There’s one of those games on BuzzWorthyUpTrendingFeed.com — nothing new; it’s been part of parlor games for centuries: You get to meet one person, dead or alive. Who is it? I could write six or seven full paragraphs on the implications behind the standard choices — Jesus, Lincoln, one’s great-grandmother, Amelia Earhart — but as this is Planet Literature I’m always more interested in the replies to the version of the game that concentrates on authors. (The New York Times Book Review asks its authors this one a lot.) Again, six paragraphs easy, categorizing the reactions, which suggest why people make the choices they do: 1. I Can’t Believe It – Can I Touch You? (Shakespeare). 2. What the Hell were You Thinking? (Joyce). 3. And THEN What Happened? (Salinger). Actually Salinger would probably get all of those. 4. So, OK. In the fifth chapter of the sixth book, somebody mentions the “Event.” What exactly is the Event? My friends and I have drawn up a chart of the possible things…(any YA series writer.) 5. Ahh, mas oui. (Voltaire.) And, apparently as of this weekend, 6. F*** You, I Love You. (John Green).
I hate this question. My immediate response is usually flip and bitter. I did meet an author I admired and on whom I was writing a scholarly piece, and from that day to this I tell my students, “Dead poets. DEAD. The living will only disappoint.” Probably that’s not always true, although I have heard tell that a lot of Yale literature majors were darned upset when they slipped over to Hartford looking for the Answer To Poetry’s Questions and Wallace Stevens told them about insurance.
I think the problem is that we want to meet the mind, not the man. We want to be inside whatever reality made those works possible. We think maybe we can get there by asking way-too-specific questions like “Where do you get your ideas?” or “What made you decide to kill off Character X?” I’ve been thinking about it, and what I think we really should do is sit back, smile understandingly, and say, “And so?” Because I doubt they want to answer a specific question. I doubt if they can answer a specific question.
I have a student who swears to heaven that he just wants one minute with Tolkein just to find out who Tom Bombadil “really” is. Why wouldn’t he just want to sit back, smile, and let the man hold forth on whatever the hell he feels like saying? Why do we want to guide the discussion?
It’s one of the reasons I dislike reading what J.K. Rowling has to say about her own work. She always sounds to me like she’s been preparing for specific questions, and she’s ready with the “Yes,” and the “No,” and the “It Means This.” Now I’m not saying one must be Mysterious and Aloof to be a poet, but the creative project itself is mysterious, after all; if “What Does It Mean?” could have been answered by a series of bullet points, why would anyone write a novel about it — except, of course, to sell the movie rights? (Michael Bay’s next production: “PowerPoint: The Movie.”)
Sometimes when I read autobiographies I get the funniest feeling that I now know this person. Rationally I’m aware that the book is published and therefore lots of people know what I know, but I can’t entirely shake the feeling that I’m different. And I am sure that if I actually met the person that feeling would go away in a hurry.
Opening a book should be like meeting a stranger — exciting and unexpected; totally new. I don’t want to meet someone I already think I know and I especially don’t want to meet a person whom I don’t know wearing the persona of somebody I think I know because I read his book.
Deep down, do we really hope that when we meet Dante, he’s going to be able to explain Hell to us? Or (God forbid) Mitch Albom explain Heaven?
Another one of those goofy Internet games asks what superpower you’d want to have. A lot of times one of the choices is “Knowledge.” I end up picking that by default because Invisibility would be redundant and motion sickness would preclude most of the other choices. But I’d like caveats around my Knowledge. People who want to rush headlong into conversation with Marx or Freud or Moses or Lee Harvey Oswald want Answers. I’m pretty certain that Answers like that would kill us dead. I’m pretty sure that the real poignancy and pain of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End — and, in fact, the real loss as implied by the title — is not the ending where the human race evolves past its need for Earth or bodies. I think it comes much earlier in the book, when the advanced race that’s been watching us for millennia hands us all the documentary evidence and we find out The Truth about God and Life and Death and the Bible and the Pyramids and Stonehenge and Jimmy Hoffa (I made that last part up). Answers. Empirical Data. Everything Is Now Solved. Planet Literature will be fully mapped; exploration done.
I don’t really want to meet anybody. At the very least I don’t want to expect to meet anybody. I certainly don’t want to script the questions. I might just end up getting Answers, and what the heck fun is that?