The Thing In Itself?
A week of sleepless nights, best beloved. I’ve been struggling with Grand Central. The personal nature of the story, a possibly fictionalized version of real events in the author’s life, “put me through the changes,” as an old friend used to say, meaning that it challenged some core beliefs about reading and about writing.
When I read a story, I generally am not terribly interested in the author’s personal life or what kind of person they are or were. I’d rather approach stories in themselves, as projects crafted by possibly less than perfect beings whom I probably will never know.
Not that it doesn’t matter—I often read books because they’ve been written by the authors of other books I’ve enjoyed. I would quickly sit down with any new book by Colm Toibin for instance. However, the story itself holds the essential attraction.
To return to an old favorite example, I don’t know who wrote the Dick and Jane stories that readers of a certain age may recall. I’m sure I could find out, but as an impressionable lad reading those stories, I had no interest in who the “real” author was. I was only interested (more or less) in what she/he had written. (Bark, Spot, Bark! It's a miracle I ever learned to read). It’s probably true that our educational system introduces the idea of the importance of learning about the “real” authors of books, so that a high school reading of The Great Gatsby consists not only of a version of Fitzgerald’s life but also information about the 1920s in America. Sadly, the Dick and Jane authors are lost to oblivion. (Zerna Sharpe and William S. Gray—I looked it up).
I am tempted to undertake an enormous digression now about the history of literary criticism, focusing on the schism between those who privilege studying stories in context vs. those who insist on focusing on the text itself, isolated from all else. However, I’m loathe to expose myself to accusations of being a Pretentious Bully.
(Sounds of microphone rustling).
Let’s move on.
I tend to be uninterested in author’s and their lives, but deeply appreciate Dostoevsky’s writing and know something about who he was and how he worked. I know he suffered from epilepsy, and that madness (as he understood it to be) and the experience of alternate realities were central themes in his writing. He endured a mock execution and was reprieved at the last possible moment and sent instead to prison in Siberia. In his writing, the issue of capital punishment recurs again and again, and it’s interesting to know the reason.
Okay, must an author have had the personal experiences she/he writes about?
No. To believe such a thing ignores creativity and imagination. And it completely ignores what a reader brings to a reading.
How does all this relate to Grand Central? Could Elizabeth Smart have written such a searing book if she’d not experienced the things she did—specifically the traumatic love affair with George Barker?
We’ll never know, my friends, but I’m inclined to say yes, she could have. That’s what writers do; they imagine characters and situations and stories.
Perhaps, as is true with many things, it’s a mistake to make hard and fast rules about something so complex. “I do not want to know nothing about the author” is a limiting attitude. With some authors writing particular books, it deepens ones understanding to know something of their lives.
But to me, Grand Central presents a dilemma. The more you know about Elizabeth Smart’s life, the more you pity her, and the less enjoyable the book becomes, as it transforms into a painful confessional. I think it’s better to approach Grand Central as fiction, poetic fiction. In this particular book, knowing a version of the real author’s life spoils the fun—my fun, at least.
So, next week, let’s examine Grand Central as a work of fiction.