Stuff I’ve Been Reading
A monthly column
by Nick Hornby
- The Beginner’s Goodbye—Anne Tyler
- 36 Arguments for the Existence of God—Rebecca Goldstein
- Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down: How One Generation of British Actors Changed the World—Robert Sellers
- A Giacometti Portrait—James Lord
- The Submission—Amy Waldman
- Grace Williams Says It Loud—Emma Henderson
- Skylark—Dezsö Kosztolányi
I have been writing in these pages for nearly ten years, on and off, so I’m long past the point where I’m worried about repeating myself. I hope you’re long past that point too, if you’ve been here since the beginning. I hope you treat this column as if it were your favorite chocolate bar: you’ve consumed something not just similar but exactly the same in the last few weeks, but you like it, and it’s been a while since the last one, so it’s OK. And if you follow those serving suggestions, you may actually be surprised every now and again, because it’s not as if I say the same things about the same books every month. The ingredients are the same, sure, but at least the column has the virtue of being wildly inconsistent.
As you have probably guessed, I am about to repeat myself. I have said it before, every time Tyler has published a novel in the last decade, and I hope I have many opportunities to say it again: Anne Tyler changed my life. Before I started reading her books, back in the 1980s, I had no idea that novelists were allowed to do what she did, and still does, namely, write with simplicity, intelligence, humor, and heart about domestic life. Many years later, I realized that she had been given permission because she’s a genius, but the blessing and the curse of her gift is that it seems effortless, and as a consequence she makes lots of idiots, this one included, think that they can do it too. It has also, I suspect, led lots of other idiots to underrate her as a writer. Yes, she’s won a Pulitzer, and she frequently gets ecstatic reviews, yet her seriousness and her craft are so user-friendly that she still doesn’t get the credit she deserves. She is a living American great, right up there with anyone you can think of, but her sympathy for her characters, and her determination to find redemption even for the most hopeless of them, sometimes leads to her being patronized by those critics who need writers to make a song and dance about their profundity and their worth.
Tyler has had a career that, I suspect, is unrepeatable. In 1964, when her first novel was published, she decided that she felt uncomfortable talking about herself, and didn’t give another interview for the next forty-odd years. She simply stayed at home in Baltimore, writing novels about Baltimore, and slowly built a readership—a large, adoring readership, eventually—in a way that is no longer an option for anyone starting out on a literary career now: any first-time novelist who refuses to tour or tweet or make imaginary friends on social-networking sites is effectively announcing to publishers and bookstores that he or she would prefer to do something else for a living. As you may already have noticed, I haven’t read her latest novel yet. But I bought it in Oxford, the day before I heard her talk about her work to nine hundred devotees at the Oxford Literary Festival. I have a personalized, signed copy of both The Beginner’s Goodbye and The Accidental Tourist. I have met Anne Tyler, and that is something I never thought I would say.
Some people claim that they have no desire to meet their heroes for fear of disappointment, but this seems nuts to me, or at least suspiciously affected. So it’s 1869, and you’re at a party, and you notice Dickens leaning against the mantelpiece banging on about penal reform. It turns out to be his last year on Earth. You don’t go over and listen, in the hope that someone will introduce you? Yes, there is the possibility that you’ll think he’s a pompous twit, in which case you’ve got a story that you’ll tell people forever. There’s a chance that he’ll think you’re a boring nonentity, but you can edit that bit from your narrative. But seriously, dude? You’re too cool to bother to talk to Dickens? What about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye, Cézanne, Babe Ruth, Orson Welles? No? Wow. Well, good for you, I suppose. You’re a deeply serious person, although you’re almost certainly no fun at parties, and you may well be unhappily single. Me, I’m going to take every chance I get to make a nuisance of myself when somebody I admire is in the vicinity, and if that means wearing a builder’s hardhat that made me look like an unsuccessful animated children’s character, then so be it. (Thierry Henry, Arsenal’s record goal-scorer, while the new stadium was being constructed in 2005, in case you’re wondering.)
It’s true, though, that the real privilege lay not in meeting Henry but in owning a season ticket that allowed me to see just about every single goal he ever scored in the home games. And the real privilege here was in listening to Tyler talk about her work, in the company of several hundred other people. Some of you may have heard writers being asked about their process before; some of you may even be writers who have answered the same question. Well, you’ve never heard anything like the description she gave us. She was hesitant while giving it, and she laughed nervously at a couple of points in her narrative, as the extent of her commitment to her work became apparent (perhaps to her, as well as to us). I can’t quite remember how it went. I know it involved a longhand draft, followed by an insane number of corrections, and then a draft on the computer. And there was an old stenography machine in there somewhere, too. It was when she introduced the notion of the second longhand draft that the audience gasped, and those of us there who until that moment had thought of ourselves as professional writers shrank as far down into our seats as physics and biology would allow. Why is Anne Tyler so good? Oh, it’s just one of those freakish gifts—some people are born lucky. I am about to read her new novel, and I will write about it in the next issue, and I will introduce it by drawing attention to the repetitiveness of this column.