When the Author Stands Naked

by Robert Fay

Somerset Maugham in 1957 (photo credit: S. Daveon).

I spent my freshman year at a drab suburban college pining for the cosmopolitan life of Boston. I whined and schemed and eventually engineered a transfer to Suffolk University in the city, where I was certain I’d meet fabulous Bohemian people who chain-smoked unfiltered Camels and read Rimbaud and William Blake by candlelight. Suffolk owned three Queen Anne revival buildings in the Back Bay and operated them as pseudo-rooming houses. I was 19 and had seemingly become an Emersonian self-actualized person overnight. I had propelled myself into the middle of a vibrant city, just two blocks from the upper-end of Newbury Street with Tower Records, the Avenue Victor Hugo book shop, the Trident Bookstore Café, Urban Outfitters (still indescribably outlaw in 1991) and Newbury Comics, the city’s punk rock record store.

I had arrived, or so it seemed, until I took stock of this new person and found he was remarkably unchanged, despite the sparkling offerings of the city.

Old problems persisted. The ground rules of interpersonal relations remained mysterious to me. I overshared with acquaintances and got clingy. Good people quickly fled, leaving me withdrawn and depressed, and vulnerable to centripetal forces within.

I desperately wanted to be loved by everyone—the consequences of a cold, unloving home I suppose—and I discovered people, particularly young women, had no patience for needy college sophomores.

Yet that autumn was not without its pleasure. I still recall one glorious week—crimson and vermillion leaves swirling across Commonwealth Avenue—when I curled up in bed with a Signet Classic paperback of Of Human Bondage (1915) by Somerset Maugham. I read the book with teenage abandon. I identified completely with the club-footed Philip Carey and his masochistic attraction to the cruel and vacuous paramour Mildred Rogers, who cared nothing for him, and got her kicks toying with his lap-dog like attention. Read more »

Reality Hunger: Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before

Reality hunger 1

The format: David Shields’ Reality Hunger is written as a series of short, numbered paragraphs. The content: Reality Hunger, according to the flyleaf, “is a rigorous and radical attempt to reframe how we think about ‘truthiness,’ literary license, quotation, appropriation.’ That means mashups, sampling, the whole ‘meta’ thing. Get it?


The book's numbered-paragraph format is, among other things, ideally suited to presenting ideas as aphorisms and aphorisms as stand-alone objects. David Shields quotes a lot of aphorisms and writes some others himself. I just opened the book at random to look for some, and in the pages that presented themselves I found three.


The above statement about opening the book at random just now and finding three aphorisms is true. That makes it a piece of reality writing about Reality Hunger. Here are the three: “There is properly no history, only biography.” “All that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt.” “The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.” They are from Emerson, Yeats, and Wilde. Aphorisms, especially absent their original context, are a stimulating but ultimately unsatisfying form. They’re popcorn shrimp on the buffet table of literature, postage stamps on the billets-doux and unpaid utility bills of the human spirit. To be honest, I think they're cool and fun to quote just as much as the author does. But then I love popcorn shrimp, too, so my original point stands.


As for those paragraphs, here's one: “In hip-hop, the mimetic function has been eclipsed to a large extent by manipulation of the original …theft without apology …” Followed by this: “In the slot called data, the reality is sliced in – the junk-shop find, thrift store clothes, the snippet of James Brown, the stolen paragraph from Proust, and so on.” See? He’s telling you why he’s throwing all those aphorisms in there without crediting the authors who wrote them. He's doing it to echo what he says is the new, magpie-like structure of 21st Century creation: appropriation without credit. But, as he explains in the end, the lawyers made him credit everyone at the end of the book anyway. He suggests you cut those pages out of your edition with scissors, but I’m not going to do that. It would diminish the resale value of the book.


So this book adheres to a self-referential form of literary construction, the “form follows function follows form” school that looks for a unifying concept and then seeks to mimic it in its own structure. It's not as bad as poems about vases that are shaped like vases, but there's some relationship there.

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