LUNCH WITH A WRITER: NECESSARY ENCOUNTERS

I have had the good fortune of sharing a few lunches followed by a long afternoon conversation with author Care Santos, whom I met thanks to my good friend Isabel Santaulària. Care has a long, accomplished career both in Spanish and Catalan, which includes major awards Planeta, Ramon Llull, and Nadal. Since 1995, she has published, I’m quoting from her official web (https://www.caresantos.com/index.htm), twelve novels, six short story collections, two poetry collections, and countless books for young adults and children. Her books have been translated into twenty-three languages. I personally love her novel Desig de xocolata, which I have read in Catalan but is also available in Spanish. That’s another singularity of her career: Care self-translates most of what she writes and has what might be called a true bilingual career.

I read recently one of those articles that questions the role of criticism (in relation to cinema, not that it matters) and a critic defended herself in it arguing that ‘you don’t have to be a hen to discuss eggs’. I’m not sure that this is the best possible analogy but it’s a useful starting point to consider the odd relationship between writers and academic literary critics. I find it odd on many fronts: authors (hens) write the books (lay the eggs) which we the literary critics praise or condemn but a) analysing a literary text (examining the egg) is not the same as reading it (eating the egg) and b) we also produce texts (we are also hens). If, as a literary critic, I write a book, am I an author as well, like the ones I analyse? We also get reviews and care about sales (well, impact). But what kind of writer am I? Try to imagine what it would be like to produce art criticism by creating a painting, or to discuss ballet by dancing, and you might get the idea of what worries me.

For these reasons, I am a bit embarrassed whenever I meet any writer who makes a living by selling their storytelling. I admire Care very much because she has the capacity to construct character and plot, and can do that book after book. That is the kind of admiration that leads most of us to read fiction and that may inspire whole academic careers. At the same time, I feel embarrassed that there are tenured positions like the one I enjoy (despite my occasional ranting) to teach Literature, whereas writers must struggle at all times to make a living. A few years ago British author China Miéville suggested there should also be state-sponsored positions for writers, and he created quite a stir. A negative one, for questions such ‘who would decide the appointments?’ soon came up. Funnily, nobody objects to the fact that writers with long, brilliant careers, like Miéville or Care, must constantly seek other activities to complement their income. You might think that Care’s frequent visits to secondary schools to discuss her own YA fiction with readers is part of her job, but while she is doing that she is not writing, which is her real job.

I am very grateful when a writer patiently replies to my questions about their methods. I find that even those with a fearsome reputation for being very rude enjoy discussing their craft. I had the chance to ask James Ellroy publicly in a recent post-interview Q&A session whether he agreed that sometimes characters dominate the narration and he didn’t bite me. ‘Bullshit’, he said, but he meant that in relation to writers who claim they have no control over their fictional people: ‘Whenever a writer says that the characters have taken over’, Ellroy explained, ‘he lies. He would have reached that same point anyway’ (yes, Ellroy used ‘he’). Care allows me to ask many questions, which is wonderful, and she is also eager to comment on what helps her in her task; for instance, she finds attending courses on writing plays extremely helpful to improve dialogue in novels. That’s for me a very valuable insight into the links between drama and, well, novels.

If I don’t have the chance to ask authors in the flesh, I try to read what they have themselves written about their careers. Stephen King’s On Writing is indispensable. Isaac Asimov’s memoirs (I, Asimov) provide inquisitive readers with plenty of information about the writer’s relationship with editors and publishers, and about the market. For instance, Asimov was amazed to discover that whereas the short fiction he sold to magazines did not produce royalties, books did. Since he had so many in the market simultaneously (he published 440!!!) Asimov became a wealthy writer before really being a best-selling author. He only realized that he could be one when his publishers Doubleday offered in 1981 a 50000$ advance for a new science fiction novel that would end his long absence from that genre. Foundation’s Edge became indeed Asimov’s first top of The New York Times book list publication after more than forty years as a writer.

I have read someone criticise Asimov’s memoirs (which, by the way, Care knew very well) for offering too much information on his business deals. I must clarify that Asimov also offers very candid insights into his straightforward style and into the difficulties of adapting to new times in such a long career: by the time the 1960s revolution in science fiction happened, he felt his work to be outmoded. Hence, the importance of the 50000$ advance for him to feel self-confident again. I personally feel that learning about the material conditions of production should be an integral part of literary criticism, but not to further uphold the idiotic principle that texts written for money can be no good. What I mean is that how writers progress financially (or not) is also part of their career; actually, for them the most important part, now and in the past. I have already praised here Edward Copeland’s Women Writing about Money: Women’s Fiction in England 1790-1820 (1995) as a crucial volume to understand Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and the other female writers of their time. Read it and marvel that even Austen worried about contracts rather more than about her reputation in posterity.

Logically, I would not ask any writer point blank about their income but I’m not above asking whether they consider their financial rewards sufficient. What I cannot bring myself to ask is what they think of the existence of teaching positions in the field of Literature. Things were perhaps easier when the author we taught were mostly dead people, but I have many doubts about how we relate to living authors. Care was mystified regarding the obstacle course that any academic career is today but this is the same for all fields, whether you teach Literature or Nuclear Physics. What I often have difficulties justifying is that, again, the concept of tenure exists for teaching but not for writing. I want to believe that we teachers are a sort of adoring mega-fans at the service of the writer and, so far, every writer I have contacted has thanked me for my interest. Still, I’m not sure this is a relation among equals, not out of anyone’s fault but for structural reasons.

One aspect that could be easily remedied is making the link between authors and academic literary critics more public. Let me give you an instance. The public session with James Ellroy which I have mentioned here took place last month, when he visited Barcelona to present his new novel, This Storm. He’s not an author I know well as a reader (I just know his L.A. Confidential) but, given his world-wide popularity and his personality, I expected the presentation to be stimulating. And it was, very much so, except for the presenter…

Typically, nobody thinks of academics for this type of act and Ellroy’s publishers Random House (I assume) chose fellow noir writer Carlos Zanón (not to be confused with Carlos Ruiz Zafón) as his presenter. Zanón coordinates now the literary festival BCNegra devoted to detective fiction and is himself a well-known author in the field. I have not read any of his books, though. I just will tell you what I saw: a man uncomfortable with his role as presenter not because Ellroy was not receptive (he was extremely friendly!) but because (this is my hunch) perhaps Zanón felt he should at the receiving end of the homage his American colleague was getting. Zanón warned that Ellroy had refused to answer politically-oriented questions and seemed frustrated that the interview would be thus limited. The fact is that I subsequently read an interview bounded by the same parameters and it was brilliant. Actually, the audience’s questions were far more exciting than the presenter’s. And, by the way: I was the only English Studies specialist in the room, unless I missed some younger colleague I have not met yet. (I am myself constantly missing visits by authors because I’m too busy writings about authors…).

Thanks, Care, for your time and attention (and thanks Isabel for the introduction). Ours are very necessary encounters for us, academics in literary criticism, a salutary reminder that in the end we know little about the writer’s day-to-day worries. Hopefully, this also helps you as a writer!!

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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