I Am Writing A Book For You

If I may digress momentarily from the mainstream of this RSS Feed's symposium--

[which is to say, this note is free of jokes--and I know what you're thinking: "How is that different from your other notes?"

Har. Har. Har.]

Michael Cunningham, author of a terrific book turned into an even more terrific movie called The Hours, has written a very uneven but thought-provoking op-ed piece for the Times of New York newspaper. The piece is about translation, and, as befits the author's Page One idea about the impossibility of pinning down a singular meaning to any individual word that an author uses, the article ends up being not about translation, but "about" "translation" -- that is, most obviously, "concerning the translation of a work from one language to another," but also "concerning the translation of a work from the author's mind to the page," and, finally, most fittingly, given how deliciously scatter-brained Cunningham's work is, "in or around or in the vicinity of the topic of 'translation" in all of its meanings."

Ignoring the section of the piece that actually concerns book translation as we know it (yes, yes, Melville uses very nice vowels), I now invite you the reader to turn to Page 2, in which Cunningham discovers what he believes to be the proper meaning of the word "audience." As a young writer living in Laguna Beach (apparently an actual place and not just a giant, Truman Show-esque MTV-owned soundstage-dome), he befriends a voracious-reader-cum-working-class waitress named Helen, to whom he recommends Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Helen enjoys the book, deeming Dostoyevsky better than Ken Follett but not as good as Scott Turow. Cue Ivory Tower scoffing.

BUT WAIT. Michael Cunningham, Ivory Tower member, Pulitzer Prize winner, great American author--what did you learn from this encounter?:

Although I didn’t necessarily agree with her about Dostoyevsky versus Turow, I did like, very much, that Helen had no school-inspired sense of what she was supposed to enjoy more, and what less. She simply needed what any good reader needs: absorption, emotion, momentum and the sense of being transported from the world in which she lived and transplanted into another one.

I began to think of myself as trying to write a book that would matter to Helen. And, I have to tell you, it changed my writing. I’d seen, rather suddenly, that writing is not only an exercise in self-expression, it is also, more important, a gift we as writers are trying to give to readers. Writing a book for Helen, or for someone like Helen, is a manageable goal.
Michael Cunningham seems like a forgiving man, so I am sure that he will forgive me for the rather liberal misread; but scanning this at 4 in the morning yesterday, I began to wonder if there was anyone in my life for whom I could tailor a book, for whom each chapter, each sentence, each word (each joke, each character, each scenario, each outcome) would please and enthrall. I don't mean an archetypal Helen--I mean, a living, breathing girl named Helen (of whom I know one--hello, Ms. Pajcic). 

My thoughts immediately turned to my foremost FBook muse, my Spanish Helen, Elena Sheppard, for whom I I penned five lengthy, lengthy, just really long Facebook notes, including a parody of Marlowe's Helen monologue in Doctor Faustus. Though I believe I know Elena well (and though she knows me even better than I'm sure she would like to), I do not believe that I could write a book for her. What would it be about? Would she be a character? The heroine? A modern feminist hero?

And then my thoughts turned to the inspiration of my next blog post, the ever-forgiving B.o.B. nee Betsy Goodman; and I knew, for certain, that I could not write her a book, as we are not even true friends yet (though I assure you all that I am working day and night to ensure that this lofty goal becomes a reality). I could not make novelty does not last 200 pages (although, I suppose, in the case of a novel, "novel"ty lasts the length of the novel. I'll be here all week).

And then my thoughts turned to the inspiration for my final blog post, and that final inspiration was one Dr. Susan P. Gilbert (who I, as her son, simply call "Doctor"). And even with all that I know about my mother -- the authors she prefers (Jonathan Lethem, Jodi Piccoult, anyone writing about Brooklyn), her literary bugaboos (winding sentence structure, formal experimentalism, the Buendia family), and her, in general--likes, dislikes, history, aspirations, etc.--I do not think that I could satisfactorily write her book, even though I know that she would be satisfied with simply a finished book, as its completion would mean that I would quit this stupid stuff and go into finance (just kidding--my mom would never make me go into finance; advertising, on the other hand...). 

There is a reason, I think, that 9 out of 10 of Cunningham's students answered that the audience they wrote for was themselves, and, coincidentally, the reason comes back to Dostoyevsky. At Princeton I took several courses on Russian Literature, one of them specifically on 'The Great Russian Novel.' The lecturer in that was class very much convinced of the merits of biographical criticism, and her analyses of each novel would always begin with a lengthy recitation of the author's background and personal history, and each actual literary analysis would circle back to several key points about the author that she wished to connect to the text. 

The lecturer's motto or thesis concerning The Brothers Karamazov was that Dostoyevsky was a man with deep inner demons and that, for him, all writing was a way to deal with his inner strife, an effort to externalize his extreme self-doubt and worry. Dostoyevsky, in short, was not writing for Helen the waitress. He was writing for himself. And he's fucking Fyodor Dostoyevsky, let's remember.

Now, Lord knows if my lecturer was correct about that. It's always dangerous--wait, did I say dangerous? Because I meant stupid--to guess author's intent. Even old John Milton knew that, which is the reason why he wrote "Paradise Lost." I write "for" an audience--that is, I make what I write available and I tend to write, content-wise, what I believe to be palatable. But at the heart of my writing, at the heart of the content, the style, the tone, the message, the it, is my desire to communicate something that will make myself feel better in some way. Occasionally that means writing something that will please someone else. We're getting general here, which as Strunk and White will tell you, is boring to read. 

Maybe I have confused inspiration with content. Maybe I have conflated reason with target. Maybe I have concocted one too many cocktails this Monday evening.

But let me end with a whimper--I write for myself. I hope you enjoy my writing. I enjoy it when other people enjoy my writing. I don't enjoy it when other people don't enjoy my writing. We're getting general again. So I will end by saying this: "Call me Helen." I hope I can call you Helen, too. 


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