On Shining a Light
I’ve been thinking lately about the maxim that we should write the book we want to read. I’ve always found that very helpful to keep in mind when I’m embarking on a piece of work, or when I’m stuck. But in the last few years, a wrinkle has developed for me. What if the kind of book I want to read –– the kind I really want to read –– is changing? What then?
Samuel Johnson offers this: “A book should either allow the reader to escape existence or teach him how to endure it.”
Earlier in my life as a reader, I enjoyed a good escape. Sure, I was mostly interested in a literary escape, which is to say that it was important to me that the work be beautifully made, the sentences crafted, the characters and circumstances rendered in a way that allowed me to suspend my disbelief. I also wanted to recognize my own internal life on the page –– you know, that sense of identification that so many of us feel when we start reading as children. That sense of being a little less solitary in our strange, prickly, unique inner lives. I liked a good story, and that feeling of sinking deep into a world so intricate and well-developed that, for a time, it allowed me to leave the world around me. I tried to write books like that. In a couple of cases, I think I succeeded at least a little bit.
But now I find myself gravitating again and again to books that do something else for me. Books that don’t nudge me toward escape, but rather, embed me more deeply in my own consciousness by allowing me to inhabit the consciousness of another. I find that these books are often hybrids. They call themselves novels or memoirs –– but really, they inhabit a gray area, the rogue territory of genre-less-ness (a word I’ve just made up) in which questions of fiction and memoir don’t apply so much as whether we are injected, infected, with the consciousness of the writer.
Recently, I re-read Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, a novel that succeeds at this brilliantly. Renata Adler pulls this off in her novels Speedboat and Pitch Dark. As does, in ways I haven’t yet been able to sort through, Jess Walter in Beautiful Ruins, which is a novel, certainly, but maintains at its core the consciousness of the writer –– in the case of Walter, one who is able to move the reader in and out of time and place and form with a surety, an acrobatic ease. And Ruth Ozeki’s new novel, A Tale for the Time Being, also lives in this gray area in ways I found thrilling. (Side note: I was so pleased to see it long-listed for the Booker Prize.)
As I cast about in the netherworld of pre-publication, reading, thinking, trying to be patient, to live in the in-between, waiting for my next book to announce itself to me, I am noticing the kinds of books that have been exciting me, these past few years. Books that are puzzles of consciousness. Books that leave room for the reader to enter. Books with white space –– calling to mind a park bench where the reader can rest for a while inside the pages themselves. I’m not focused on whether these books are fiction or non-fiction, but instead, ask of them that they shine a light. That they open a door. That they blow my mind. That they help me endure.