Column: Fiction From the Front Lines

By Rebecca Meacham for WOMEN = BOOKS

Posted on July 5, 2010

What you’re not reading now is a book review. 

In particular, what you’re not reading now is a review of the new novel by my favorite author.  You’re not reading a review that I begged Editor Amy Hoffman of WRB to assign me. The review you’re not reading would have opened with a pearl of wisdom by my favorite author, advice that changed my writing, and when I passed this pearl onto my students, it would have changed their writing, too.

But your writing is not going to be changed today. I’m tucking that pearl back into its shell.

Because once I began reading the new novel by my favorite author, something terrible happened:  I hated it. 

Stunned, I opened my heart even wider. I grew determined to love my favorite author’s new novel, as if love alone might fix it. Her other works were savvy, perceptive, heartbreaking. Perhaps the new novel needed reassurance. It seemed so eager to please.

Surely, if I hung in there, the voice would become less antic and stop pulling scarves from its sleeves. Surely the characters would become lifelike and distinct. After all, this was my favorite author, whose books stood tall on my desk. Look at those books, I’d tell my own young stories as they struggled to find their voices. Look what you could grow up to be!

After forty pages, I closed my favorite author’s new novel and never opened it again. I spent three months mustering the courage to beg Amy for relief. Meanwhile, I experienced several stages of grief.

First, denial: The error was mine; I just didn’t get it. Reviews of this new novel glittered with delight.

Next, anger: My favorite writer’s fiction had taught me to write, so why all the rookie mistakes?  She knew better.

Then I cycled through disillusionment, irritability, guilt. Oh, the guilt. How could I not love my favorite author anymore? 

Lurking below was something else—indignation. Because what I really thought was: How could my favorite author do this to me

Utter narcissism, right? I could stand to remember that it’s a privilege just to read a book, let alone dislike it. In a world full of harsher wounds, why should this paper cut sting?

Yet for avid readers, a favorite writer’s failure is something we take personally. Like me, my fellow writer D. demands of disappointing authors, “How could you?” You almost can hear the tremble in her voice. Sometimes we shout, like my former student A.: “If I’ve had deep emotional connections to past works, I feel BETRAYED.”

It’s those connections to our favorite authors’ past works that do us in. With each book, we search to recreate the surprise, the charm, the grief we experienced as characters—whose consciousnesses we inhabited— loved, lost, and lived. As we read a great book, we clench and cheer and cluck our tongues. Afternoon drifts into evening; we read all through the night. 

My favorite memory of reading is not about a specific author or book. Instead, it’s this: I’m between nine and twelve years old, lying on my bed with a book. It’s summer in Ohio. The smells of cut grass and the drying meadow drift through the windows. Down the street, a neighbor mows his lawn. The sun shines, toads chirp, the kids next door squeal in a sprinkler. The only place I want to go is where my book will take me. 

Literary critics might call this experience immersion, engagement, bliss, the pleasure of the text. I have no theory. For me, reading a great book opens a space between the thrill of anticipation and the dread of discovery. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, the suspense is terrible—and I hope it will last.

Maybe the displeasures of the text are keener when an author has already immersed us, suspending our attentions and our lives. We open the covers (or scroll the page), and we are ready to go. As readers and writers, engaging art moves us into uncertain spaces. What we feel as we move is captured by poet Gwendolyn Brooks:

Art hurts. Art urges voyages–

and it is easier to stay at home,

the nice beer ready.

I offer these lines to my graduating writers as they venture off into their own rich and painful discoveries. Opening the next book, typing the next line, we linger between what we know and what we wish to. Tomorrow, we hope, there will be another voyage bound for…somewhere.  This pearl of wisdom is at once hard and lustrous—and I see myself in its shimmer.

Rebecca Meacham, a regular reviewer of books for WRB, is the author of the award-winning story collection Let’s Do and an associate professor of English. She lives with her husband and two daughters in the woods of Wisconsin.


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