This morning I was waiting for a bus in the University Street Metro station when I saw Jon Evison, best-selling author of West of Here and All About Lulu, walking along on the opposite side of the station, pulling a suitcase and garment bag behind him. Jon’s on his way to the Virginia Book Festival. He spends a lot of time on the road, giving readings and meeting readers and encouraging up-and-coming writers from coast-to-coast. I could’ve yelled Hey, Evison! across the big gap between us and even though he and I have only met twice in the last three years, Jon would’ve remembered not only where and when he’d seen me last, but also what my name was and that I was a writer. Jon Evison has that sort of memory, and he’s that sort of people-loving guy. So while I’m sure he misses his family when he’s on the road, he’s also made friends all over America and he really loves meeting new people and he loves doing readings. Still, I had the disturbing thought later this morning that Jon Evison, best-selling author, is now sort of a traveling salesman, and I think of him standing alone with his suitcase and garment bag on the Metro platform, off to SeaTac and nine or ten hours of traveling to get him to his hotel in Virginia. It did not strike me as a good thing. But it’s the artist life, isn’t it? Mozart toured Europe, conducting his symphonies and giving recitals and dedicating new works to various crowned heads, hoping that someone would give him a decent regular gig. A self-employed artist must constantly hustle his wares, it seems. Not much new there.
Yesterday, in the comments of a blog dedicated more-or-less to reading 19th-century literature, someone mentioned that her husband only reads “classics,” working through a list provided by Clifton Fadiman (I assume it's Fadiman's "Lifetime Reading Plan"). She went on to ask, partly in jest, why we should read anything being written now? Most of it’s probably crap; let time sort out which will become classics, and let readers of the future enjoy them. We have more “classics” available right now than anyone will have time to read in a lifetime.
This gave me pause. I’m one of those people writing novels now, and I have no way of knowing if my novels aren’t part of the “most of it’s crap” pile. I think it would be nice if tens of thousands of people bought my books, but I can’t honestly say that my books are worth the time to read. None of us can honestly say that about our own books. No, we can’t, no matter what you might think. No, we really can’t say. So I have no real idea of the “worth” of my books. I agree with you that terms such as “worth” and “classic” are poorly understood and indefinable, but let’s pretend they do mean something and move on.
So, I can’t claim that my books are worth reading. I also can’t claim that most of the books I read are books written by living authors. I’m one of those people who read capital-L “Literature” (another very slippery term) and most of my bookshelves are full of books by people who are long dead, some having gone to their graves thousands of years ago. It’s a constant struggle for me to find living authors whose books I want to read, so I’ve got Bulfinch and Walter Scott and Nabokov and Chekhov and O’Connor and Faulkner on my “to be read” list right now. I can depend on those people not to waste my time. All of this might make me think that I have no justification behind asking living readers to give my books a try. And yet I will. This line of thought confuses me. Why am I writing when, maybe, all the good books have already been written? When’s the last time a really great book came out? No, I can’t tell you what I mean by “great,” either.
This is all pretty grim stuff for a Friday morning, and I apologize. Very likely it’s just that I’m in the vasty emptiness of the middle of a new novel and being there always makes me question the value of my own writing. Why this book? I ask myself. What’s the point? Who’s going to want to read this, for gosh sakes? It’s just a phase. I’m in a chapter that’s hard to write, introducing a new character and a significant plot point and I worry that I’m going to screw it up so I put off working on the book and pretend I’m doing research or that I’m too busy to finish the chapter. So I should just finish the damned chapter and move on with my life. So, yay me. Problem solved. So glad we had this chat. Happy Friday.