March 17, 2011
JR: The reason wolves are so strong is because they move in packs. Morgan Macgregor is out in Los Angeles doing her own thing. We thought it might shake things up a bit if we gave her a trial run on the blog. Please welcome Morgan, and tells us what you think in the comments section.
I’d Rather Be Reading by Morgan Macgregor
A writer acquaintance invited me to a semi-high-profile literary event the other day, and when I declined, he called me a cynic. I started to respond, “I’m a critic, not a cynic,” but stopped myself and remembered: I’m in Hollywood. Where cynicism is synonymous with anti-social, elitist, and where schmoozing, “doing lunch,” and playing six-degrees of separation is so ingrained in the socio-cultural structure, particularly regarding work, that staying home to read is a veritable death sentence on your career.
But that’s what I do: read, and write about reading. They’re solitary activities, and I consider them my work. This is incongruous in a place where networking is work. I tell people I meet that I love to read, and spend most of my day reading, and they say, “Oh, you’ve got to meet so-and-so, he’s a reader for this big producer and blah etc,” or “Cool, I should introduce you to my agent’s wife, she’s in with the people at such and such a place blah.” Which is all fine and nice and thank you very much (really! I mean it!), but I lament that my saying that I love books, or that I read all day, rarely instigates a conversation about books and reading, and most always a conversation about making friends and networking. I guess that’s because in Hollywood, you need friends in the industry.
Here’s the thing though. If I’m a reader, then the people in my industry are writers and publishers, and I don’t want to be friends with writers and publishers. I can think of at least two reasons why.
The first, of course, is that friendship negates fandom. I am awed by books every single day, and so I revere the people who write them. One of the offsets of the culture of connectivity is the humanizing (or rather, personalizing) of art and the people who make it. But for me, the romance of literature requires that the writer and reader maintain some significant level of disconnect, of remove from each other. I don’t want to go to parties with writers, I want to interview them. I met Jonathan Franzen recently, and was happy for the autograph table between us. I want my writers to be enigmas, so that I can be their fan.
LA’s got a couple of “cool” independent bookstores. One of them is Skylight, where the readings (due to the friendly, networky, LAish relations between the publishers, booksellers, promoters, writers and readers) are notorious for devolving into epic episodes of drinking and shooting the shit. At a recent Skylight reading, I was invited, by a very endearing writer, to attend a party of bookish people. I declined. This writer is fantastic, the reading was really fun, but I didn’t want to drink with him; I wanted to go home and read his book. And then review it.
Which brings me to the second reason for my hesitance to make literary friends: I want to write reviews that are unclouded by my personal feelings for the publisher or the writer. Literary friendships feel fundamentally wrong to me, in the context of my wanting to be a serious reader (by which I don’t mean a reader of serious literature, but a person who reads books seriously), especially in that I want to review the books that I read.
Back in the olden days, literary reviews were Journalism: impartial, objective pieces of literature themselves. Untainted by the churning pressure to draw attention’s to one’s blog, to ingratiate oneself with publishers, or to pacify the feelings of writer friends, reviews were still opinions, sure, but they were virgin opinions. I’m not saying I don’t think there’s anybody upholding that standard today, but I’m far from being the first person to publicly bemoan the devolution of mainstream literary criticism into starry-eyed, watery synopses and sales pitches. And I can’t help but assume that one of the main reasons for this is that we’re all friends.
I love Los Angeles. I embrace all of the cliches that are a part of Hollywood, and I accept that I’ll always be a reader living in the heart of the film industry. I like LA’s underdog status in the literary world. I like discovering writers likeMaile Meloy and Marisa Silver, who don’t get as much play in New York, and the smug vindication I feel at knowing they could live there, but don’t. I like reading This Book Will Change Your Life and Imperial Bedrooms and knowing where every street is. I felt like those books were full of inside jokes just for me (even if Imperial Bedroomsdidn’t end up being a very good joke.) But I’m going to keep doing things my way, cynical or not.
Thank you for the invite, really, but I’m going to go home and read.
Morgan Macgregor is a reader and blogger living in Los Angeles. She likes
contemporary American fiction and talking about it. Probably because she’s Canadian.