The pleasures and perils of meeting favorite authors

June 30, 2010 at 1:29 am (read)

Since I am an enthusiastic reader, there are a lot of authors with whom I would love to be friends. We’d meet at a reading, hit it off, grab coffee—and voila! I’d have a glittery and talented new companion who would not only tolerate my endless discussion of books and reading and the literary life, but welcome and enrich it. So it was with great interest that I read a couple of recent essays that chronicle disastrous meetings with literary heroes.

At The Paris Review’s newish blog, Justine van der Leun writes about meeting her (unnamed) literary hero, whose work she had been reading since age 15. She struck up an e-mail correspondence, then wanted more:

“If MLH [My Literary Hero] and I got along famously over e-mail, I figured, we could potentially be best friends in real life. So when I took a cross-country trip several months after my first e-meeting with MLH, I wrote to tell him I’d be passing through his outpost and asked if I could buy him a drink. By ‘passing through’ I meant ‘driving thirteen straight hours out of my way.’ ”

Alas, their encounter was highly awkward:

“The more I tried to impress MLH, the less impressed he was. The situation spiraled downward rapidly: My mounting insecurity obscured any charm I might have mustered. I blathered. I blabbed. I prayed for the power to shut up.”

Her general takeaway is, stay away, and don’t let the reality ruin the fantasy. But the temptations are many. Most authors are fighting for attention and readers and therefore have websites with “contact me” links, calling out for e-mails. And imagine the e-mails the author would send! Literate, witty, filled with the lyrical/ funny/ emotional/ sharp/ insert adjective here writing that made you fall in love with his or her books in the first place. But instead of being mass-produced, they would be just for you.

After that initial contact, the possibilities seem endless. The slippery slope—the idea that a relationship with your favorite author could progress from an e-mail or meeting at a reading to a drink to dinner to a whirlwind affair to marriage—is uncomfortably explored in Elizabeth Ellen’s piece from June’s Bookslut, called “Stalking Dave Eggers.” She lays out her tale of obsession and delusion:

“Dave Eggers and I were in love. The fact that no one else knew it did not bother me. I was similarly unbothered by the fact that my communications with Dave were limited to e-mail exchanges, the great bulk of which occurred between the hours of 8 am and 4 pm, Monday through Friday, or that Dave did not e-mail me from his McSweeney’s account, or from an account registered in his name, but instead wrote me from a Hotmail address which incorporated a Tragically Hip lyric and entered my inbox as “Homeless Funambulist.” I figured Dave had his reasons. He was, after all, a self-described genius who in the aftermath of his parents’ death had managed to raise his little brother by himself, start two magazines and write a bestselling memoir. Who was I to question his methods?”

Several times during the piece, she inserts this warning from a friend: “You realize, of course, that you come off sounding completely insane in this essay.”

Yes. Yes, she does. But though her delusions run deeper than I imagine most readers’ do, who among the truly book-loving has not fallen for an author, either in an abstract intellectual-crush way, or because their jacket photo looks like Johnny Depp with sexy glasses? (And then you read Modern Love one weekend and find out that his wife died and left him a single father of a young daughter, and it’s so touching and now you feel like you really know him, because that’s the power of words—to bring you deep into a person’s life and brain and heart.) Books feel so intimate—as van der Leun writes, “The allure of a literary idol is, in large part, the unspoken conviction that you and this brilliant stranger understand each other.”

For Ellen, falling prey to that unspoken (in fact, entirely unacknowledged) conviction of a connection with Eggers made her feel deeply ashamed. Nicholson Baker, who wrote U and I, a literary memoir of sorts about his obsession with John Updike, talked in an interview with Salon about grappling with his own humiliation, like admitting that he felt hurt that Updike, who he did not know, golfed with Tim O’Brien instead of with him.

Since Baker’s book, published in 1991, popular culture has become quite enamored with memoir and self-exposure. Sharing highly personal details with the public is commonplace, and in fact is a pretty good way to get attention. I think what distinguishes these authors’ shame from, say, that which many reality show stars should be feeling, is the element of delusion. It makes people suspicious; it hints at mental imbalance, rather than poor taste, and comes with a side of pity. But fantasy is the playground of the creative writer.

*            *            *

Though I have never stalked authors across state lines, I have written to several. Writing is such solitary business, and so often underappreciated, that the authors—all of whom wrote back—seemed genuinely grateful for my kind words. Then again, they are fiction writers.

The first author I wrote to was Amanda Stern, mostly to tell her about a specific moment I loved in her book:

In The Long Haul, the protagonist and her mother look at a picture:

“I love that picture of you,” she says.

“What picture?” I ask.

“That one,” she says, pointing to a picture of the Alcoholic. She picks it up, presses her finger on a blur in the background. The oil on her finger marks the glass over the unfocused girl, over me. I squint, press the glass to my face and examine. I see then that it is me. A foggy gray wind. My face is faint underneath, like panty lines.

I found the image of panty lines so offbeat yet dead-on that I made a painting based on it, using elastic cut from the edges of underwear. It was meant to evoke a fingerprint, a portrait, an absence. I used pale blue, because in middle school I had a pair of capri pants that color that gave me the worst panty lines ever, and I don’t think I’d yet discovered thongs.

Next I wrote to Rudolph Delson after enjoying his novel Maynard & Jennica, as well as his sparse yet amusing website. He wrote back, and told me that his next novel was about a troll. I eagerly await it.

J. Robert Lennon wowed me with his collection Pieces for the Left Hand, and I just wanted him to know that. When I came back at him this spring with a “So, I wrote to you before…” e-mail, he graciously agreed to an interview.

My favorite author—the author I talk about so much that friends and loved ones know to send me links to articles by and about him and make me birthday cards featuring blow-ups of his handsome (and mocked) headshot—is Jonathan Franzen. Several years ago, I spent a summer living in New York, and I had an epiphany: I am in New York. Jonathan Franzen lives in New York! I should write him a letter, and then maybe he will write back and then we will get coffee and then I already explained how this slippery slope works. I sent my letter off to his publisher, then waited. And waited. And the day I left New York, while sitting in the airport, I got a call from my ex-roommate that a postcard had arrived.

Reading it now, there’s a layer of sadness. I had mentioned that I had seen him read at my college, on my birthday. “I remember that Pomona reading well,” he wrote. “I was nervous with Dave W. & his wife there, and I flubbed about ten lines.” Dave W. is David Foster Wallace, a Pomona professor and a good friend of Franzen’s, who committed suicide in September 2008.

*            *            *

A reader may engage with writers and their characters through simply reading, or by e-mailing, painting, going to talks or imagining love affairs. Understanding may go two ways, but probably only one. Yet holding someone’s heart in my hands and feeling connected as I turn the pages is what keeps me reading every day.

Plus, Franzen is coming to San Francisco in September, so maybe I still have a chance.

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Will the real Christina Aguilera please stand up?

June 13, 2010 at 8:15 pm (hear)

Christina Aguilera has always been my favorite pop star. From the moment “Genie in a Bottle” hit the airwaves in 1999, I was hooked. She was in the pages of my teen magazines, but unlike the other young blondes, she had a voice that soared. I saw her in concert in 7th grade, with Destiny’s Child opening. A friend once gave me her Christmas CD, and though now I can’t find it, I remember liking even that.

Aguilera has said that every album has been a 180 degree turn from the previous one, and her songs range from bubblegum pop to throwback jazz to pulsing club music. She reinvents herself yet again on Bionic, her electronica-influenced, split-personality new album, but what’s ultimately missing is humanity.

Despite her constantly changing image and sound, Aguilera’s songs are full of strong declarations about who she is: I am beautiful. I’m a prima donna. Thanks for making me a fighter. On the Bionic track “I Am,” co-written by Australian musician Sia, Aguilera sings:

“I am timid/ And I am oversensitive/
I am a lioness/
I am tired and defensive/
You take me in your arms/
And I fold into you/
I have insecurities/
You show me I am beautiful”

This song–pleading, twinkling and orchestral–is jarring next to the catchy but off-putting album closer, “Vanity”:

“I’m not cocky
I just love myself, bitch.
Mirror mirror on the wall
Who’s the fliest bitch of them all?
Never mind, I am
That bitch is so fucking pretty
Yeah I am”

Later in “I Am” come these lyrics:

“I am temperamental/
And I have imperfections/
And I am emotional/
I am unpredictable/
I am naked/
I am vulnerable”

Contrast that with the song “Desnúdate,” with these nuanced bilingual lyrics:

“Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (for me)”

Through Aguilera’s morphing styles, the connective tissue has been sex appeal. She has vamped her way through multiple incarnations: the teenaged teasing of “Genie in a Bottle,” the smoldering Latin sounds of her Spanish-language album, the drag queen make-up and corsetry of “Lady Marmalade,” Stripped’s sweaty, dirrty girl chaps, the retro-glam naughtiness of Back to Basics, and now Bionic’s robotic, sexed-up club girl with a penchant for leather and fetish gear.

But she has never been someone whose sex appeal seems effortless, who has that enviable quality of not trying too hard. (She has also been explicit about her message, that sexuality is empowering.) From the platinum hair to the tight clothing to the excessive make-up to the sexual moaning (ex: “Desnúdate’), you can see the work.

It is unfortunate for Aguilera that Lady Gaga arrived before Bionic, so outfits and come-ons that were previously attention-getting now read as desperate: At the recent MTV Movie Awards, she performed with a glowing, pulsing LED heart on her crotch. I want to shake her by the shoulders and say, “You are beautiful, no matter what gossip blogs say. So stop wearing shiny red hot pants over sparkly tights.” Or, as Tim Gunn would say, “I’m concerned about your taste level.”

Bionic marks Aguilera’s entry into electronica/dance music, with collaborators like Le Tigre and MIA, but she doesn’t yet seem comfortable with her new persona. The first single, “Not Myself Tonight,” with its NSFW bondage-sexy video, finds her declaring, “The old me’s gone, I feel brand new, and if you don’t like it: fuck you.” But the lack of authenticity—there’s plenty of auto-tune and synthesized beats—seems an odd stylistic choice, given that Aguilera’s strengths are her astonishing voice and the powerful emotions it can express, even through the oversinging. An Entertainment Weekly article about making Stripped talked with songwriter and producer Linda Perry about recording “Beautiful”:

“Perry ended up using Aguilera’s guide vocal — her rough first take — on the finished song. ‘She had a hard time accepting that as the final track. It’s not a perfect vocal — it’s very raw,’ says Perry… Still, Perry was able to convince Aguilera to forego perfection in favor of the track’s unvarnished emotion.”

That song maintains its hold: Glee recently used the empowerment anthem as a climax in the episode “Home.”

Aguilera’s 2006 album Back to Basics was a surprising twist from dirrty to Marilyn Monroe-glamorous, but it played to her strengths. Blues, soul, jazz, big band: they can be sexy and sultry, but also have playfulness and heart. It’s not on the album, but watch this video of Aguilera singing James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” at the 2007 Grammy Awards. I’ll wait.

She is feeling the music, throwing herself into it, shaking that microphone, down on her knees on the stage, going all the way for a piercing high note that, though it enters shrieking territory, makes you hold your breath. Patti Smith later told Rolling Stone that it was “one of the best performances that I’ve ever seen…I sat and watched it, and at the end, I just involuntarily leapt to my feet. It was amazing.”

If you’re talking competitive advantage, what can Aguilera do that Britney Spears, Ke$ha, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna and other pop tarts can’t? Sing. Really sing, with a voice that comes from deep inside her. So even though there are some fun dance tracks on Bionic that seem to lift a page from my other favorite platinum blonde, Gwen Stefani, it kills me to hear Aguilera talk-sing her way through songs like “Glam,” coo on the limp and frankly kind of gross “Sex for Breakfast,” or be auto-tuned into oblivion on the title track.

In middle school I read Whispers From the Grave, a great book that unfortunately appears to be out of print. It was set in 2070, and was about a girl who discovers that her embryo had been frozen, and she has a twin sister who was murdered in 1970. She has to use her psychokinetic powers (strengthened by a special visor contraption) to go back in time and prevent her sister’s death. One detail that has stuck with me is that, in the future, all the music had artificial, robotic “singers” with perfectly tuned voices. So when the character goes back in time and hears songs from the ’60s, she’s struck by the humanity in the singers—that they occasionally miss a note, that their voices crack, that they contain emotion.

With Bionic, Aguilera has made herself into futuristic sexbot, trading depth for dance beats, her voice for vanity. But if she’s open to inspirations and collaborators, I’d say forget Gaga and go for Janelle Monae. On her new album, The ArchAndroid, Monae adeptly blends a futuristic vision with funk, soul and electronic influences, and her idiosyncratic, singular personality shines through. I’d love to hear what those two women would create, and who–finally–Christina Aguilera would reveal herself to be.

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