Dispatches | April 17, 2007

The Don Imus thing brings up a lot of interesting issues, including that of the evolution of attitudes.  Public opinion and discourse is the theme with the Imus imbroglio, but I occasionally wonder about the changes in private attitudes with issues such as taste.  What would it be like to meet yourself at a much younger age?  What would you say to each other?

In order to test that, I pulled down a book that I read in 1977 or so (a guess) and read what I wrote on the inside cover.  The book is Play it As It Lays by Joan Didion.  At that time I was a serious young bibliohead desperately trying to finish a huge novel that was about to be rejected.  It would be another year or two before I published even a book of stories, then another couple more before I published a first novel.  So desperate is the relevant word.  But I was a bibliohead — definitely — so much that I called the novelists in my note by their first names (I barely knew one of them).  So here’s me 30 years ago, with a response:

1976:  There are too many people walking around being pretentious nihilists in Joan’s books.  This time it’s Hollywood.  They’re all too helpless to believe.  They take themselves or the narrator takes them too seriously.  Rita May’s Rubyfruiters take selves seriously but in broader parameters of emotion.  Rita May writes about people accepting themselves (lesbians), Joan writes about people loathing themselves.  Margaret [Atwood] writes about people finding their selfhood.  Toni [Morrison] does the same but on a more social scale.  Toni is the best writer among them, can turn the best phrase, create the best milieu.

2007: Pretty smart, kid.  You’re reading and paying attention.  But you sorta knew Ms. Brown, so you’re a little prejudiced, eh?  Admit it.  And Margaret Atwood had just really gotten her fiction career going. 

If you could only see what Margaret has done since then-way beyond The Edible Woman and Surfacing.  She has endured and become almost a Dickens of the contemporary novel — adventurous with genres, writing entertaining, readable but serious stuff.  And Joan may have had a little of that boring post-existential thing going in the mid-seventies, but she too has endured. 

You should see how she uses that flat, direct, tough mindedness on a memoir she just wrote-about the death of her husband and serious illness (and later death) of her daughter.  Imagine, kid, this is thirty-five years after she wrote Play It As It Lays, and she’s put out a great, hard book. I agree with what you say about Toni Morrison at that point, just after she’d just published The Song of Solomon.  And guess what, she’s gonna win the Nobel Prize in about 15 years.  But I wouldn’t say she’s hung in there as amazingly.

But enough of that.  I’ve been typing all morning and have back problems. . . .

1976:  Back problems?  I ride a bike in the snow and like it when I fall.  I don’t have any back problems.  You seem to be rambling a little bit.  And what do you mean “hung in there?”  One great book is worth 20 good ones.  

2007:  Okay, okay.  But one more thing.  That 500-page novel you’re writing right now.  Uh . . . well . . .