In an essay in this week’s NYT Book Review section (July 26, 2013), author Margo Rabb laments the fact that the authors and poets whose works we fall in love with aren’t always the people we want them to be. As a young reader, she fell in love with Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.” Wanting to know more about Rilke’s life, she Googled him. Item after item portrayed him as a jerk, repugnant human being and a “selfish, sycophantic, womanizing rat.” How could this be true of the writer whose work she adored.
Throughout the essay, various writers describe their experiences of meeting the authors of books they have fallen in love with and often, not always, discovering the author wasn’t who they envisioned. The writer Justin Cronin believes that when you spend so many hours reading a book you are “in intimate contact with the mind of another person.” He adds that if the reader really knew who the authors really were they would be very disappointed.
On the other hand, writes Rabb, readers often enjoy learning about the problems or disappointments in the lives of writers they admire. The novelist Kate Christensen told Rabb that “I like reading about their struggles and misbehavior.”
Conversely, George Saunders had the experience of meeting his literary hero, Tobias Wolff, who “disabused me of the idea that a writer had to be a dysfunctional crazy person.” Saunders has said that Wolff may have produced dark works of genius and yet he was a funny, gentle person.
Saunders adds that “A work of art is something produced by a person, but is not that person.” The author is reaching for a version of herself/himself, trying to be more than there are.