“The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.” – Maya Angelou
I have been in a bit of a reading slump. Do you ever find that the more you read, the more it takes to really grab you? You find there are ideas or ways to express ideas that you have seen many times before. And it gets harder and harder to find those books that are really trying to say something to you besides, “Hey, look at me.”
Of course all art is graffiti on the wall. But some graffiti says, “This is what it’s like to be me, know what I mean?” And some is just tagging.
I read a manuscript once that was well-written in that clever, faux-Lorrie Moore way that is so enamoured of critics these days, with a cast of quirky, damaged characters with shocking secrets in their pasts. It wasn’t terrible, and I could easily picture it in hardcover on the shelf at the local bookstore. But it wasn’t authentic. I hadn’t noticed at first because I’d never expected to be lied to. Writing a novel is hard. Why would you go to all the trouble to do something so difficult, with such a shaky promise of success if you don’t actually have anything to say?
Maya Angelou died this week. I have never read a book by Maya Angelou. And you know what held me back? Taste. I interpreted her popularity as a sign that she couldn’t be very good. There were many times I heard the wisdom of her words in quotes and interviews, and they spoke to my feelings very directly. But for some reason I ignored that and continued reading “smarter” books. I’m not proud to admit it, and it’s something I’ll be correcting when the flurry of holds at the library dies down.
Literary taste is a club. Clubs are made to beat people over the head with. A lot of people really, really want to fit in. So they write books they think other people will like—that manuscript I read for example.
Other writers are doughty travelers. They’re ambassadors from the country of What-It’s-Like-To-Be-A-Freak, and they come to your country to meet you and shake hands. Their story might be weird or extreme, or as familiar to you as your oldest memory. The telling could be simple or fancy, traditional or novel, clever, dumb, sappy or cynical, funny, morose or lyrical. But it’s from the heart.
I just want authors to be honest. There’s an idealistic part of me that wants literature to be pure and true—and I don’t exclude commercial fiction here. If you really want to say something to me, I’ll forgive imperfections of writing or plot. But if you just employ the conventions of writing with the hopes of exploiting my feelings as a route to personal fame and fortune, I’m just going to be pissed off.
A good book bears witness to life on earth. It’s an offering, to the universe, and more intimately, the reader. It’s saying, this is what it’s like to be me. You feel me?