Defined by Borders
On a trip to my local Borders Books and Music store in Portland, Oregon, I once saw, in the fiction section, some text that deserves comment. Books were packed solidly onto the shelves. On the edges of these shelves upon which the books sat, facing those of us browsing the books, were comments printed in a classy computer font which provided what I could only believe were inducements to explore particular authors further, to pull books off the shelf and look into some writer, lured by the fascinating detail, the advertisement for that author. After all, Borders sells books.
Let me record here the comments I found that day in Borders:
Kerouac was a football star at Columbia.
Thom Jones -- Ex-Marine & Boxer.
Iris Murdoch was a professor of philosophy.
When he died all of Melville's books were out of print.
Martin Amis received the largest advance in Britain's literary history.
Paul Bowles was also a composer.
Fitzgerald died broke at age 44.
William Faulkner -- Ex-postal worker & Nobel Laureate.
John Irving was a wrestler in prep school.
Conrad didn't learn English until he was 20.
Yukio Mishima committed ritual suicide at 45.
Hemingway was an ambulance driver in WWI.
Mann neither labored nor committed uxoricide.
Norman Mailer was once arrested for stabbing his wife.
These biographical inducements to peruse are intended to reveal details that might cause consumers to select a book and flip through it, perhaps to purchase a book. There are what are meant to be surprises on the list. That Kerouac played football seems antithetical to his Beat image. Jocks and Beats are two different groups at school. Similarly, this Jones fellow did some tough stuff -- Marines, boxing -- before writing stories; and Irving was a wrestler, an athlete in a sport more macho than most. There is general information for the average reader. Amis and Fitzgerald show us the polar opposites of money; Faulkner and Melville, fame. And some information is aimed at those book browsers who are interested in biographical details concerning more artistic and intellectual matters. Conrad's late acquisition and masterful use of the English language, Bowles' artistic talent beyond literature, and Murdoch's background in philosophy rightly deserve mention. Mishima's suicide was, for the unknown biographer at Borders, apparently more noteworthy than Hemingway's. Where the writer of these bios was going with the Thomas Mann sentence I do not know. Why the mention of uxoricide? Is there some detail about his life I should know from his biography? Is this anything like saying that Emily Dickinson never decapitated a neighbor or drank the blood of a child? Perhaps I'm missing something here. M-A-I-L-E-R. M-A-N-N. Was the Mann comment merely an alphabetically-arranged follow-up to the Mailer bio?
But I did not miss the shot fired at Norman Mailer. The detail mentioned I know to be true. But why was this detail used for Mailer when many others could have been used instead? Mailer does not make the syllabi of the politically correct. Neither, for that matter, does Hemingway, though he came out unscathed in these descriptions. Mailer claims, for example, that feminists beat up on him because he's an easy target. He claims they don't have the courage to go after the really tough guys they need to do battle with. Despite the fact that I do not know the circumstances of the stabbing committed by Mailer, I am willing to assert the following statement: I find the stabbing of one's wife to be heinous behavior. Who among the sane and civilized doesn't? So someone in the Borders hierarchy who orders books to be sold in the store selects at least some of the work of Mailer, and an employee of Borders decides to dump on him? What is the purpose of Borders -- to provide a critique of writers or sell books? How would Mailer's publisher feel about this negative spin placed under the books Borders has chosen to sell? I doubt Mailer would approve of this advertisement for himself.
Powell's City of Books, in Portland, not too many blocks from the Portland Borders, is the largest new-and-used book store in the United States. It's an amazing store, a great book store, and not just because it's large. And it's not, to my mind, a great book store because it has a PC attitude. We know Powell's is PC from the stands it takes, the causes it champions, the readers it invites to its store. Nevertheless, Mailer and many other authors who have received flak from PC purists line the shelves of Powell's. Powell's champions the First Amendment too. I first learned about Borders from watching C-Span: George Will, on a panel with David McCullough and David Halberstam, praised the new book store chain. I would later learn that Borders is owned by K-Mart. Each individual Borders, I understand, attempts to reflect the community it's in. This one-sentence bio on Mailer certainly does reflect a portion of Portland, a portion, I'd be willing to bet, that is a large portion of the people who read serious literature in America today.
But back to the bios. The subjectivity of the pronouncements, the judgments, intrigues me. And, specifically, why was Mailer the only author I could find with a negative bio? The other authors, last I checked, have not achieved sainthood. Why weren't one of the two following lines from Faulkner used? Faulkner once "answered" his daughter, Jill, with a phrase his biographer, Joseph Blotner, says "she would never forget": "Nobody remembers Shakespeare's children," Faulkner told his daughter. I suppose that put her in her place. Faulkner also gave us this: "Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency... to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies." In addition, the report on his work in the post office is that, instead of delivering the mail, Faulkner would read the magazines and then pass them along to their owners when he was through with them. I assume employees at Borders would be fired for such behavior. And what was his stance on civil rights? Cloudy, if I recall correctly, at best; and since I don't know for sure, I'm not willing to tape up a strip of paper here to put him down until I know. The capriciousness of the cut at Mailer surprises me. Well, it does and it doesn't.
When I, as an undergraduate, casually announced to my father that I had thoughts of someday opening a book store, he laughed and advised me against it. He said I'd go out of business not long after opening my doors because I would stock my shelves only with books I believed people ought to be reading instead of the books they wanted to purchase with their own money. Don't get me wrong: the man has always been a very supportive father. But he had heard me talk about books -- mostly about literature, philosophy, art history, and theology -- on occasions during the previous two years before my comment about the book store. I'd never talked about books before I went to college. In high school I almost never read them --especially my class assignments. But in college I wanted to read all of the books I thought were the great books. (Notice that I couldn't just write great books there in the previous sentence: I had to specify that I'd be in charge of the canon.) My father, as usual, knew a lot I didn't yet know: there's a big difference in offering people what they want and giving them what you feel they need -- especially when you're trying to earn a dollar.
So I became a professor in an English department. I have a job where I give my students what I think they need; and, whether they think much about this or not, they pay me money -- though their tuition -- to guide them in their readings. (Or should the verb, instead of guide, be coerce?) On the small scale of the liberal arts campus, even if I don't publish one word, I share with my colleagues the power of choosing visiting writers, the power of my many syllabi, the power of my endless comments spoken to the impressionable young on Trombley Square after class, the power of e-mail and class lists, and the bulletin board on the front of my office door where I can tack up any slip of paper I choose that will encourage in all the students who pass by my door the quality of mind and strength of spirit that shall help shape them into becoming tomorrow's arbiters of taste. (Or should that last sentence read something more like this? Thanks to academic freedom I have yet another billboard I don't have to pay for.) And I am known for my heavy use of irony on that bulletin board. So I suppose I don't blame the biographer at Borders. He or she is doing something I do, something I encourage others to do. Be active, not passive. Find ways to extend your voice.
However, I do have a nagging problem about the bio on Mailer. I know a writer who is pleased if he happens to notice, in some library, that people have been writing comments in the margins of one of his critical books. He considers these comments evidence that he has someone's attention: he's being read instead of ignored. I tend to think of such activity as defacing a book, something far less than quality attention or quality conversation. To me, writing in a book that way is barely a half-step above writing one's opinion on the wall in a bathroom stall. One, leave the critic's book free of markings so that text is clear for the next reader who may need to see it in order to write a brilliant attack against it. Two, if you have something to say in rebuttal, then enter the arena: write your own piece and publish it. Speak to more readers that way, and do it out in the open with your name signed to your opinion.
Anyway, who cares about this attack at Borders upon one writer? I'm a writer myself. I have the disease most writers have. "I want to read," as, ironically, the well-read John Updike himself said in his Paris Review interview, "only what will help me unpack my own bag." But write -- and publish -- toward what end? To be misunderstood, misread? To be purposefully slammed by an employee at a book store who didn't particularly care for one thing or another I did which might not have been related to the quality of my literary work but would certainly stigmatize me as a person and place a damper on the dissemination of my words?
I fear reading the skinny, incomplete line someone might create concerning my entire, varied, complicated, full life (should I someday see my book on the shelf). I don't particularly relish being defined by borders of any kind, but I especially detest those borders that are determined by anyone other than me. In addition, my sins, I know, are many.
Like Walt Whitman before him, Walls contained multitudes.
Like Henry Miller before him, Walls thought required reading of The Faerie Queene was the sort of thing that forces one to quit college. Like Ernest Hemingway before him, Walls thought those who believed in an afterlife were suckers. Like Albert Camus before him, Walls believed that "...if there is a sin against life, it lies perhaps less in despairing of it than in hoping for and evading the implacable grandeur of the one we have."
All right. So I wrote those. Not fair. I don't get to write my own biographical snippets. I have no choice but to leave those assessments to others, infallible human beings. Other people, you should be forewarned, are more likely to mislead you with their subjective judgments about me -- judgments based on incomplete knowledge.
On an overcast spring day, Walls was surely guilty of having said something somehow inappropriately intimate to a beautiful woman who had been discussing nothing but sex with him all afternoon long.
One day in his office, in the throes of deliberation concerning the radical decision-making required by those troubling concepts "justice" and "mercy" (which continually haunted him throughout his life), Walls showed one student mercy and one student justice, thinking he had made the right choices, healthy choices for all concerned. Little did he know then about the justice being dealt to him in a letter he would soon receive.
All right. All right. It's hard to write these.
Not only did Walls never commit uxoricide, he never hit his wife. In fact,
he always thought himself supremely fortunate to have married so well.
Walls was immensely proud -- far more proud than Ben Jonson ever could have been -- of his two sons.
Walls rejected the Christianity of his mother and father to do something more improvisational with the Bible teachings of his youth. His brother once told him this with a laugh: "You'd have made a great pastor if only you could have believed in a God."
Like the young lifeguard/seminarian in John Updike's "Lifeguard," Walls was "too disordered to deal with the main text" and found himself writing about marginalia while the more masterful writers took on the big topics.