Inquest - Index   |  chapter 14   |  chapter 16

Chapter 15

Bags are packed and books selected. - Soraya hectors unsuspecting MFA students.
Penelope offers some Middlemarch-thoughts.


       Preparations continued apace, though for the most part (or at least for my part) there seemed little more to do than ready oneself for an extended vacation. Soraya, Annabelle, and Tancred continued to speculate as to what awaited us, but I admit that I began to shrink back from the possibilities. I don't know whether I expected less or hoped there would be less, but the appeal of this burden of some still undefined obligation diminished rapidly as our departure date approached. We all wished Morgenstern (or his lawyers) had spelled things out more clearly, but the others didn't mind as much as I did, allowing the uncertainty to fuel their fantasies while I alternated between worrying about and wishing for aimlessness and boredom.
       The children had school (and a host of pet projects besides), and Soraya had work: a schedule, responsibilities, daily deadlines. Perhaps they imagined it would be similar in Rystwycz, unable to imagine daily life any different. I had work too, but I'm an editor, and it doesn't much matter in what order -- or, often, even when -- I get things done. Work that required immediate attention, and books that needed handling in my absence over the summer had largely been farmed out already. Aside from making sure that others were doing my work I had little to do.
       I would have welcomed a specific Morgenstern-mandate -- prepare this ! research that ! -- but there hadn't been any. I had been tempted to look into his life and try to accumulate background material, but there wasn't much of a paper trail, and in any case I felt uneasy about approaching his life in this roundabout way when he promised (or at least suggested) that Rystwycz was the proper starting point. So I made due with what small contributions to our preparations I could make -- an errand here, a list there -- and tried to steel myself for whatever might come.

       The packing process was more complicated than it should have been. Clothes and incidentals were simple enough: we knew (or guessed) what was needed, and we'd put it all together a few days before we were scheduled to leave. What occupied most of our time -- and entertained us no end -- were the literary questions. Against a wall, in one room, we had first four, then eight stacks of books: each pile (and then each doubled pile) the reading material each planned to lug along. We put them out much too early: examining the stacks over the weeks before we were to depart we naturally couldn't resist leafing through -- and then, probably more often than not, reading -- the books we'd set aside.
       We wanted to assemble our reading material in consultation with one another -- hence the public piles, for all of us to consider and comment on each other's selections. The piles shrunk and grew ridiculously, as we never really settled on anything. The choices that appealed most were immediately consumed, rather defeating the purpose of planning ahead.
       My pile was the most constant (and unimaginative one): Central European and Russian classics seemed right to me, given where we'd be. Still, no one was really enthusiastic about my choices -- not even me. ("You've given it some thought," Annabelle chastised me, "but not the right kind of thought.")
       Tancred went through a mid-century British phase -- Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley -- then modern Japanese (Abe Kobo, the Murakamis Haruki and Ryu, etc.). Then there was a brief flirtation with geopolitical non-fiction, then (school-induced) an American Founding Fathers phase (leading to a whole stack of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin biographies). At one point he slipped in a Grisham paperback -- just to check whether we were paying attention, he claimed -- but we were not amused. ("Not in my house !" Soraya said in undisguised anger and disgust. She wouldn't let him throw it out -- she couldn't bear to throw any book away -- but she made him take it away that same afternoon, to donate to the local library sale (still feeling terribly guilty about possibly inflicting it upon some poor unsuspecting soul).)
       Annabelle continued her Congolese preoccupation, but those books never lasted long as she'd quickly take them back to read them (and we never asked (much less insisted) she return them). But her least successful additions were the three volumes of Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia -- she could barely put them down before snatching them away, then plowing through them all in one night -- and though she returned them to her pile we each, in turn, as avidly devoured them. Mercifully brief was her interest in Thomas Mann; presumably our almost unison howl of disapproval when we saw all the volumes of the Joseph-set was enough to wake her out of whatever daze she'd fallen into just considering it. But the Hans Henny Jahnn-set (the overflowing Fluß ohne Ufer) looked like a keeper.
       Soraya vacillated most of all. One day she thought it would be a fine idea to tackle ancient Greek drama, the next she thought Chaucer needed her attention. She was tempted by poetry ("I really have to work my way through Edward Young's Night Thoughts", she tried to convince herself. "Nine days for nine nights ...," she figured -- and Annabelle teased her along, quoting back to her lines Soraya often repeated: "Night visions may befriend (as sung above): / Our waking dreams are fatal.") There was a brief Finno-Ugric phase (as Tancred dubbed it), when she focussed on the odd combination of Scandinavian and Hungarian fiction -- but she stopped when she decided that neither I nor the children were ready for Strindberg's autobiographical fictions. And so: on it went. After a few weeks we all joked as to what the latest fad or ambition would be that we'd find on her pile. And after a while we gave up commenting on her selections, knowing that regardless of what we said the books would be replaced by a completely different set within a day or two.

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       Publishing likes that shaggy-rug appearance of loose ends: things aren't (or -- so the excuse -- can't be) neatly tied up, and no one expects any different. It made my job easier, and even a month before we were actually set to leave I had sufficiently tidied my desk and could have stopped coming in and no one would have much noticed the difference. My putting so much off until our return in the fall incovenienced people -- authors, especially -- but it was what was expected, and I'd stopped feeling too guilty about the lax standards and ridiculous pace in publishing years ago.
       Soraya wasn't quite as easygoing, and remained considerably busier all along. I didn't see as much of her in the office, except at one more protracted event which neither of us had any interest in attending. Students from some prestigious MFA-creative-writing program were brought into the offices and given the opportunity to talk with us business professionals. It had been arranged by a well-placed Hammerschmitt executive who wanted to please one of the firm's authors -- who happened to be director of said MFA program. (The author was considered -- by the American press -- "literary", but despite good connections and more media coverage than most authors garner his books didn't sell, quite possibly -- in a rare show of consumer awareness -- because they truly weren't very good. Soraya would gladly have eaten the contract to be rid of him, as every book of his we published meant throwing good money after bad, but he had too many friends in the company (executives rather than editors -- he knew who was important); mere profits, sometimes unfortunately, don't mean everything in publishing houses either.)
       A Hammerschmitt-directive from on high made attendance mandatory, wasting an entire afternoon. I'm generally of a similar opinion to Soraya: authors should be read but not seen or heard, but many of our editors know that it's personality as much as content that sells nowadays and so most came eagerly to size up the talent. The MFA-program-leader had even prepared a dossier about each of his apprentices, delivering a nice fat folder of useless information to each of us a week before. ("Names marked with asterisks have representation" was among the information provided; one asterisked name hadn't ever published a word, not even in her college literary magazine -- but admittedly even I lingered over her eight-by-ten headshot) I was surprised he didn't ask us to build a runway, where he could have his goslings strut their stuff for us one by one, like the fashion-models he was promoting them to us as.
       As a minor sort of editor I wasn't of much interest to the eager little beavers. They'd sound me out -- who do I edit ? do I like young talent ? -- but since they didn't recognize my authors (foolishly I'm still surprised to find that many would-be authors don't actually read much, except for, at best, the literary gossip columns) and since I preferred to emphasize talent over youth in my responses I didn't come across as an easy mark (unlike some of my younger, wannabe-hipper colleagues, who flocked around anyone who looked capable of histrionics (or even just spoke in a loud voice).)
       Soraya, whose name was far better known, couldn't avoid giving her standard speech (nr. 22: for aspiring writers in MFA programs) when the more structured part of the afternoon began. Given her mood at having to sacrifice her time for this I was surprised that she wasn't quite as sharp as usual. Still, she went on something like this:
       Experience, editors: everything differs. One will tell you this, another that. Fortunately, the human mind is oddly adapted to hearing what it wants to hear -- so I assume you'll all forget that I spoke at all by the time you leave here.
       A few years back I conducted an informal survey among my authors -- the ones I've brought into the house, not the ones foisted on me -- and found that only two had attended any creative writing program of the sort you all are currently involved with. In part, I'm sure it's a generational thing -- the explosion of these programs is a recent development --, in part it's geographic -- a lot of my authors are foreign-based. Still, I found it instructive.
       It's not that I'm not exposed to MFA-program output: one of the benefits, as you'll have noticed, of such an affiliation is the entrée it offers you. Your manuscripts -- or stories or whatever some of these things are -- , meant to commend you to us, do, mysteriously, wind up on our desks. Even mine. As though it were the output from the natural finishing factories for fiction (and non-) -- and as though we'd be foolish to even consider anything else, since here we can expect the most refined, consistent, and studied products.
       There's often polish, I'll grant you that. But little more.
       Considered solely from a literary point of view, the one benefit I see in participating in such a writing program -- or any writing class -- is that it affords you an opportunity to gauge your work by its readers. The immediate feedback allows you to write for your reader. Ideally, one imagines, the process must lead to reader-friendly works -- every publisher's dream. It's like the television shows and Hollywood movies that are screened for test audiences and then changed according to the audience's reactions.
       The fault in the logic, as far as the MFA programs go, lies in the readers: you're all the same. Yes, yes, individual voices from many backgrounds, bla bla bla, -- but you're all aspiring writers of a similar sort, all under the sway of the same illustrious (and occasionally less so) guides in the guises of teachers. If your ambition is to write works that will find favour with the two dozen students that share the classroom with you eight times a week, then you're well on your way. That is exactly how much of MFA work reads to me -- as though it were written for only a handful of other potential readers. If you're writing for some actual reader -- for a person who browses in a bookstore and seeks out some form of printed entertainment -- well then, I think you're getting your reader-feedback from the wrong people.
       MFA programs and the like provide marvelous support and validation: you get to pretend you are actual writers, and others -- even if they are only other yous -- appear to take you and your work seriously. They can boost morales, build confidences. And there are programs where writer-professors of some competence do offer serviceable advice regarding the nitty-gritty of plot development, character, voice, and the like. But I, for one, am little impressed with what I've seen come out of these programs. Overall, the ratio of good to indifferent to bad writing seems no different from that found in the workable part of the slush pile (i.e. discounting the voluminous prisoner-lit and the truly amateur hackwork) or, on a good day, what an agent might submit.
       These words might sound harsh; trust me, it's all true. But realize also that, despite my lofty title, my opinion is neither really here nor there. Most of what is published isn't very good. Most of what we publish -- despite my best efforts -- isn't very good. There are many factors that go into book publishing, and literary quality -- the only one I care about -- is easily and often trumped by other considerations.
       I have little patience for people who call themselves writers but don't have anything to say, or a worthwhile way to say it; nevertheless, most of the authors I deal with belong in one (and sometimes both) of these categories. If you're hell-bent on being a "writer" -- if that's what you want to tell people you are at cocktail parties -- then you shouldn't let yourself be put off by my ramblings. And you've probably made a wise choice by enrolling in an MFA program -- rather than actually, say, focussing on writing. And some of my colleagues might even see to it that you're published at this very house.
       The connections you make, the cachet of the degree -- despite the fact that there's nothing in the least magisterial about this particular magister artium --, the familiarity with the world of publishing you acquire: it might very well be enough for you to get by. It might even allow for success -- of sorts. Of a common, popular sort, as a matter of fact.
       But I still like to plead for literature as literature, a focus only on the writing -- the craft, rather than the salesmanship. And I realize it's too late to convince you -- you've made your pacts with the devil, convinced yourself that this is how to go about it. But I hope you'll consider occasionally, in those rare moments when you actually sit writing (rather than when you're talking about writing -- or, even worse, talking about being writers), the art you're supposedly devoting yourselves too.
       I'd like to implore you: don't write if you don't have to. If you have a story to tell, if you have something to say or convey, then fine (and at that point worry only about how to tell it -- not yet how to sell it). There's far too much being churned out nowadays -- especially by those who are in some technical sense writers, who have had things published and think that's a reason why they should publish more.
       If you care about literature, then think carefully about what you're doing -- here and in class and at home. Don't let yourself be corrupted by your environment -- by what your classmates -- pardon: colleagues -- and professors tell you (and don't fool yourselves into believing the MFA atmosphere isn't highly corruptive -- corrosive -- even poisonous).
       Of course, if what you're after is a a career of rote-writing -- write-by-the-numbers stuff like Harlequin romances or Grishams or Rushdies or whatever, worthy stuff, on some level, all of it -- then by all means, continue: listen to what you're told in the classroom, nod politely at the nutty editor's speeches when you're made to listen to them, slip copies of your manuscripts to more amenable looking subalterns and agents. Sell yourself, and maybe you can sell your work. I've seen it work far too often.
       Publishing and writing have little to do with one another -- except, of course, that the kind of writerly success you want necessitates dealing with established publishers such as this illustrious cluster of imprints. Other publishing professionals will have better -- or more useful -- advice for you as to how to navigate these treacherous waters -- indeed everyone's favourite middlemen, the most middling people you'll ever meet, -- "literary" agents -- will soon enough do most of the publishing-related work for you. But if there's one of you who actually has some real talent -- and chances are there's not, it's a rare thing -- then don't waste that talent entirely in the effort to become a writer. Instead: write ! (By which I mean something more than merely putting pen to paper (or tapping on a keyboard) and getting feedback from a coterie of like-minded souls.) And then maybe, eventually, you'll get it right and produce something worthwhile. (Though at that point you may very well have trouble convincing any publisher of its worthiness.)
       The rest of you ... well, you know what to do already: pay me no heed. Scribble away, practice your small-talk and your booktour persona, latch onto a mentor -- a washed up writer who seeks validation by promoting young "talent", an agent/leech (if you can stomach dealing with one -- oh, but you can, all of you can, can't you ?). Your products may be forgettable -- most books are -- but they might entertain for a season or two, and you might achieve the sort of success you're looking for.
       Any questions ?
       Sadly, all this was exactly what some of them wanted to hear -- Soraya always got an enthusiastic round of applause (along with a few grumbling dissents) for this speech. But no one really took her seriously: those who liked the speech liked it because it was contrariant, not because they believed she spoke any truth.
       The big advantage of Soraya's approach was that no one dared ask any questions, either because they were intimidated or because they realized that Soraya's answers would take the event entirely off track. At this particular gathering too they preferred just to get on with things and hear from the next senior editor (who, of course, began by noting that she didn't quite agree with Soraya's take on writing and publishing).

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       At home Annabelle Middlemarched on, in her exchange of e-mails with Penelope von Urnvalg. The lasses' literary discussion went quite well, though it didn't seem an ideal book for them to find common ground in -- distant as it clearly was from either their experiences and concerns. But Annabelle insisted the novel was rich and full enough for them to mine, and that common ground between them could be found in its very absence there.
       Penelope was more ambitious -- and less successful -- particularly in her literary identifications. Fretting always, she would write things like:
     I see you as more Dorothean perhaps because you are also like her so bookish ? And I think you follow that ambition -- intellectual ambition. Mr. Brooke warns: The fact is, human reason may carry you a little far -- over the hedge, in fact, and I think you look to leap that hedge, you want to go that much too far or more.
     Or is it only that I want to see you leaping so ? I do. I see you even in day-dreams, on a horse, floating hedge-over -- though I don't ever see where you land.
     I am not a jumper. I only look at the hedge. I like to look at it. Or you going over (and you can come back and tell me what there was).
     Dorothea is too, I think, entirely too admirable. I hope you are not as much so. And for someone so admirable and so smart she is also terribly foolish which I don't think you could be. Eliot means Casaubon to be ridiculous and so she writes him always so but even so how could Dorothea not have realized what she was getting herself into ? She was very young when she made that decision but we are even younger and I can't imagine entertaining (yes ?) such foolish notions. (I know you say: she saw her ideal -- you like ideals too no ? -- but are ideals really so blinding ? I think no. I hope for your sake you do too.)
     And then she is drawn to Lydgate which is not even an ideal ! I know you think that is again a terribly bad choice and you can't be drawn to Lydgate because he says Oh, I read not literature now and I remember you wrote me how much you disliked him when you read that and that you could not even to the end have sympathy for him because if he had no place for literature then he is worthless as a man. So it could not speak well for Dorothea that she could be interested in such a man though he too is admirable in many ways but I think admirability looks worse and worse if this is what happens !
     So I know I do not want to be or could be Dorothea-like and I hope in most ways you too are not. But we must always so admire her because she is so admirable ? And then I reread her own self-doubt -- I am very ignorant (...) I have so many thoughts that may be quite mistaken -- which is exactly my self-doubt and so perhaps I am Dorothean too without quite knowing it and I may too make foolish men-mistakes like her (without even sharing her other admirable qualities) ? (We know she is mistaken in her self-doubt; I think I am not -- but maybe only a reader of my Middlemarch can tell ?)

     I like Celia better, I almost want to admit. But I don't ... I don't know. Is it foolish to like Celia ? But Celia doesn't worry and I should like so not to worry and to be more easily happy. But then I shudder at how she married even though she is happy with the outcome. But is this not another sort of blindness ? (At least it's not a blindness I have: I don't think I can fool myself to happiness though perhaps I can because I am happy imagining you and your family arriving and the pleasant times we might enjoy together and perhaps this is the same sort of self-delusion ?)

     I admire Mary Garth I think, though sometimes I get very tired of admiring these characters for all their fine qualities don't you ? But from how Eliot makes her I think I should like to be a Mary Garth because that is the kind of person one should want to be. But I don't have reason or opportunity to be her. I don't even have her plainness -- why must these admirable heroines be so plain ? -- I don't think Rembrandt would have liked to paint me as he might have her, I don't have those broad features, I think I better fit Gustave Moreau or Eugène Delacroix or some such more colourfully austere painter (perhaps I only say that because Papa has their oils hanging here -- an exotic, sparkling Moreau, a lithe Delacroix -- and I've accustomed myself to seeing myself in them (and can't in the pudgy Rembrandt hanging in our stair-well -- she almost brims over the frame with all her flesh) ?).
     (Who would paint you ? Funny, when I think about it I see a surreal picture or a Cubist portrait -- a Braque for example -- because I don't have a fixed real impression of what you might appear like and I guess I don't want to pre-form one in my mind.)

     And I don't like Rosamond but I fear sometimes something of Rosamond in me. Upon Lydgate's arrival she lets imagination work for example: she had woven a little future, of which something like this scene was the necessary beginning and I worry that I similarly weave.

     Oh, literature is terrible for all the imaginings it allows. Maybe we should not indulge as much ? (No, no, no -- I could never let go either.) But Middlemarch is odd that there are so many fine characters but so few I could like to be. (Or is it: could be.) But it is also interesting like that !
       Literarily voluble, Penelope remained guarded and restrained regarding most other matters. She made few inquiries regarding Annabelle's day-to-day life, or New York goings-on, or anything at a remove from Rystwycz -- and didn't respond to Annabelle's own comments on such matters. She continued also to reveal little of herself, beyond what she mentioned incidentally in her e-mails (which did not amount to much). But the two girls clearly developed some sort of a bond via their odd communications.

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