I found Michael Cunningham's Sunday essay, "Found in Translation", an oddly incoherent and disjointed affair. At a minimum, the metaphor of translation - stretched to include, in Cunningham's view, a compact between reader and writer - feels strained to the breaking point. The whole thing reads very much as though Cunningham had two separate pieces in mind - one on the finer points of translation, and one on the writer's audience - and lumped them together, conjoined uneasily like Siamese twins of different parents. Here's where he stitches them together:
A translator is also translating a work in progress, one that has a beginning, middle and end but is not exactly finished, even though it’s being published. A novel, any novel, if it’s any good, is not only a slightly disappointing translation of the novelist’s grandest intentions, it is also the most finished draft he could come up with before he collapsed from exhaustion. It’s all I can do not to go from bookstore to bookstore with a pen, grabbing my books from the shelves, crossing out certain lines I’ve come to regret and inserting better ones. For many of us, there is not what you could call a “definitive text.”
This brings us to the question of the relationship between writers and their readers, where another act of translation occurs.
It doesn't actually bring us to any question of the kind, Cunningham's insistence that it does notwithstanding. But if awkward transition was the worst of the essay's sins, it wouldn't merit mention here. My real problems with the piece are found in its second half, which reads like an all-too-familiar anti-intellectual broadside, which is surprising considering the source. I'm not deeply familiar with his work, but from what I have read, Cunningham can be artful and subtle. Hence my disquiet.
He relates the tale of a former co-worker, a Laguna Beach restaurant hostess named Helen whom he describes as an avid reader. He goes on to say:
She was, when we met, reading a trashy murder mystery, and I, as only the young and pretentious might do, suggested that she try Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” since she liked detective stories.
I find this kind of condescension breathtaking. I think the implication that because a reader enjoys genre reading, the likes of Dostoyevsky might be beyond her and it's "pretentious" to recommend it, is a repugnant one. Cunningham's essay is essentially a plea to "give the reader what she wants" but he seems intent on keeping readers within the narrow bands of their existing interests, giving them very little credit.
There's more inverted snobbery in the next paragraph, where Cunningham says, "I did like, very much, that Helen had no school-inspired sense of what she was supposed to enjoy more, and what less." Again, Cunningham seems to suggest that one would only prefer Dostoyevsky to Turow if some mean-spirited English professor somewhere brainwashed that preference into the helpless student intent on a good yarn. But, if we accept that literature is work that stands the test of time, does Cunningham imagine Turow will still be read a hundred years from now? And that Dostoyevsky will not? He goes on to say:
Helen was, clearly, not reading the same “Crime and Punishment” I was. She wasn’t looking for an existential work of genius. She was looking for a good mystery, and she read Dostoyevsky with that thought in mind.
That may be, but must what she was "looking for" stand in the way of what she might find? Does Cunningham really believe that there's no need to reach beyond "give 'em what they want"? Everyone who reads so-called "serious" fiction has made just such a leap at a key moment in their lives, when their taste evolved beyond the consolations of narrative, when a special book showed them just what great writing could do. Why does he seem to begrudge Helen this moment? (For that matter, who actually looks for "an existential work of genius"?)
But what finally strikes me as most foolish and wrong-headed about this essay is this:
... She simply needed what any good reader needs: absorption, emotion, momentum and the sense of being transported from the world in which she lived and transplanted into another one.
I began to think of myself as trying to write a book that would matter to Helen.
This is troubling on a few fronts. First, to chase an imagined reader seems to me a fool's errand. People today read less, and less carefully, than ever before - Helen's tastes are clearly of her time - and if a future writer decides to write for a Helen twenty years from now, isn't it entirely possible said author would surrender in despair? This is, I suppose, where reasonable minds can disagree, but I think given the choice of attempting to write for the ages or attempting to write for Oprah, I will pick the ages, though I'm aware that represents its own kind of snobbery.
But the real false dichotomy here is the implication throughout that novels can't do both. And to present this argument that there's a Helen Book, which is somehow distinct in its potential from any great piece of literature, feels like a shallow proposition to me. It's the same kind of false either/or that Zadie Smith has made the case for, that novels can apparently only do one thing. I think it borders on willful naivete to say that a great and lasting work can be written to fit the demands of a Scott Turow fan. But a literary novel can provide all the consolations that Cunningham says Helen seeks - while it slips the bonds of convention and offers something greater still.
Anyway, as I tell my students, you must, can only, write for yourself. It doesn't mean you give license to your every self-indulgent impulse; but the moment you begin to write to someone else's expectation, the work is stillborn. Readers will know. They always do. Helen could tell you that. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
Michael Cunningham will be at Vromans Bookstore in Pasadena on October 11 to discuss his new novel, By Nightfall.