Thursday, January 22, 2015

`This Business of Books'

“We honor none but the horizontal: why not write a fan letter today to the literary idol of your choice? Don’t be shy: I do not believe that the eminent object to receiving letters from total strangers provided they are couched in sufficiently flattering terms.” 

More than forty years ago a friend and I tested this thesis and found it to be true. Eric Korn is writing in 1983 in the Times Literary Supplement after the suicide of Arthur Koestler and his wife. Korn’s columns for the TLS are collected in Remainders (Carcanet, 1989), a book that in a blindfold test might be mistaken for the manically punning work of Myles na gCopaleen. Korn regrets having never thanked Koestler for writing Darkness at Noon and the best of his other books: “It was never possible to read him with indifference, without enthusiasm.” 

My friend was Greg Morris, now professor emeritus of American literature at Penn State Erie, then working on his B.A. in English at Bowling Green State University. Both of us admired the novelist John Gardner, then at the height of his popularity and influence. One drunken Sunday evening in the spring of 1974, we took a hint from Holden Caulfield: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Gardner then was teaching at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Greg called him and talked to Gardner’s wife, who told us her husband would be speaking soon at a luncheon in Cleveland sponsored by the now-defunct Cleveland Press. We made a date, drove to Cleveland, listened to Gardner’s talk and got drunk with him afterwards. At the time, I was one of the editors of an obscure journal appropriately called Exit. In the next issue, Greg reviewed Gardner’s latest, Nickel Mountain, and wrote a profile of Gardner based on our hours spent together in a bar. 

Even before Gardner’s death in a motorcycle crash in 1982, I had lost interest in his work (as I had even earlier in J.D. Salinger’s). I still haven’t read Freddy's Book (1980) or Mickelsson's Ghosts (1982), and the donnybrook over On Moral Fiction (1979) left me feeling, to adapt Korn’s words about Koestler, “indifference, without enthusiasm.” Call my earlier enjoyment a youthful folly, a humbling reminder of uncertain tastes and critical standards. In 1984, the University of Georgia Press published Greg’s A World of Order and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner, one of the first books about Gardner’s work. I didn’t know about it for more than twenty years. In his preface, Greg thanks five people, including my old Chaucer professor, Virginia Leland, and me, for “making this sort of thing—this business of books—appealing and promising to me in my years as a beginner.”  Some of us have never stopped being beginners, Greg.

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