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Exile in Novel-ville


PUBLISHED: April 9, 2008

GalleyCat reports via Mediabistro via the New York Times that - wait for it - Liz Phair is writing a novel.

On the one hand, I love this. Liz Phair’s albums once played on loop in my Walkman, and I expect I’ll enjoy her book as well. On the other hand, this story reminds me of a publishing trend I’ve been thinking about lately. Many readers of fiction require their favorite authors to lead fascinating nonfictional lives. They want to know about the personality that drives the text. They want to know the faces, bloggings, and histories of their favorite authors. Has it always been this way? It seems to me that authors used to have more leeway to work in the shadows. Now books have to be transparent so readers can see directly through the pages to the writer.

Liz Phair, in a promotional photo

I think this demand for the writer’s reality creates a new way of reading fiction. The reader always keeps one foot outside of the fictional dream. “I’m not just reading a novel, I’m reading a novel by Liz Phair,” I will think when I pick up the rock star’s book. Phair’s autobiography will hover in the background and probably alter the quality of my reading. It will be a fictional world she creates, but one firmly rooted in reality.

I’m not saying that Liz Phair shouldn’t write a book. I’m glad she’s writing a book and not another pop album. And who doesn’t want to raise her profile high enough to attract a book deal? (Ahem.) But I wonder if fiction moves a step backward when the writer takes center stage. Or perhaps the heightened visibility of the author creates a more nuanced way of reading - a very 21st century way of reading - that I don’t understand yet. The reader is simultaneously drawn closer to and estranged from the text through knowledge of the author.

It seems like America’s desperate need for celebrities has infiltrated the book world. Maybe one day the novel will just be a “reality show” for the writer. All along we’ll know the fiction writer is mostly faking it, but by reading we’ll be complicit in the ruse. It’s too bad a dream world can’t just remain a dream world, without reality getting involved. As Linda Grant writes in her essay on the demand for autobiography in fiction:

For writers of fiction are what they are: those who make things up, who exaggerate, who cannot be trusted with the facts, whose inner world is more realistic than the one outside the window.

1 Comments

Drew Johnson's picture
Drew Johnson · 14 years ago
I admired that Linda Grant essay as well–thought it was one of the most cogent bits so far defending the notion that you are supposed to make things up–that novels shouldn’t be just the lightly massaged witness of our contemporaries. Perhaps we should all be forced to sit down and read Rudyard Kipling’s Kim…with Edward W. Said’s introduction. There was a time when the words Liz Phair just were enough…all by themselves. You could just say them aloud, like a charm, and everything would be okay.
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