I. "What Are You Reading?"
I get asked for advice about writing and reading, sometimes not because people know anything about what I do (though yes, sometimes for that reason too) but sometimes because I’m reading “literature.” A couple days ago I went for a smoke at work and this other woman was there for a smoke. I was reading Bleak House and this woman expressed some surprise that anyone read Dickens for pleasure and then spent almost my entire smoke break telling me what her children were reading in school. Now, I would not go so far as to describe myself as a “people person” but I am not an ogre either. If I am outside with a book, taking in a little nicotine with my fresh air, and someone strikes up a conversation I’m in, especially if it is trivial. I love trivial conversation. Because I am, as you know, a deeply shallow person. So ordinarily I do not mind, that’s part of the whole salmagundi of life. But 1) this woman did not observe the polite forms, where if you start small talk with a stranger you give them room to not follow up, you let them go back to whatever they are doing and if they decide they want to talk to you they will freely choose. No, she just sort of came crashing in and wouldn’t shut up about her children. 2) She and her children were not interesting. So, when she said that they were having to read books that were too hard for them—one was reading something by Dickens I think, and another was reading excerpts from the Iliad—I felt entitled to speak freely instead of just agreeing to unsolicited silliness: I pointed out that in the old days children started studying Latin by the first grade, and that Dickens was always popular literature. And I said “Children’s minds should be stretched; they like it.” I began to suspect that this woman was the sort of person who just sort of unloaded whatever was in her head at whatever unlucky neighbor was in the vicinity, and what she expected was sympathy. Or else why should a person expect me to shake my head, go cluck cluck and oh dear because her son is reading excerpts from the Iliad for school? The readiness with which she granted my points suggested that the complaining was more out of habit than conviction. She probably managed to frame every observation as a complaint, even when she didn’t really have anything to complain of.
II. "What Are Your Writing?"
Sitting outside a couple nights ago doing my evening writing ritual. I get to this quite late sometimes, and except for reading on the train ride it is the first free piece of time I can claim for myself, and it is so short. On this particular night I was late again and it was dark out, and probably because the light on the front porch of the building is better I sat there. I should have known better.
Because like a spite (no not a sprite, a spite) my neighbor appears. You may remember The Man Who Does Not Know What Color Anybody Is. Him. And as usual he engages in some banter and the effect, as usual, is slightly depressing but I can’t figure out why. Although for one thing he’s not really very good at it, it’s like kicking a cement football back and forth with someone.
So he wants to know what I’m writing about all the time. “Books, mostly,” I say in a tone of voice, remote and curt, that I hope discourages further inquiry. No such luck. “Are you published?”
“Are you a literary critic?”
“I’ve been called that.” (Note to self…)
“It seems this Irish writer, I think it might have been James Joyce (no no I can assure you it was not James Joyce you pinhead), was in a bar, writing one of his books, with the sheets of paper spread out all over the bar…” (Oh please God strike him dead with lightning before he finishes this joke if You are Merciful and Just) “…and the bartender accidentally knocks over his pint of Guinness all over the paper and the writer—I think it might have been James Joyce, says ‘I know you were a lousy bartender but yer a great literary critic!’ Ha! Ha!” (And You wonder why I don’t believe in You, You Bastard.)
Now, if I had told my mother that story up to this point she would say, “See? That’s the price of vanity. You should never have told him you are a published writer.” And she’d be right. Because the remainder of the conversation was all about how he doesn’t believe in literary critics it’s all a lot of bullshit anyway; he has some fiction that he wrote years ago and he doesn’t suppose it’ll ever get published because it is all about who you know, isn’t it?