AfterWord: Conjuring the Literary Dead

AfterWord: Conjuring the Literary Dead is one of the first books I requested from NetGalley because it’s a collection of essays about writers and books, and I love a good collection about writers and books. I was a little disappointed in it, though; I thought the book’s idea sounded promising, but either I was mistaken about that, or the execution didn’t live up to the possibilities. I think the problem may be that the essays were uneven and perhaps, generally speaking, a little too short. They didn’t dig into their subjects deeply enough and so left me feeling a little dissatisfied.

The premise is that in each essay, a writer imagines a meeting with his or her favorite author, or perhaps an author he or she has written about or grappled with in some fashion. The various essayists tackle this task in different ways, some pretending that they have traveled back in time, some imagining they are meeting their subject in the present day or in some nebulous in-between space. In some cases, the authors know about things that have happened after their deaths, and in others they don’t.

Which, let me digress to say, is something I think about now and then: I remember somebody saying, or perhaps I read it, that the really sad thing about having to die is not knowing how things turn out. I agree with the feeling. I think about people who lived before the time of the novel and what it would be like not to know that a novel existed. Or not to know about Jane Austen or James Joyce or David Foster Wallace, or whoever. Who are the wonderful, amazing writers we won’t know about, and what genres will we not live to experience? Okay, best not to think about that too much…

Some of the essays in this collection are really charming — Cynthia Ozick on Henry James, Jay Parini on Robert Frost, Eugene Goodheart on Jane Austen, Francis King on Oscar Wilde, Jeffrey Meyers on Samuel Johnson. Others made me contemplate how difficult it is to create a convincing scene and realistic dialogue. There were some essayists who I presume were more academic types than fiction writers whose attempts at a kind of fiction writing were awkward. In a couple cases, I simply didn’t like the tone or the attitude expressed.

Mostly, though, I kept thinking about how none of this was real, how all of it was mere speculation. That’s what it’s supposed to be, of course, but it felt a little like reading a description of someone’s dream — an interesting dream, but not much more than that. If I’m going to read about an author’s life, I think I’d prefer either something more straightforwardly critical and argumentative, whether it’s a biography or a critical essay (no matter how imaginatively done) or a fully-realized novel along the lines of Colm Toibin’s The Master.

However, there are some essays I’m glad I read. Perhaps the best approach with this book is to read selectively, finding the essays about authors you find interesting and focusing on those. And for another view entirely, read Stefanie’s post on the book. The book did make me consider who I would write about if I had been a contributor to the collection: perhaps Virginia Woolf or Mary McCarthy. Oh no — it would be Laurence Sterne, definitely. But what in the world would I say to any of these people if I could meet them, even only in my imagination?

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Essays

10 responses to “AfterWord: Conjuring the Literary Dead

  1. Interesting concept…I think that the most interesting method of conjuring the literary dead would be to use Margaret Atwood’s invention, the LongPen. It would a handy way to get those first editions signed…and maybe they would stop for a chat as well ;)

  2. I gave up half way through this book because after the initial Atwood contribution, which I loved, I didn’t feel the essays I read had lived up to the premise. It felt a bit self-indulgent. I will go back and look again at the one’s you’ve recommended, but overall I felt it was an idea that didn’t quite work as well in practice as it might have done in theory.

  3. Hmm, I can definitely see how a too-short average length would really cut down on the satisfaction factor given this premise. The whole “what would you say if you could meet your favorite dead author?” imaginative exercise is so huge with so many different possibilities, in addition to being a bit contrived (which I would think would take a few pages per essay to get beyond). Still, I’d be interested enough to pick it up at the library and leaf through it…

  4. Ah of course, it was Stefanie’s site where I saw mention of this book first (it was annoying me I couldn’t remember!). Yes, it does sound like a high concept premise that might be really hard to fulfill. Oddly enough, I remember considering writing something similar once for a series of blog posts, only I’d thought of conversing with French theorists – it felt like there would be more to say! But I never did it, obviously aware how hard it would be and how many limitations I had!

  5. I’m not really an essay reader but I think something like this could be an easy introduction to essays. It might just make me explore them more. I’ll have to look for it on NetGalley!

  6. It sounds like an interesting concept, and so easy to pitch, but then hard to execute, and harder to make meaningful in the actuality. Someone should’ve probably tried writing one of those before pitching it.

  7. Too bad you didn’t like that much. I agree some of the essays are a little uneven but overall I enjoyed the book. I have no idea what I would say to any dead author but if you ever decide to try and conjure the ghost of Laurence Sterne you must be sure to relaying the interesting bits ;)

  8. Melwyk — wouldn’t it be awesome if we could contact authors that way! :) If only it were so simple!

    Annie — then we agree. I’m glad. I liked the Atwood piece as well, but you’re right that many of the later essays felt self-indulgent. I found I just didn’t care about their fantasies of meeting their favorite authors.

    Emily — I think it’s worth leafing through; that’s probably the best way to approach this book. And you’re right that it takes a while to get beyond setting up the scene, how the two authors meet, etc. Too often the conversation just barely got going and then it was over.

    Litlove — I’m sure you could do a great job with the exercise! But yet, it is quite a challenge, particularly in a short space. It would work well as a series, I think. I had a professor assign a similar exercise once, and I thought it was a good way of grappling with a writer’s ideas.

    Iliana — essays about books and writers are so much fun! This might be a good introduction to the essay form, but if you don’t love them, don’t give up on essays! There are many more that are better than what you would find here.

    Lilian — yes, I can see that it would be a good concept to pitch. I think it would have been a better book if there had been fewer contributors, but the essays were longer. Perhaps a relatively simple change like that would have made a difference.

    Stefanie — oh, just a moment’s thought tells me it would be quite the challenge to imagine a conversation with Sterne! I think he would say all kinds of inappropriate things :)

  9. Too bad this didn’t quite live up to your expectations–it sounds like an interesting premise. Maybe this is one where it is better to pick and choose to read about the people who appeal to you most. I’ve been racking up netgalley books and am reading them far too slowly–no more new books until I’ve finished a few!

  10. This book really intrigues me. I also just joined Netgalley and I saw this — but didn’t think I could request it? Maybe it’s expired. Anyway, I like the concept. Your disappointment is good to be aware of — I won’t expect something deep.

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