“He’s like the crystal meth of sentence writers,” says John Freeman of his literary hero. “Once you read an Updike sentence, you think, ‘Jesus Christ! How did someone use all those turns of phrase and all those old words without having the sentence completely collapse?’”
This is not the last time Freeman will mention methamphetamines. The soft-spoken and laid back former editor of Granta, who has invited us into his home (with the library ladders) to discuss his new book, How to Read a Novelist, has been thinking a lot about crystal meth. He’s just finished binge watching a string of new episodes of Breaking Bad and seems more inclined to speak of its particular narrative brilliance than of the writers that people his own book. Those would be novelists as disparate as the white titan Don DeLillo to the Indonesian Ayu Utami to recent Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, and more than fifty other writers who span a broad swath of race, nationality, gender, and fame.
Singly, Freeman’s compact author profiles are deceptively simple, efficient. Taken together, read in succession, they create a kind of narrative drive of their own. The writers speak in a shared dialogue, unaware of the other participants yet returning again and again to the same themes. Freeman’s book ends up revealing things about the writing life that a single profile of a single author would not have the power or insight to convey on its own. That, according to Freeman, was his hope and exactly the notion behind publishing it as a single volume.
“There is a network of writers discussed within the book,” he says. “Between pieces, they are sort of talking to each other. This book is for readers, for anyone who has favorite writers but is always looking for new ones. It’s also for writers. You have to spend a lot of time alone writing. It’s a lonely feeling. It’s a feeling like failure has chosen only you, like someone’s picking on you. It’s hugely heartening to read how long it took some of these writers to figure out how to do what they do. Reading how provisional storytelling feels even to the masters—it restructures the form of how you define success. Plus, if you really love writers, you want to know more about them.”
Humming along in the background of these pieces, in musical radio static, is an idea that Freeman brings up multiple times in our own conversation. A young writer can throw up his or her arms and declare that all has been written before, but it’s the mercurial match between the story and the author who was meant to tell it that fascinates both Freeman and the crowd he’s gathered in the pages of his book.
“Books can lie to you. And I think those are bad books, even if they’re fictional,” he says. “I used to feel like this when I was working at Granta when submissions would come in. All writers work through influences and some writers spend their whole lives doing it, but I always felt like the stories that jumped out were the ones that could only have been written by that writer because it had something that writer was meant to say—or was even put on this earth to say. Sometimes it takes writers their whole lives to figure out what that is, if they ever find it. If it is important and it has the sound of truth and it’s something that they were meant to say and, on top of that, it’s enjoyable and the narrative pushes you along, or it’s funny, or it brings pleasure to you in the pleasure centers in any way it can—then that’s incredible. That is rare. Talent is rare.”
We could be relics. We’ve created a kind of vortex. Two people talking about talking to writers and imagining readers reading these conversations with writers, all while surrounded by stacks of tomes as his partner, literary agent Nicole Aragi, offers cookies from a tin before retreating to her own office next door. We might be sitting inside a museum, or inside a past, where writing once meant something important to a larger population than the few who scurry around this apartment, hovering just a bit above the noise of Manhattan below, full of people who’ve likely thumbed through nary a fraction of the pages in this one living room.
Everyone is a writer. Social media has made us all authors, of ourselves, of events, even of people whose personas we’ve only gathered up and imagined through the wires that connect us. How do books and their authors even matter anymore, considering Freeman himself is still reeling from last night’s Breaking Bad?
“You haven’t seen it?” he says in disbelief to my ignorance of the general gist of the show. “It’s so good! The character development, it’s amazing! It’s like a new Willy Loman story. I was reading Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street recently and sometimes I wonder, ‘Where are the novelists writing about poverty, about the economic problems in our country?’ That’s why some of these shows have so much appeal.”
But to Freeman, despite the apparent television renaissance we’re currently living through, there is no crisis of the novel, because there is no replacement for it. If the form does not captivate, as it once did, entire populations, it will persist because despite Twitter and all else, the relationship between the novel and its reader is irreplaceable.
“The immersion within a written narrative still provides something that’s unique,” says Freeman, setting aside for a moment his enthusiasm for televised drug deals. “In fact, it’s very unique, in the sense of how you and the author co-create the text. When you’re watching TV, the image is already made for you, the scene is shot for you, and everything is already there. With a book, you’re making the sound of the character’s voice, you’re imagining—with the help of the author—what the scenes look like. And, with the help of the author, you’re imagining yourself to be that person.
“In a climate where we’re constantly interrupted, where we’re constantly living vicariously, constantly having to assert ourselves against the onslaught of all these various forms of digital communication, there is something very exciting about having to do none of that and just become someone else. That’s why novelists are so interesting, because they are one person in flesh and blood. Then you read their books and it’s an extension of that. It’s the extension which, as a reader and as a writer…”
Freeman breaks off for a moment, considering where the thought has lead him, what exactly he is trying to say. Then, like a flashlight beam across a forest floor, he spots it.
“…It’s holy. In a secular way, it’s holy. It’s what makes us human.”
And forget about limitations. If the seduction that technology offers is its limitless vistas, the eventual delivery of the previously unimaginable, Freeman sees this possibility too, in the novel. “Technology” belongs to the novelist, too, and the works that have yet to be composed. The old form is on par with the new, poised even to surpass it when all the fancy new things start to flag.
“They are all part of a similar continuum,” he says with some finality about the relationship between, say, Facebook and actual books. “We often imagine ourselves through the lives of imaginary others. That immersion, that dream—whether it’s through television or a book—is important. It’s how we expand empathy beyond our actual experience to an experience that might mean something even though it’s not something we did. Like, say, becoming a meth dealer as a high school chemistry teacher.”
In the end, it might be something Freeman says, almost offhandedly, about the power of John Updike’s prose that contains the secret we’ve both been ambling toward. We both want to say (or ask) the exact thing that proves the triumph of book-love over the fleeting cacophony that threatens the artifacts of his living room. With How to Read a Novelist, Freeman has done an admirable and valuable thing by revealing glimpses of the people who enchant us with their peculiar work of making novels. But there’s something in what Freeman said at the outset, when he was comparing Updike sentences to methamphetamine. We need only to listen to an unapologetic book-hound rave about a favorite and somewhere in the accolades is the answer we’ve danced around for over an hour now.
“[Updike] was really into astronomy and had kind of a poet’s eye view of the smallness and the randomness of our own existence,” Freeman says. “There’s a wonder in his books.”
Photographer: Dorothy Hong at Dothong.com. Stylist: Joshua Liebman at Joshualiebman.com.