“Less” is a Brilliant Satire of the Writing Life

Author tours sound glamorous to people who don’t do them. The truth is more complicated, even if you’re happy with your editor and publisher, love the cover art of your new book, and you’re in such good health that nasty recycled air can’t undermine it after all those hours trapped on planes.

You’re always onstage, always being observed by everyone you meet. You never know if your bags will get lost, your flight delayed—or if enough people will turn out for your event to make you feel it was worth the time and trouble. If you’re on a panel, will you be bored, or worse, be seated next to another author who despises you? If you’re interviewed, is the journalist prepared or just filling an assignment, does she admire your book or have an agenda?  One interview started off by cheerfully saying, “My! You’ve written a of books, haven’t you?”  I could tell this was someone working off my author bio and nothing more.

And then there are the people of all kinds—readers, hosts, other writers—who say stupefying things to you without hesitation. It can be a kind of hell.

Andrew Sean Greer’s gives readers The Mother of All Author Tours in his new novel Less, a book of sly wit and comedic gusto. His victim, Arthur Less, has actually constructed his own around-the-world author tour made up of wildly disparate events—all of this to escape an ex-lover’s wedding. Less is a novelist who’s “too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered.” Facing fifty has doubled his sense of failure and doom.

His ports of call? Mexico, Italy, Germany, India, France, Morocco, Japan—all of which he observes and appreciates with the eye of a poet. And why not? He spent years in love with an older, Pulitzer-winning poet—a certified genius who was as hard to live with as a tiger.  That demanding, driven poet unintentionally deprived him of a separate identity. Less is still better known for his ex-lover than for his own work—and he’s not remotely Kardashian enough to make a career out of that.

Wherever he goes, Less faces “writerly humiliations planned by the universe to suck at the bones of minor artists like him.” He’s publicly pronounced to be mediocre, he’s informed that his work isn’t gay enough, he’s mocked in Germany where he confidently speaks enough German to confound and annoy people around him because of his awful blunders.  Yet this holy fool is sexually charismatic in his own way, apparently able to stun men with just a touch…though he’s not a great lover.

I laughed all the way through the book, recognizing publishing types like the withholding literary agent, and I rooted for Less to become more. More forceful, more insightful, and more in control of his own life. I won’t reveal whether he does any of that, the ending, or how ingenious Greer’s narrative is, but I have to praise his gift for striking, off-kilter images like these:

The view out his window was of a circular brick plaza, rather like a pepperoni pizza, which the whistling wind endlessly seasoned with dry leaves.

In the suburbs of Delaware, spring meant not young love and damp flowers but an ugly divorce from winter and a second marriage to buxom summer.

Less was so deeply satisfying I put everything aside to read it straight through.  Colorful, hilarious, incisive, and surprisingly moving, it deserves to be read alongside satirical classics about the writing life like Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale and Updike’s Bech at Bay.

Lev Raphael is the author of Rosedale in Love, A Novel of the Gilded Age, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

 

What Do Writers Really Want?

The answer is simple: Everything.

Roxane Gay once pointed out in Salon that discussions about whether women writers don’t get enough press coverage miss the point.  Even successful authors are easily dissatisfied: “What most writers have in common is desire. We want and want and want and want.”

I learned this early in my publishing career when an author I was getting to know told me about another writer whose first novel had been reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. It was subsequently on the NYT best seller list, and sold about 500,000 copies. That’s the kind of exposure, notoriety, and sales record most writers would kill for.  My friend had lunch with this author who turned out to be miserable. Why? He hadn’t been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and couldn’t let go of the disappointment.

Unhappy-at-workI’ve met a millionaire author of thrillers whose books sell worldwide and have been made into movies–but that’s not enough. What’s missing? Respect from established literary critics. Another writer friend who’s spoken all across the country and has taught writing workshops in Europe is eaten up by not being invited to keynote an annual writer’s conference back home in a small college town.

No matter what level of achievement writers reach, many of us just can’t stop hoping for more. Sadly, we don’t wish we were writing better books, we wish we were better known, richer, more respected, had more exposure or just had something other writers had–whatever that is. And in the end, it wouldn’t be enough, because for many writers, there’s never enough.

frustratedwomanRoxane Gay’s essay was another voice in the controversy launched  when novelist Jennifer Weiner went public about about not being as admired as Jonathan Franzen, not getting his level of respect or review coverage. She’s a writer of popular fiction, she’s been a New York Times best seller, she’s made millions from her books and more than one was turned into a movie. It’s an enviable place to be, but she apparently envies literary novelist Jonathan Franzen, who’s been on the cover of TIME and endlessly praised by the literary establishment.

Whatever you think about her complaints or about her writing, I can’t imagine Weiner would be happy if she had everything she thinks she wants, because there would be something else beyond her reach. She’s a writer, after all.  For way too many of us, our favorite music is what the poet Linda Pastan calls “the song of the self.” It’s a one-voice melody that runs up and down the scale “like a mouse maddened/by its own elusive tail.”

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.