By Guest Blogger Joanna Smith Rakoff
Jonathan Dee’s novel St. Famous centers on would-be writer named Paul Soloway, who’s been working on a Proustian epic for a decade, while his wife, Renata, supports the family—they have two young sons–toiling in the bowels of a photo archive, a job that gives her no pleasure, except in the knowledge that she’s putting food on the table and freeing up Paul to work on his magnum opus. Paul has an agent, who plucked him out of obscurity after reading one of his stories in a literary magazine, but otherwise will make no concessions to the world of commerce. His agent lines up work for him, writing for glossy magazines, which he refuses to even contemplate, citing the stupidity of the publications, despite the fact that he and Renata regularly have their utilities turned off because they can’t pay the bills. The novel, which is brilliant, hinges on what becomes the defining decision—the ultimate moral question—of Paul’s life: Two months before the novel opens, Paul has been randomly kidnapped and brutally beaten during a race riot. He emerges from the incident a celebrity, an amalgam of, say, the Central Park jogger and Patty Hearst, and is quickly faced with the offer of a six-figure book deal. Will he take it and give his exhausted wife a break? And secure some financial stability for his kids, who are perpetually clad in outgrown thrift store clothes? Half the novel centers on this dilemma.
You’re probably thinking, what dilemma? Why not just take the money, churn out the book, then live off it while finishing up the novel? Which is pretty much what Renata and everyone else in Paul’s life thinks, too. But the thing is: Paul considers himself a great writer. Not a good writer, not merely a publishable writer, but a great writer, a peer of Balzac and Proust, and, thus, he feels that some tawdry, written-for-the-masses account of his misfortunes would be below him, never mind the logical argument that if he’s such a great writer, anything he writes—not just his endless novel–will, of course, be great. “ ‘ He wants to be Byron, you know?’” his best friend, Martin, says at one point. “ ‘He wants to turn his back on society.” Indeed he does. So does he loathe popular culture that taking his sons to see The Little Mermaid constitutes a “major sacrifice” on his part and he sits through the flick grateful that the darkness prohibits the boys from seeing the grimaces he’s making throughout.
Here’s the thing: The novel is set in 1989. And reading it is, in part, an exercise in nostalgia for a time in which a writer might actually wrestle with the rarified question on Paul’s mind. We live in an age of relentless self-exposure, in which confessional blogs seem to be the dominant mode of expression, in which Facebook oversharing is simply an accepted part of our daily existence, in which preschoolers dictate “journals” to their teachers, and, most pertinently, in which serious writers, from Margaret Drabble to Alice Sebold think nothing of chronicling their lives in memoir form. And the pervasiveness of memoir has, in a way, led to a strange phenomenon: Readers, it seems, now refuse to believe that fiction is actually fiction. Every story, it seems, must be autobiographical in some way. This tends to be the first question people ask me at readings, phrased in this way, “I’m assuming this is completely autobiographical.” (In fact, it’s not.) And I hear the same from other writers.
This week, as I was sitting in bed nursing a horrible cold–trying to keep Coleman, (my son) who was home from school with that same cold from using my bread knife as his “sword”—reading St. Famous, I kept wondering how Paul Soloway would fare in today’s publishing climate, in which writers lives are equated with their work, and, moreover, in which writers are pretty much disallowed the kind of privacy Paul craves, that is, unless they’re J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon or even Philip Roth. Publishing, these days, seems to be so much about publicity and authors are expected to participate, to a great extent, in publicizing their own books, which is, as recounted in my first post, why I’ve not made greater inroads in my next novel.
You’ll notice—as I just did—that the first names that came to me, when cataloging of literary recluses, are men. Are their any female writers who hide themselves away from the public? Who refuse to do interviews? Or to write about their lives for Vogue or Elle? There may be, but I can’t think of any at the moment (though there is a good amount of cold medicine in my system right now). Somehow, it seems like a woman who scorned the media—who would refuse to put on what Sarah Vowell, upon returning from her first book tour, described to me as “the dog-and-pony show”—wouldn’t be looked upon so kindly. They would, perhaps, be seen as “difficult.”
Anyway, year or so ago, before I myself went through the whole rigmarole of publishing a novel, I thought about this all rather differently. It’s strange to look back on it, to think about how naïve I was, how Paul Soloway-ish, in my own, 21st Century way. I remember, in particular, my publisher suggesting I put together a Web site—joannasmithrakoff.com!—and my, after a moment’s thought, saying, with a bit of irritation, that this was unnecessary. Jonathan Franzen doesn’t have a Web site, I told my editor, who nodded with intense patience, no doubt thinking, “yes, and Jonathan Franzen also pissed off Oprah. It’s a wonder he’s still alive, much less selling books.”
Seven plus months after the novel was released into the world—having spent many of those months dragging my entire family around the country, so that I might go to bookstores and read from it–my reluctance to participate in—or shyness about—the selling of it strikes me as both silly—I’ve seen so many friends go through the same thing and didn’t think any less of them for it—and completely valid. There’s a way in which Paul Soloway—despite being a kind of pill—is right. Focusing too much on the business end of art—art of any sort—can be dangerous: it can drain the joy out of the process of creating it; or it can fully prevent you from creating it, either by crowding your head with more quotidian thoughts, thoughts that prohibit you from truly thinking, or by investing you with a sense of futility, a sense that, say, nobody is reading (or going to galleries, or movie theaters, or concert halls), so why bother. For Paul Soloway, back in the lost land of 1989, merely writing a book on contract, for actual cash money, meant that the business end had taken over. No contemporary author would, I think, make such an argument, but I sometimes wonder if we couldn’t do with thinking of ourselves in a slightly more Byronic way, if we couldn’t somehow find a way to put up more walls around ourselves. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying I want to turn my back on society—and I’m seriously looking forward to taking Coleman to see The Princess and the Frog this weekend—I just fear, sometimes, that as high and low culture become one and the same, as do, it seems, commerce and art, something is getting lost along the way, if only the freedom to not think about anything other than the art at hand.
I don’t want to give away too much about St. Famous—you should read it for yourself—but I will say that it’s a novel of reversals and that, ultimately, Renata is revealed as the real heroine, for it’s her dilemma, rather than Paul’s that proves the most compelling, that being: For how long can she maintain her devotion to a man who, essentially, considers his own pursuits—his own life—more important than hers. There comes a moment, midway through the book, when she thinks about her life, as a working mother, and is overcome with “a guilt that pulled in two directions”: On the one hand, she wonders if her sons will remember her “later in their…lives, as an infrequent visitor, an ill-tempered disciplinarian whose sleep one was always being warned not to disturb.” On the other, “she was a woman of her time, and she was harried by the incorrectness, the meagerness of those retrograde longings for domestic life and for the daily society…of small children.” Twenty years later, here I am, pulled in those exact same directions. And with, it seems, no end to the pulling.