Somehow I’d never heard of Sylvia Townsend Warner until the New Yorker posted its fiction podcast this week, which is Colm Toìbìn reading one of Warner’s stories. In my life, the consequence of discovering a forgotten writer like Warner is an immediate Google-spiral. Who was this person? Why is she forgotten? What’s available for free online that I could read? Can I justify an e-book purchase right this second even though I have forty other books to read and access to a good library? (Because I am the kind of woman who despairs not of finding an outfit in her overstuffed closet but rather of finding the right book to read at 3 am., the ability to impulse-buy ebooks has proven a sad development for my pocketbook.)
Naturally, I’ve now acquired all the novels of hers that my favourite publishing house, the New York Review Books, have recently reprinted.
I’ve been thinking about what draws me to this type of thing. I guess you could say I like an aura of mystery but really what I think I like is the idea of reclaiming these writers from dusty shelves. As the amazing British novelist Sarah Waters (who never gets enough love on American lit-sites) wrote recently, Warner’s obscurity “baffles, frustrates and, I think, secretly pleases her admirers, for she’s the kind of novelist who inspires an intense sense of ownership in her fans.” I suspect all kinds of novelists — good ones, anyway — share this quality. But on the secret pleasure thing Waters is right on. Pursuing all these long-dead, forgotten people down their bibliographies feels like picking a lock, like I’m a child, enjoying being somewhere she isn’t supposed to be. I’m supposed to stay in the living room where everyone can see me, dutifully reading DeLillo because That’s What’s Good.
Every once in awhile someone Big and Important and Literary — I’m not even going to bother with names, I don’t want to remember them — comes along and says: you know, the thing about reading literary fiction by women is that I can never find any. I can’t remember the last book I read by a woman, they say. You know, things like that. Obviously these are ridiculous statements, but I admit that a long time ago, somewhere around the end of my undergrad, I felt that way too. I thought: let’s try to read more books by women, Michelle. That’s really enough Fitzgerald and Yeats and Ondaatje for you. Live a little.
The result has been about ten years in which I have predominantly read literary fiction by and about women. It stopped being a conscious thing a long time ago, partially because having an explicit commitment to read only any kind of book felt a little dirty, after a while. But taste is a funny thing, and one book led to another, and suddenly I would realize that with the exception of an occasional Ian MacEwan or Sherman Alexie or Colson Whitehead, I read very little by men. And very little, just for the record, that did not qualify for the ascribed status of Greatness, though rarely had it been given that name by the Literary World.
Lately, and for the first time in my life, many of the people I discuss books with are young American men. One of the things I consistently notice is that our touchstones are different. I have read some DeLillo and some Updike and some Mailer, but in general I’ve lacked the time to dig deeply. In any event what I read didn’t lure me down into the mineshaft. These men can certainly name a woman witter or two or maybe three. They insist they read widely. But once I mentioned Dorothy Parker to one of these men, one who I consider a friend, and he’d never heard of her.
I am not always graceful in my handling of myself in these conversations. Before now, I guess, I’d been hanging around with too many feminists, because occasionally my blasé attitudes about (and excessively fondness of poking fun at the cults of) these writers causes a disproportionate amount of indignation. Don’t I understand that this is some of the Best Writing Of Our Time? Why won’t I supplicate? Rending of garments ensues. And I become belligerent about defending my own turf.
I have learned, through a drawn-out process of trial and error, that it is not the right strategy to ask my interlocutor what it is that he values about this writing. In most cases people can’t articulate their own tastes, and being a good, thoughtful critic is hard. I’d have trouble telling you what I like about a lot of what I read beyond that I inevitably gravitate towards novels about post-World-War-II London. And it’s just read as a further challenge to their status as readers, and being the challenger gets exhausting for me. There’s laundry to be done and cats to be fed and I don’t have all day, every day, to explain that my taste is different than yours, and the fact that yours matches up to whatever’s on the cover of Time or n+1 this month doesn’t render mine invalid.
The argumentative young man reading is thinking: well, great then. Why can’t you have your tastes, and I’ll have mine, and we can all hold hands and be happy under the great Temple of Books? Few are ever willing to actually accept an answer to this question. But I’ll say it anyway: we do not live in a world where all tastes are wielded with equal force. That is why perfectly good novelists like Warner get lost in the stream, don’t appear on the syllabi in the classes taught on all that is good and holy and important in writing. Because they are not writing for the gatekeepers they get to linger outside. Often a lot of us are okay at being out here. It’s just, it would be nice if the guards changed more often.
Photo by katybird, on a Creative Commons License.