Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Year of [Insert Author Name Here]: On Re-Discovery

Because I had a gift card and because it had been a while since I just bought a book off the shelves, I bought Speedboat by Renata Adler and I Await the Devil's Coming by Mary MacLane. The book world was talking about both of these books and I was intrigued. They're both awesome in ways I'll describe later, but they got me thinking about the phenomenon of author re-discovery, of an author, living or dead, who lapsed out of literary consciousness suddenly reappearing. Last year this happened to Clarice Lispector. This year, Adler, MacLane, and also James Salter, are early contenders for the re-discovered author of the year title.

This process of re-discovery highlights some interesting characteristics both about literature itself and how readers interact with literature.

Re-discovery might actually provide more insight into the taste of the times than what is currently popular, because it demonstrates a direct contrast between what is valued now and what was valued when the book was forgotten. What do we look for in literature that we did not in the 80s when Speedboat disappeared? What has changed in society that allows us to appreciate a writer like Mary MacLane now? How do books come to popular consciousness?

It's not hard to see why Mary MacLane was forgotten. She was 19 when she wrote I Await the Devil's Coming, which was published in 1902. She proclaims herself a genius, rejects the idea of marriage, approaches the landscape with a passion that might have made Thoreau blush, was unabashedly in love with a woman, and, well, awaited the devil's coming. Though the style can be a bit exuberant (she was 19 after all) there is some fantastic writing, and though we only get the surface of her philosophy in this book, she clearly demonstrates a vibrant and brilliant intellect. A young woman equal parts Nietzsche, Emma Goldman, Oscar Wilde, and Dickinson/Whitman, can gain fame as an oddity, but could not, ultimately, be taken seriously in a patriarchal culture. Why if these were real ideas, then maybe women had real brains and might deserve power. Then...Madness!

It isn't always that clear. It's a strange phrase “before its time,” because the phrase suggests there is something stable and definable about “the times,” something expressible beyond a tautological, if it was written and appreciated then it was “of the times.” Though this is going to sound dismissive, Speedboat reads like the Facebook feed of your most intelligent and interesting friend. The story doesn't move, it accumulates through anecdotes and observations, some of them funny, some of them troubling, all of them strangely brilliant. The narrator is a journalist and all the stories have a kind of journalistic distance, even when she is telling a personal story, like for example, when she got really drunk in Venice with her lover, while they were staying in a shabby apartment with a shared bathroom and she got ended up getting sick and so all the old Italian ladies thought she was pregnant. Oh, and then he told her he had sex with her while she was passed out. Twice. “So I was in despair because six fat women of Venice I would never see again thought I was pregnant by a man who did not want to marry me, and he was in despair because the thought he was a necrophiliac. Both despairs were genuine. It may be that we were retarded. We were younger. We were other people, anyway, in another world.” Whether it's tedious social parties, mysterious upstairs neighbors, writing articles for the newspaper, or the unquestionable yet unavoidable agony of singing Happy Birthday, Adler sees things the rest of us have missed and points out the gaps in our vision with a stunning and wry matter-of-factness. Not a page is turned without me wanting to reach for a highlighter.

Of course, re-discovery isn't just a contemporary phenomenon. Though the way our media can make a phenomenon out of anything, technology and society have forced books in and out of public awareness as long as there has been books. One could argue part of the Renaissance, was the re-discovery of Greek books. Perhaps the most famous, most important re-discovery, at least for American literature, was Moby-Dick, which was published, vanished for a few decades and then was re-discovered as the monumental novel we all love and appreciate today.

Or perhaps it's the same issue of critical mass all books face. There is just a number of readers every book must reach, a number that shrinks and grows depending on the influence of said readers, before it gains general attention. And pretty much everything can contribute or detract from a book's critical mass. Sure there's the political climate, but there's also what other books are being released at the same time, what time of year it comes out, its cover, how the New Times Book Review editor is feeling the day he or she considers the book for review and who they decided to send it to, or maybe Oprah just didn't feel it, you know, how you can appreciate a book, but just not really feel it, or maybe—there's just enough chaos in how books rise to and recede from public awareness to ensure a level of mystery in the popularity (really, vapid Mormon constrained teenage vampires? Really?) or obscurity (It is a crime against the written word that Victor Lavalle and Ron Currie Jr., are not literary rock stars.) of books.

Re-discovery points to one of the fundamental joys and frustrations of loving books. You will never have enough time to read all the great ones. Never. No matter how much of your life you get to spend as a reclusive millionaire where your days are filled only with reading and the other necessary life activities you can accomplish whilst (and at the same time) reading. One of the piles of books in a reader's life is the one of books that just didn't make the cut the last time one reached for a book, and then didn't make the cut, and then didn't make the cut, and then didn't make the cut... We can appreciate the potential quality of the book from the copy, or the author's previous work, or a review from a friend or professional, just never gets in front of our eyes. And then thirty years later, or fifty years later, or a century or more later, the same mysterious forces that lead you to put the book aside, lead others to pick it up, and those others look back on us, shocked at how we could miss such obvious brilliance in our midst.

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