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"The Reader in Mind Is Me"
Thinking on Cormac McCarthy, Elizabeth Gilbert and authorial relationships with audiences.
There were two big stories in the world of books this week. I’m curious what happens if we smash them together, what insights might fall out.
The biggest story is the passing of Cormac McCarthy at the age of 89. Of the writers of his generation, I would put him behind only Toni Morrison in terms of accomplishment and impact. There’s a number of similarities between the two, both steeped in Faulkner, both significantly influenced by Catholicism.
Also, in some ways, both McCarthy and Morrison were late bloomers. Morrison published her first novel (The Bluest Eye) at 39, having previously established herself as a highly perceptive editor at Random House. McCarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper, came at age 32, but it wasn’t until Suttree in 1979 at age 46 that he became more broadly recognized in literary circles. That book paved the way to a MacArthur Foundation Grant in 1981 that lifted him out of what seems to be an intentional, or perhaps indifferent poverty, a life focused entirely on his writing. He reportedly lived in a dairy barn with his second wife Anne DeLisle for eight years during the sixties and early seventies.
McCarthy wasn’t read widely beyond the growing, but still cult-level group of devotees until 1992’s All the Pretty Horses, which won a National Book Award, and he wasn’t a best seller until The Road in 2007, probably his best known book.
He wrote all of his novels on Olivetti typewriters, the first of which he bought for $50 in a pawnshop, and used for 46 years until it was auctioned at Christie’s for $254,500, over 10 times the estimated value of $20,000.
It doesn’t really make sense to me to try to parse which was McCarthy’s “best” novel, given that he published books for over 50 years and had some fairly distinct eras. I will say that my favorite Cormac McCarthy novel of the eight I’ve read, by which I mean the book which provided the most indelible reading experience, is Blood Meridian, a sort-of western, which serves as a bridge between his early period where he seemed to be consciously (perhaps too consciously) channeling Faulkner and a middle period that saw him relax into a style more like his own.
It’s somewhat facile to say that McCarthy’s overriding subject was “evil,” but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The character of “the judge” in Blood Meridian is a physical grotesque, massively tall, pale and bald, and a connoisseur of violence, a brutal man, but not a brute - in fact, he is the opposite, knowledgeable and even cultured in a way - who we are led to believe simply sees the world as it is: violent, bloody, hopeless and fascinating.
The post-apocalyptic landscape of The Road is exactly the world as described by the judge in Blood Meridian, though in something of a shift, McCarthy populates that world with some measure of hope in the form of a father and son on a quest to wind up somewhere better, the “good guys” keeping some light in the world. I read the novel as ambiguously hopeful in the end. The novel is dedicated to McCarthy’s son, which doesn’t seem coincidental.
All the criticisms of McCarthy, the violence, the hyper-masculine nature of his stories, the narrowness of his white-male gaze are all fair and true, but in all due respect to those who extend those criticisms, so what? We don’t ask of art whether or not it is appropriate to moral formation or presents a positive view of the world or is comprehensive of all experiences. We ask if what it has to say is, at some level, “true.”
This does not mean that everyone is required to like or even respect the work of Cormac McCarthy, far from it, but deal with the work as it is, not by holding it up to some measurement that makes no sense. I have seen some genuinely weird takes about how McCarthy should’ve grabbed whatever dough was available to him at the time it was available, or that the self-chosen poverty was a form of abuse towards his partners, stances which deny both McCarthy and his partners the agency with which we should all have to live our lives freely. They suggest that he must’ve been an unhappy person, but how unhappy can someone who spends his life doing exactly what he wished to be doing be?
I mean, I would’ve taken the money. I never would’ve lived in a barn. I wouldn’t hammer out my stuff on a manual typewriter as long as there’s available alternatives, but whatever someone else needs to pursue the life of dignity they desire for themselves is cool with me.
Similarly, I don’t have a lot of time for people who confuse McCarthy’s passing, which I think can rightly be seen as the closing of an era, with the absolute death of the “last great writer.” We’re still capable of minting great writers. No shortage of those, with more on the way all the time.
But the route McCarthy took, two decades of writing before publishing a book that sold more than 5000 copies, refusing to engage with the public and forge a parasocial relationship with not just readers but “fans,” but still being continually supported by a major publisher anyway, is, for the most part, closed off forevermore.
I make no judgement if this is bad or good. It simply is.
There’s a temptation to establish a mythos around figures like Cormac McCarthy: This! This is what writers are like! But McCarthy does not appear to be someone who believed in such things. On the relatively rare occasions when he was interviewed, such as this one from questions posed by a couple of high school AP Literature students he was not prone to oracular pronouncements about life and literature, or even the meaning of his own work.
Speaking as someone who spent some time trying to figure out how writers are, what they do, how they behave in the world, McCarthy is a good reminder that the only requirement of writers is to write.
The other big story that crossed my radar this week was Elizabeth Gilbert’s decision to indefinitely postpone the publication of her novel, The Snow Forest, about a family living in Siberia and resisting the Soviet regime, following the appearance of over 500 negative reviews of the book on Goodreads, apparently coming from Ukrainians or supporters of Ukraine who objected to the novel’s setting.
The vast majority of the responses to the decision were negative with some suggesting that Gilbert’s choice is an affront to the First Amendment, but I’m not sure what’s more First Amendment-y than an author making her own choice about what to do with her words. I will say that it’s not the choice I would’ve made because a bunch of negative reviews about a book no one has read on a website that is entirely unmoderated is not something I would want to lend much credence to provided I was confident in the book itself. All available information suggests that the book is critical of the Soviet Union, so the critique that, in the words of some of the negative “reviews” that Gilbert is “romanticizing” Russia seems dubious.
But what’s interesting to me is the nature of Gilbert’s apparent relationship with her readers. In the video announcement of the decision, she addresses them as “dear ones” and straightforwardly apologizes for considering the release of this book at this time. The presentation assumes a kind of relationship between author and audience that goes well beyond author and audience.
My first reaction was that we were in the realm of the parasocial, the invention or a relationship with a celebrity who doesn’t know you exist. My most parasocial relationships are with my favorite Peloton instructors who are clearly encouraged to stoke this feeling in platform participants as a way to keep us invested and involved.
Another example is Taylor Swift’s recent relationship with some other recording artist with bad politics and questionable hygiene, something her fans could apparently not countenance, and perhaps drove her to break up with the dude.
But Gilbert’s response is not so much parasocial as actually social, as in she is attempting to be considerate of the specific sensibilities of some portion of her audience based in a response that has nothing to do with the actual work.
I suppose it’s not too surprising that Gilbert has this kind of relationship with her audience given her biggest success is Eat Pray Love, a book that was not written as self-help, but ultimately became that. Another of her books, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear is explicitly self-help of the road to self-empowerment variety. It strikes me that once you allow yourself to become oracular when it comes to how others should be living their lives, this sort of risk attaches to the things you do.
Your choices have the potential to be disappointing to others.
This doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily best to ignore one’s audience entirely. I’m aware that this would be weird coming from someone who writes a newsletter for a specific audience of just under 4000 subscribers every week, and who actively solicits, engages in, and enjoys conversations with some of those folks. I quite often spend time explicitly wondering what you people might be interested in hearing about on a weekly basis.
This seems healthy to me, a check on my interests against the world. For better or worse, I write to communicate, to be heard, and if that’s the case, you have to spend some time listening to others.
But…in the end, something McCarthy told those high school students resonates very strongly with me. He tells them, “I’m not writing for a particular audience. The reader in mind is me. If someone else would write these books, I could go play golf.”
Elizabeth Gilbert’s choice to postpone her book suggests that she does not feel free to operate under this principle. I don’t think that’s necessarily a dangerous precedent when it comes to free expression, but it does make me kind of sad.
If you’re looking for more Cormac McCarthy material, I recommend this appreciation by Aaron Gwyn, this piece fromat his newsletter on McCarthy’s “loquacious precision” , a whole host of pieces about McCarthy written at various times by various people at Commonweal, and this all-time great parody of McCarthy’s style by Justin Tapp, at McSweeney’s, “Chili’s Menu, By Cormac McCarthy.”
In my Chicago Tribune column this week I lay down a marker that ChatGPT will not surpass the human capacity to make art, as some supposedly smart people have claimed.
Another notable passing this week in the world of books was Robert Gottlieb, who edited books by Toni Morrison, Joseph Heller, John LeCare, and numerous other luminaries, and did a five year stint as editor of the New Yorker. The Times obituary gives the full capsule of Gottlieb’s life. If you’re looking for a fuller telling, Gottlieb’s memoir of a life in books, Avid Reader is Biblioracle approved.
This constructed conversation between Gottlieb and many of the writers he edited published at the Paris Review is a fascinating look at the writers/editor working relationships.
See if you agree with a college professor on the five best books of the 19th century.
All books linked here go to The Biblioracle Recommends bookstore at Bookshop.org. Affiliate proceeds, plus a personal matching donation of my own, go to Chicago’s Open Books and the Teacher Salary Project which is advocating to establish a federal minimum salary for teachers of $60,000 per year. Affiliate income is $129.00 for the year.
1. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
2. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
3. Billy Budd by Herman Melville
4. Rabbit, Run by John Updike
5. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Ted P. - Boise, ID
As I was working on this newsletter, I noticed that we’re close to a subscriber milestone.
There’s many much bigger Substacks on this platform, but I honestly find this a stunning number, and I’m thankful for every single one of you.
No specific question from me today. Tell me anything you’d like about anything at all in the comments.
Happy Father’s Day to all who celebrate.