To my knowledge, only once has the winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize ever read my writing. It was today.
Over the last week, I’ve been reading T.J. Stiles’s 2009 National Book Award-winning, and 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. A couple of days ago I posted some of my early reactions to this book, and some general thoughts on my own relationship with nonfiction. Here’s what I wrote:
Perhaps this is my ongoing struggle with nonfiction—particularly of the historical sort. Somehow the fact that a given story has already come and gone just takes a bit of the edge off for me. The fact is that I live in the world post-Vanderbilt, and I don't expect a better understanding of his influence on the world to drastically impact how I live in it.Fiction, on the other hand, still has the ability to change my world. The slightest bump in the arc of a story, the most unexpected development in a character, can shift my entire worldview. The possibility gives me that little bit more urgency.
This, of course, was an oversimplified distillation of my thoughts on nonfiction, history, and biography in general, as well as on Stiles’s much-celebrated book in particular. Not counting endnotes, acknowledgements, or the index, Stiles’s book runs 571 pages. I used it as a specific illustration of my more general experience after about 27 of them.
What I meant to do was to put into a few words the first blush of an explanation for a question that was developing in my head. Namely, why is it taking me so long to really sink my teeth into this book?
I wondered this because I knew what critical acclaim the book had received, and what a behemoth its subject was in the development of our country and economy, and because I had recognized on the very first page what fine writing Stiles had put before me here. (My praise for Stiles’s writing, I’m afraid, got drowned out by my question of its ability to change my life.)
Perhaps my mistake was in taking an idea that was so complicated in my own head and only devoting a portion of a 350-word blog post to it. I don’t expect to come to any more definitive conclusions here, but I can at least, I hope, reframe and rephrase the issue I meant to raise in the first place.
Fiction gets praised when it “rings true.” The magic of nonfiction is that it is true. It shows us that real lives are remarkable, that real life is worth our attention, that it doesn’t matter whether life imitates art or art imitates life. Life is art. Art is life.
In order to really do that, though, nonfiction needs us readers to give it a bit of room: Room to be good writing for good writing’s sake. Room to be comprehensive. Room to reemphasize the value of history not just so that we can learn from it, but so that we can be entertained by it.
Stiles is a magnificent storyteller. His first sentence reads, “They came to learn his secrets.” Even if I’d never heard of Cornelius Vanderbilt, that first sentence would have made me wanting to learn his secrets, too. All 571 pages of them.
Why, then, am I not reeling in the clutches of this book? Why am I not devouring it in the same way as I’ve devoured other books I’ve read this year? I wrote what I did because I couldn’t understand why.
What it really boils down to is that I need to give this book the room to show off the magic of nonfiction that I see week after week in The New Yorker, or that I felt in 11th grade when I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test for the first time.
When I wrote that post, after reading only the first section of Stiles’s book, I knew my thought wasn’t fully formed, but I posted it anyway. The point of my blog is to give a window into the experience of a real-life reader. My intention has always been to create a discourse about reading and writing, to ask questions and to listen. I try to read widely and to take into account the opinions of reviewers, family, friends, and perfect strangers in the bookstore. I even judge books by their covers.
Those who love to read as much as I do must wish deep down that they could be paid to write, or to read, or both. Most of us don’t get that, but we can put our own thoughts into the world, hope that some people will read them, and that for a few of those people our thoughts will resonate.
For the first, and most likely only, time in my life today, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award read my writing. He didn’t respond to me directly, but he did post a reaction on his own blog. (Impressed as I’ve been so far with his most recent book, I was doubly impressed by his ability to call my perspective both “thoughtful” and “mundane” in the span of a few paragraphs.) I never would have known, had I not noticed an unusual number of hits on my site today, many of which were referrals from his blog.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was honored that my half-baked post stirred up some thoughts in T.J. Stiles’s head. I’m just glad that I was able to use the traffic log on my site (thanks, Squarespace!) to find his post. I’ll be posting a brief comment in response to his blog post, in an attempt to clarify my position in brief and to direct anyone who wants a much more wordy attempt here.
Maybe he’ll read it, and maybe he’ll reply. (I kind of wish he’d commented on the question I posed in my last post about what works of nonfiction had really stirred you as a reader.) After all, isn’t the blog—isn’t writing—about generating discourse?