Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Usually we forget most of the books we read, the individual sentences that slowly and steadily build the story itself, but every so often certain lines stick out and stand out, and I've always remembered the line from The Catcher In The Rye, the one where the teenage narrator, Holden Caulfield, states how after reading a good book he wants to call up the author and have a conversation.

I always felt that way, especially as an adolescent. I'd read a book, especially one by Stephen King or John Irving, and I'd want to spend a couple of hours shooting the shit with them, asking them how they did what they did, why this character made that choice, or even simply to let them know how much their words meant to my life. (Writers were then -- and are now, I guess --my equivalent of rock stars, so when I actually did get to meet John Irving a couple of times in Toronto in the mid-nineties, my questions were usually as deep as: "So, um, I hear Owen Meany is going to be a movie?" I then knew exactly how Chris Farley in The Chris Farley Show felt in those old SNL sketches, where he would be absolutely tongue-tied while having to interview people like Martin Scorsese and Paul McCartney. "So you were in the The Beatles? They were awesome...")

Of course, back then, before email, the big writers were never listed in any phone book, their numbers not given out by 411, and the odds of getting a written letter back from them were pretty much non-existent. And who had the patience to wait? (Although my friend and I in our university days once wrote Stephen King's office in Maine kindly requesting free permission for the rights of his novel The Long Walk, and his secretary actually wrote back a month or so later, politely saying to two Canadian knuckleheads: "Um, no." I wish I still had that letter. Despite the blunt rejection, it was like a gift from the gods at the time.)

What's interesting now, though, in this brave new world of the internet, is that you actually can talk to writers, if only via blogs. (But not exclusively: Canadian Science-Fiction writer Robert J.Sawyer, on his blog www.sfwriter.com, actually allows you to email him -- and he sometimes emails a quick word back, too...)

This is, of course, both wonderfully liberating and somewhat disillusioning, too.

By that I mean: In the past, writers had this near Olympian level of stature. They dispensed wisdom via narrative, and we ate it up like Christmas cookies. You waited six months, a year, four years for their new book, and then you gobbled it up as quick as you could. And then you waited some more.

Now, you can leave a comment in a blog, and that writer may very well comment on your comment, and a new link has been formed, a connection made, and these once impenetrable authors now seem very much human.

From a marketing standpoint, it's genius: You can see what the writer's thinking on a daily basis, engage in a spirited cyber-conversation with folks around the globe, and the author himself puts in his two cents, and everybody feels part of this nebulous creative process.

And yet, some of the mystery is lost.

Some of the fairy dust type-of-stuff that we want the best writers to have.

Some of the writers I grew up reading -- Stephen King, John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates -- don't have much a continuous, online presence.

I like that.

It means that we can see them still as writers, and not as personalities. And, most importantly, we can focus on the work, whenever it arrives. After all, a book should be the best of person's thoughts after an extended period of rewriting, revision, pulling-out-the-hairs-on-the-head until the perfect word is placed in the proper spot. Hearing about each and every inch of progress of the latest work via the author's blog is somewhat inspiring, in the sense that it shows that this is a person who is simply like the rest of us -- working the best he/she can day in and day out. But some of the glee of anticipation is lost; while waiting for the new book to come out, I'm not sure I need to know via a blog that the author's daughter has a dentist appointment in the afternoon.

The danger of this new age is thus that the writer takes center stage on a daily basis, while the book itself recedes into the background, the stories as a whole becoming less important. (As King pointed out in one of his novellas: "It is the tale, not he who tells it.")

I want the book to matter. In this age of celebrity-driven garbage, where even authors have to chat up their latest work on afternoon talk shows and appear slick and stylish and oh-so-witty in two-minute sound bites, I was somewhat startled to read in an interview with Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami that he's never appeared on television. He's never had his voice broadcast on the radio. He avoids public readings whenever possible. This is the most popular writer in Japan for the past twenty years, whose name was floated around for the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, and he's never even been on TV! And he's basically saying: "I don't want to be in your face. I want my book to be in your hands. Period."

So, yes, bring on the blogs. Bring on the writers. Let's hear what they have to say.

But when I open up their latest book, the computer shuts down, the TV goes off, and I'm left with only the voice.

And that should be enough.