Into my awareness a few weeks ago came this strange, unbidden thought: My reading is private. I don’t really want to talk with you about the books I love. I just want to love them in my own way. I mean, I like you and you’re interesting to me, but the reading I do is mine, all mine, and I don’t even all that much want to share it.
Is that bad of me?
The truth is full of paradox, of course. Because in practically the same breath I’m going to say: I’ve decided to start writing about books.
People expect you to want to talk about the books you’re reading. Why is that? Is it because books are supposed to be important? Is it because of a presumed duty, as a citizen, to sharpen your perceptions, to make sure you’re not misguided, or to share your insights with others for their enlightenment? That takes the fun out of it. Reading novels and poetry and short stories is one of the few pleasures left in which I do not incur an obligation. All I have to do is read. What a glorious pleasure! Why mess that up with a duty to discuss, analyze, explain a viewpoint and defend it? Aagh!
And yet. And yet I am interested in my own thoughts about why books do what they do, and how. And writing is a nice way to explore one’s own thoughts.
But here’s the real impetus behind my decision to start “reviewing” books. I want to be a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
It has to do with my longing to belong. I may not want to talk to you, but I want to belong to your club. So I was sitting in Java Beach writing my weekly Wednesday advice column this morning when, because I got on the mailing list for the NBCC at the AWP Conference (I can see the more I get involved, the more the acronyms are going to pile up), an email came from the National Book Critics Circle and I read it and suddenly I wanted to know who all these writers were that I had never heard of. I mean, I’ve heard of the ones that it’s obvious I’ve heard of and you’ve heard of them too, but the other ones I haven’t heard of and it made me curious and even a little excited. Of course, I’m used to massive disappointment, too, so it’s a guarded interest.
I’ve been on a kick lately, see, to find books I really like, and writers I can meet and talk to. Mostly it started when I read a San Francisco Magazine piece on Litquake and it was so disgustingly clubby and mutually congratulatory. This bothered me. But rather than simply make a face and take an attitude like a high schooler, I decided to embark on a project. I decided to be an adult and read all the novels by San Francisco Bay Area writers that I could stand, and be really, really honest about my own reactions, and see if I could find some that I really, really liked.
So far I’ve only found two novels. Well, three actually. To be honest. I read some interesting things but I only found three novels, lately, from the Bay Area, that I really could say I loved. Oh, and I found one short story collection that I really liked. Then I went up to the author of that short story collection after a reading and told him one story made me think of John Cheever and he said kind of dismissively—but also maybe self-protectively, as it’s a drag to hear the same old dumb first impression, when your work is much deeper and more complex than that—that he’d heard that before.
I’m still looking for more. I’m checking books out of the library all the time, whenever I hear of something I might like. I don’t like much. And I’m only going to write about novels and short story collections that I like. I mean really like. Like when I was a kid, when I read just because I liked it. I might mention books of poetry too but I don’t know if I can really write about poetry.
I guess writing only about books I like would make me not an official critic. That’s fine with me. I don’t want to be a critic. I’m not out to enforce my standards or influence the world’s taste and judgment. I just want to join the NBCC and get their magazine discounts.
I’m not really all that interested in having a dialog with you, either, about the books that I like. I say what I say and you read it in private and that’s that. That’s how it used to be. Your enthusiasms are probably different from mine, anyway. Mine are strange but also at times very quotidian. I don’t know if you’ll enjoy what I have to say about the books I like. I’m not doing it for that. I’m doing it so I can have three reviewer’s clips and then maybe they’ll let me into the National Book Critics Circle as a charter member sort of. And then I can get those magazine discounts.
Like I say, to tell the truth, I’m just one of those people who just wants to belong. I want to be in the club. You can be in the club with me. I’d like that. I just don’t want to have to explain and agree and disagree and all that. It’s like, the cool thing is, I’m not getting paid for this, so I can do it however I want! Isn’t that great! No more pretending!
Oh, and also I figure it’ll show book editors and agents that I know a little bit about how novels achieve their effects. Since I’m writing one myself, I ought to know. I think I kind of do. I think I kind of know how to do it, I think. So I’ll enjoy talking about that.
Soon I’ll do my first one. I hope it’s not too hard, like a test, or an assignment in school. I don’t think it will be. I’m not trying to prove how smart I am or anything. I already know where I stand with that whole business.