Writing, the New York Times Book Review, and needing a sense of yourself
Every Sunday, the young man who wanted to be a writer went out early to the corner newsstand to buy The New York Times. He had a routine. Shuffle and deal, like a casino hand: sports section, arts section, week in review, and last, because it would get the most time and consideration, the Book Review.
What do we think of the young man’s focus? He read the reviews longingly. His emotions were confused. Some reviews intimidated him. If he couldn’t understand the review, how could he possibly understand the book, and if he couldn’t understand the book, how could he write a book that people would think was thoughtful and smart? Some reviews insulted him. The reviewer was so blithe, the book sounded so easy, and when he sat down at night after work he felt like he was making cardboard out of people who were so distinct and alive in his mind. Some reviews just discouraged him: there was a pantheon of brilliance that he couldn’t ever aspire to.
“Being a writer” (a phrase that contained as much mystery and desire for that young man as “finding the Lord” would for a man with a religious vocation) was defined in its value through the prism of the Book Review, a virtual leaflet of judgment that appeared every weekend.
He stopped writing eventually, intimidated and defeated.
Why didn’t he look at the people in the subway, on the bus, sitting on park benches, at diners, all reading? Books everywhere around him, pathways to the imagination, the greater sense of humanness. Those people, in their unassuming clothes, with their myriad degrees, maybe smatterings of education, were the community, the people who read. He didn’t understand that he needed to respect the voice in his head, the feeling of excitement and understanding that he got if he just let himself write, free and unfettered.
When he tried to write in anticipation of the approval of the pantheon, whatever that pantheon might be, virtually impossible to anticipate, he buried himself. He wasn’t part of any world. He wanted to be part of a community, but he didn’t know the way in.
He wanted to be special, but he couldn’t really say who he was.
Today he rarely reads the Book Review. He just reads, book after book. He reads to learn, to discover and to please. Himself. He writes again, because someone who loves him, and who he loves back in a true and honest way, showed him that he had gone away from writing for the wrong reason. She sent him back to writing for the right reason.