celebrated a day late by taking our daughters to a women’s hockey game and then ordering pizza to eat with cake and whiskey and our families, and as we drove home, Bill at the wheel, me with a stack of pizza boxes in my lap warm as a cat in front of a fire, Bill mentioned he’d met the woman my wife and I had been subletting to while we were away for the fall. Bill had gone over to help her change the screens in our basement windows, and she’d offered him tea, and then they’d got to talking, because they’re both Midwesterners, and our subletter is a poet, her name is Vievee Francis, and Bill’s a writer, too, an ethnomusicologist, and I guess they talked about poems and music because Vievee gave Bill a copy of her first book, Blue-Tail Fly, and although Bill doesn’t read a lot of poems he liked these poems; he said he could hear the musicality. I asked him about that, because I’m not a musician and I figured he meant more than I would if I used that term, and he did—he spoke of blues music, which was obvious because some of Vievee’s poems invoke blues music, and of the structure of blues music, which he saw echoed or alluded to in some of the poems, which wasn’t as obvious. This morning I thought I’d read some of Vievee’s poems myself, which I’ve been meaning to do. I’ve never met her—we subletted to her because she’s a friend-of-a-friend—but she’d left us copies of her books. I looked at Blue-Tail Fly but I picked up her newest, Forest Primeval, a 2016 book that was just announced as a finalist for the PEN Open Book Award for a book-length work in any genre by a writer of color.
(“Oh, right, a PEN finalist,” you may be thinking, “just another writer who’s got it made.” Yes and no. Vievee’s a well-published poet, but she has to work hard to make a living. She was subletting our house in the Vermont woods, teaching at a college here, while her husband, also a poet, was down south somewhere, teaching at a college there, because those were the jobs they could find, both temporary jobs. They’ve been luckier than most poets that way, with the temporary jobs—so lucky they’ve moved something like three times in three years and where they’re going next I don’t know.)
Anyway, Alan, let’s keep our fingers crossed for Vievee. I know you wouldn’t want to “continue to ignore [her] work,” so here’s a good one, “All Kinds of Howlin,’” that I think maybe gets at what my friend Bill heard:
Wolf is just one There’s the wind
between houses Cold as a tongue
in a couldn’t care less mouth There’s
that belt or hand whistling through air to meet
a backside and The cry a woman makes
when she meets her Maker
Wolf is just one
way to get there To that pain that rocks
your bones Rocking away
Hope you like it, Alan. Gotta go now—I’d planned to spend some time this morning reading my friend Alexander Chee’s new novel The Queen of the Night. Well, “friend” may be too big a term, since I’ve never met Alexander. I only know him through the occasional twitter conversation. But he’s always been a mensch online, the kind of writer genuinely engaged by the work of others, and I know he worked on this book—the story of a French opera singer with a hidden past threatened by a new libretto written just for her—for something like ten years. So that’s why it’s coming before your masterwork.
I’ll tell you the truth, Alan, I did click on your link. I learned that you’ve written what you believe is “by far the most succinct, simple, and common-sense explanation” of Shakespeare’s sonnets “ever constructed.” Sounds impressive. But for me, this morning—and, really, every morning—friendship, even the virtual kind, comes before genius, self-declared.
I think that’s how most writers—my friends, at least—read. We’re not scholars, nor are we accountable to any “profession.” We don’t read what we “should” or even, necessarily, what’s “best.” We read by hope and hint and free association, because publishing isn’t a meritocracy, it’s a vast, often unjust and always clumsy empire of too many words, including our own. The writers I know survive through the friendship of fellow travelers; first, we read our friends.