Author photos, personal dirt and reader bias, or the things they carried to “The Things They Carried”

Who_Are_You_album_coverDavid Foster Wallace once wrote in the margins of a self-help book he owned that “Infinite Jest was just a means to Mary Karr’s end, as it were.”

Reading this admission yesterday, recounted by DFW biographer D.T. Max in a 2012 article from The Atlantic, thrilled me. Besides its obvious cleverness, I find the idea that Foster was trying to impress Karr with Infinite Jest genuinely poignant.The_Show_Off_poster

The fact that I knew the broad strokes of their relationship from reading Karr’s magnificent addiction memoir Lit certainly contributed to my delight in this nugget. But the very idea that Wallace wrote a 1000+ page masterpiece fueled by the desire to show (or show off for) Karr that he was capable of significant work provides such an unexpectedly human glimpse into his creative life. Being familiar with the furiously intelligent and exhilarating talent of Mary Karr, I can understand why Wallace felt that nothing short of a grand-scale masterpiece would catch her eye.

Infinite Jest has long been a literary Mt. Everest for me. It has called to me, but I’ve never felt quite ready to tackle it. This new-to-me origin story makes me more intent than ever to read it.

One thing is for certain: whenever I get around to reading it, Wallace’s motivation vis-à-vis Karr will remain lodged in the forefront of my reading mind throughout. While every word in Infinite Jest remains exactly the same as it was before I learned of this information, the knowledge about DFW’s thinking when writing it will inevitably change what I read.

selloutAt approximately the page 5 mark in The Sellout, Paul Beatty’s new Molotov cocktail of a novel, I flipped to back of the dust jacket in search of an author photo.

I’ll let Dwight Garner’s review in the N.Y. Times explain:

“The first 100 pages of his new [Beatty’s] novel, The Sellout, are the most caustic and the most badass first 100 pages of an American novel I’ve read in at least a decade. I gave up underlining the killer bits because my arm began to hurt

‘Badass’ is not the most precise critical term. What I mean is that the first third of The Sellout reads like the most concussive monologues and interviews of Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle wrapped in a satirical yet surprisingly delicate literary and historical sensibility.”

The broken-bottle sharpness of the racial satire should have come as no surprise: the book’s cover is a pattern of “lawn jockey” figurines, those relics from more overt and less inviting times. But still.

The Sellout is biting, scathing, take-no-prisoners criticism hitting on most every form of racist act, from lynching, to blackface to redlining to respectability politics to microaggressions. It is sharp AND blunt and unrelenting. It’s hilarious and discomfiting. It’s excellent and should be required reading, but is definitely not for everyone.

So why did I feel the need to check the author photo?

on-dangerous-ground-movie-poster-1951-1020311572Philosophically, I fall into the post-structuralist camp of criticism: an author’s intent is often impossible to determine in absolutely objective terms and is, frankly, irrelevant to the reader’s experience, i.e., each reader constructs his or her own subjective meaning of a work.

We all bring our own personal knowledge and experiences and biases to a book. Our knowledge about the author, and our biases and predispositions towards that knowledge, are very much a part of that baggage. Thus, what we know and believe about the author invariably affects what and how we read his/her work. Why did Joanne Rowling adopt the ungenderd “J.K.” as her pen name (as just one example of literature’s extensive history of female writers adopting male noms de plume)? Why does Rush Limbaugh put his name and proudly dyspeptic newborn face on the cover of his children’s books? Why do the covers of romance novels not look like the covers of horror novels?

Every level in the book trade has preconceptions, shared wisdom and data-driven assumptions about the biases and expectations readers bring to books. That’s why the old chestnut of “you can’t judge a book by its cover” is wildly incorrect. Perhaps without even realizing it, we judge book covers all the time and, I’d argue, do so fairly accurately, at least as far as determining which books aren’t of interest to us.

In this way, our biases are time-saving and helpful.

But what about when we know little-to-nothing about the author? Is it “helpful” for me to know that Paul Beatty is African American? Is it helpful for me to know that lust, spite, envy and ego fueled the writing of Infinite Jest?

wizfound

In my college creative writing classes, we were forbidden from offering the Roman emperor thumbs up/thumbs down assessment of any work. “I did/did not like it” was not an acceptable critique. I was taught to think about any piece in terms of what I felt worked and what I felt didn’t work. This critical framework was extended to all my reading and expanded and refined the more I read.

Thus, knowledge about an author is neither helpful nor unhelpful to me as a reader. What I do with that knowledge is what ultimately matters. I must be aware of the biases I bring to everything I read. Failing to do so creates blinders to the cultures, experiences, points of view and emotions the author is presenting.

In order for me to fully appreciate a work on its own terms, it is far more important for me to have knowledge about the reader—myself—than about the author. While this self-reflection may seem pointless and solipsistic to some, as a lover of books and someone who wants to get absolutely everything out of them I can, I find it necessary…a means to an end, as it were.

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