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?