Writers and friends

Stefanie has a post on writers who are her friends, in the sense that while she may not have met the authors – in fact the authors may be dead – she feels a kinship with them because of her impassioned reading of their books. And Litlove has a post on books as friends and lovers – the seductions of reading, what she calls “literature as mental kissing.”

And how can a reader not like these analogies? When we read a book we make friends with it, or we make friends with the author, or we are seduced by the author or by the author’s words, even if the books are disreputable and the seduction slightly scandalous.

As I’m sure many readers do, I occasionally think about what would happen if I could actually meet an author in the flesh, even one who is dead, not just encounter his or her books. And I sometimes conclude that those authors who feel like my friends when I’m reading their books probably wouldn’t have a whole lot to do with me if I met them in real life. I don’t say this to be self-deprecating; it’s just the way it is.

In Stefanie’s sense, Virginia Woolf is one of my best friends. She’s brilliant, period, but she’s especially brilliant when it comes to understanding and writing about people. She has that kind of intelligence that can capture just what it feels like to be stuck inside one’s brain. I value all kinds of intelligence, but to me, somehow, emotional intelligence, people intelligence, is the most interesting, most important kind, and Woolf has this in abundance. Mrs. Ramsay at the dinner table is a revelation for me. And her writing voice is exquisite – her essays are so companionable, so everyday in their language, but so filled with beauty and insight I’m astonished. Check out, for example, this quotation, posted on Kate’s Book Blog.

But if we were to meet at a party? She’d probably ignore me.

I suspect the same is true with another one of my reading friends, Mary McCarthy. I admire her sharp satirical wit. She, like Woolf, has a courageous, clear, confessional-but-self-confident voice in her essays that I find irresistible. I love her reputation for being devastatingly, brilliantly mean. Now that I think about it, if I met McCarthy, I might consider myself lucky to be ignored. She’s a great hypothetical companion, a strictly reading friend, but in real life … maybe not.

Probably I feel this way because I idolize these writers so much I just assume they are too wonderful for the likes of me. And time gives authors an aura of untouchability because … well, because they’re dead and untouchable. We generally don’t feel quite the same way about authors who are still alive and can still do stupid things and write bad books. And there’s no reason for me to change my impression of the dead authors because I’ll never meet them to find out otherwise.

And then there’s Jane Austen, who must be my best reading friend ever. She’s a true comfort read for me, someone I’d turn to if I wanted something known and familiar and soothing. I’m not sure if we’d get along if we actually met, but I think my chances are better with her than with the others. She does have the satirical wit I like in McCarthy; you can see it in the way she cuts those mean, miserly, small-spirited minor characters to shreds in her novels. Perhaps this is something I could share with her, however, instead of being overwhelmed by it and a little bit frightened, as I’m afraid I would with McCarthy.

I told a friend of mine one time that I sometimes see glimpses of myself in those minor characters Austen satirizes. I wasn’t saying I’m like them, just that Austen captures their flaws so exactly that it’s possible to see how they might exist in people I know and in me. And this friend reacted all wrong – he looked a little bit worried and muttered something that implied, “wow, that’s a big admission to make.” I thought, no, you’ve got it wrong. I’m not saying I’m a terrible person; I’m just saying I have flaws and I’m capable of recognizing flaws I share with people who are probably even more flawed than I am. Perhaps what I was saying is that I am a sympathetic reader to a rather ridiculous degree.

I also think that Austen is exaggerating the meanness of people a little bit, as part of her satire and in order to have a little fun, and that even though she has fun making up ridiculously mean people, she also is quite capable of seeing how the good and the bad are all mixed up in normal, everyday people – like me. Which is why we have a chance of being friends I think.

But even if Jane Austen and I didn’t hit it off, even if Woolf ignored me like I’m guessing she would, or if I spent my time with McCarthy trying to keep her from noticing me, they probably would care at least a little bit if I liked their books. And this is my power as a reader – I can make friends with them whether they like it or not.

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