I’ve never read a single one of your books. It’s a source of shame, given that I’m an aspiring novelist. It’s also confusing, given that I was educated at Columbia University and attended one of the best public high schools in the country.
I have terrible ADD and hated reading books for the same reason I hated practicing piano–my mother was constantly screaming at me to do it. I got through English classes reading Cliffs Notes, and later SparkNotes, and I always picked “analytical” essay topics that involved reading a single passage, rather than those about broader themes or things that would have required reading the book.
But I would like you to know that, among all the esteemed and critically important writers whose work I’ve never read, you are the most meaningful.
It started with my father. My father, whose opinion I grew up respecting, told me from a young age that you were his favorite writer. He was particularly into The Old Man and the Sea, but if I were to ask him now, he would probably tell me a different favorite. My father continues to read and reread your books as an adult human in the year 2014 with a real job and little free time.
Later in life, a friend compared my writing to yours. She said, “You’re sparse like Hemingway, not flowery like Fitzgerald.” I’ve actually read Fitzgerald, and I don’t think he’s flowery. He has long and vivid sentences, but they aren’t packed with unnecessary words, which is my definition of “flowery.” Sadly, the piece of writing that my friend compared to your work was a piece of shit. I think she was trying to make me feel better, but it came at the expense of your reputation.
For a while, I allowed myself to be deluded about this compliment. I considered myself a “writer like Hemingway,” which got me through bouts of self-hatred and self-doubt when I looked at my ugly sparse writing and was pretty sure it was no better than the work of a five-year-old with a crayon. Of course, I still couldn’t read your writing because I knew the moment I did, I would think: Hemingway is brilliant sparse and I’m retarded sparse.
I hate to use the word retarded in a derogatory fashion, but sometimes it’s the only word that works. I can’t find its substitute. Do you have any ideas? If anyone would know, it’s someone who was alive before the word retarded was used derogatorily.
It’s basically “moronic” but with more hatred. It’s very close to “fucking moronic” but that would be two words, including the word fucking, which is just as cheap as the word retarded, so it doesn’t solve the problem.
Anyway, there is a part of me deep, deep, deep down inside, underneath thrashing violent waves of self-doubt, that actually believes I am a good writer. Or that I have a voice worth tolerating. To me, that’s the definition of a good writer. Any writer of a book on a bestseller list is a good writer. I don’t care if the book is Rich Dad Poor Dad, or whatever that book is called.
In this way, sometimes I don’t think I want to be a real artist. I want to write for the masses. It’s confusing because I was drawn to writing based on this feeling that I have something poetic to say. At the same time, I want notoriety, and by that, I mean I want millions of people to love me. I want my book be a bestseller with something to this effect embossed on the cover: “Millions of people read and loved this book and have extremely strong feelings for its author by association.”
I actually have read your writing. I recently read about a page of your writing. I’m a tutor, and one of my students had to answer some questions about a chapter from one of your books. I can’t remember the title of the book, but basically, there was a guy named Nick and he was trying to get over an ex-wife named Marge. Nick’s friend gave him some advice, which I’m forgetting, but it ended with a remark along the lines of “or else you’ll get back together with her.” Nick’s friend intended this as a warning, but the second Nick heard it, he felt better about everything. He knew he shouldn’t be with Marge, but he was suffering, like anyone after a breakup, and the idea that there wasn’t permanence to the decision made him feel relief. Nick became happier and more spirited in his interactions with the friend. Nick’s friend didn’t notice that this was happening internally with Nick.
I loved that passage. I love how you identified a very basic, yet nuanced, aspect of human psychology and weaved it into the interaction. I loved how it was a deeply sad and lonely expression of the human condition. I fell in love with your writing reading this one single page of one of your books with my student.
I went on to lecture my student about you as a writer and how you’re known for writing in a sparse and poetic manner. I said you and Fitzgerald were writers of the same time and that you had opposite styles, and then I tried to spin it like there was some sort of interesting competition between you (was there?). Imagine the audacity. I haven’t even read one of your books and I had the nerve to speak about you and literary history with any degree of authority. My only real background is that I read one page of your writing, I read The Great Gatsby, and I watched the first hour of that godawful movie Midnight in Paris.
A lot of tutoring is lying and bullshitting. Sometimes you know the parents are in nearby rooms, so you have to talk like that.
I’m late to a dinner, so I must wrap this up.
Thanks for being an important literary influence in my life despite the fact that I haven’t read your writing. I look forward to reading one of your books one day.
P.S. You’re very attractive. Just Google-imaged you after I Googled you to confirm that Nick and Marge were the names of the characters from whatever book I read.
Shirin Najafi is a writer living in Los Angeles. She wrote for the 2014 CBS Sketch Comedy Showcase and is currently working on her first novel. She has been published in The Rumpus, Trop, and Departures.