Violence of the Lambs; Or Why I Didn't Write About That

Originally, this posted was going to be about John Jeremiah Sullivan’s new collection of essays, Pulphead, which I finished reading last week. I was going to write about how the book itself is really fantastic, but there is one essay “Violence of the Lambs” that I really didn’t like, at all, almost to the point of anger, because Sullivan’s makes most of it up, then says so, doing one of these not-so-clever clever things that seems to be happening in creative non-fiction lately: poking holes in the idea of “truth” in a way that is lazy and not particularly interesting.

There was more. I was going to write about book reviewing, and my general sense of discomfort with book reviewing, which stems almost entirely from a lack of confidence to write reviews in a coherent and intelligible manner that would be useful or interesting to anyone. I was going to write about James Frey, and teaching undergraduates, and the difference between reading a single essay and a collection of essays, and probably some other subjects that would all tie together neatly for a pretty good Friday read for you, our blog reader.

Here’s the thing. I couldn’t finish it. Or, I could, I guess – did, in fact – but I wasn’t pleased with the result. It was a colossal mess of tangents and half-baked thoughts, and it seemed like a disservice to publish it the way it turned out.

It’s warm here – frighteningly warm for Missouri in February – and I have my windows open, again. All morning yesterday I read manuscripts. I haven’t done that in a while. Downstairs, on the third floor, TMR has a few couches and a coffee maker, and I put my feet up on a table, tucked a pen behind my ear, and read fiction submissions. Away from my desk, away from my computer, away from my phone (both office and mobile, which I wisely left upstairs). Felt fantastic. Felt really great to spend the morning just looking for stuff for the summer issue, reading other writers’ work, stories about Russian dancers or out of work truck drivers or the daughters of war veterans and such, and not really thinking about our audience, our budget, our expenses and income, advertising, none of the other stuff that is often pinballing through my mind in the course of the day.

I felt all right, reading like that.

Someone close to me recently remarked that I never say anything personal in my blog posts. Note, even, how carefully I phrased that previous sentence. Of course, that’s now what my site is for. But this person was right: I’m careful about this blog. It’s been one of the most successful things we’ve done since I started at The Missouri Review—our staff has written several thoughtful, smart, engaging essays on this site in the past two years, and our mantra has basically been to not be negative; remain about publishing, editing, writing; and be interesting. Writing about Sullivan’s work, I worried that I was getting increasingly negative and incoherent, upset about who knows what about his work, and that my post would be the kind of vitriol that our readers don’t want. Morever, the kind of vitriol I don’t like to write.

I bring this up because for almost a year and a half now, my personal life, especially this past month, has been a bit tumultuous (to put it mildly) and sitting in a chair reading this morning, I became aware of how much better I felt. Just in general. No grand epiphanies or realizations or anything like that; dark clouds will certainly move in later in the day (or tomorrow, soon, etc.). Writing about creative nonfiction and its ticks and whirls and wearing a cultural critic hat—it just didn’t feel right. No, it was more than that: it was a recognizable state of discord, both in head and heart, that I wanted nothing to do with. I just wanted to read.

When I was at River Styx, our rejection letters all started the same way: “Look. We’re all writers too, so we know how it feels.” That’s true, of course. But, what was making me a boiling cauldron of frustration yesterday afternoon was writing: not just the act of writing, but the criticism of writing and the Big Ideas behind criticism and interpretation and connectivity. What made me feel calm was reading,  just reading, nothing more. And, really, why did any of us start writing in the first place? Because we read. And liked it. A lot.

It would be silly, of course, to have a rejection letter say “Look. We’re all readers too” because that seems pretty obvious, ironic in a hipster way or something, and perhaps even a little snide. Nonetheless, it might be more true to what unifies as, editors and submitters alike, than calling ourselves writers.

If I was clever, if I had my writing cap on, I’d be able to come up with a really snazzy close here. But I don’t. Moreover, I don’t want to attempt to tack this together neatly. The messiness of this post is what’s most interesting to me, and how, by taking a little time to not think, to read without thinking beyond the story in my hands. And, for today, I think that’s all I really want to focus on. I’ll leave it at that.

Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye