Stephanie Bernhard’s recent essay at Full Stop addresses a problem I’ve struggled with since publishing Place Last Seen in 2000 — the weird conflation of the author and the work as it exists in modern publishing.
My very first reading, on a rainy night in March one of the six people in attendance asked “Have you had any tragedies in your own life?” and I was appalled. I’d written a novel. If I’d wanted to write about, say, the death of my youngest brother from cancer when he was two, I would have done that. But I didn’t. What I wanted to do was write an imagined story about the loss of a child, and the effect that event has on a family. Yes, there were roots in my personal experience, but I’d deliberately written a story, a fictional story about other people, and other characters.
My instinct that night was to snap “what the fuck business is it of yours?” but of course, I didn’t. I stammered something shocked and inarticulate about all fiction having roots in experience, but that no, I had never lost a small child in the wilderness.
Bernhard is making a two-part argument, and it’s the first part in which I’m most interested, the one in which she traces the ascendency of authorial persona over the content of the work itself. In part, she claims this is a function of our social inability to imagine multiple identities for women:
…after a while, all of the lovely-and-sad-yet-strong cover girls looked appallingly similar. It became hard for us to imagine that the stories they contained would vary much either. Book buyers have even less incentive to differentiate among the mass of womanish covers. But as Wolitzer notes, if “women’s” covers tell the same story, then “men’s” covers, more likely to contain all text, to tell no story at all.
When covers fail to differentiate one book from another, how do readers choose what to buy and read?
More than ever before, they — we — choose our books based on the identity of the author. We choose to believe the story, thousands of years in the making, that the author has created a unique work and must therefore be a unique and infinitely interesting person.
I found the rapid nature of the way attention swiveled from my book to my self deeply unsettling, and in the (too many) intervening years, it’s one of the things I’ve struggled with most as I’ve tried to write a second book. Where does my work fit? I’m certainly not writing pink-shoe books. I’m certainly not going to sell another novel based on my looks. I’m not an ethnic minority. And as I’ve moved toward nonfiction, trying to figure out a way to write about the deaths of both of my brothers without getting locked in the box of “greif memoir” or “tragic figure” has been both silencing and, as I’ve become increasingly determined, motivational.
The problem is that I find the process of selling my self mortifying. What I want is to sell books.