Friday, December 14, 2007

"The King of Sentences"

Jonathan Lethem, who used to be an SF writer but now has levitated into the stratosphere of literary mainstream, has a story in the December 17 issue of The New Yorker. The story, called "The King of Sentences," is an absurdist treatment of the extreme reverence that young writers can feel for the authors they admire. The story made me laugh out loud. Like all absurdism, it starts with a nugget of truth and inflates it though concentration and exaggeration. Lethem, a wonderful writer himself, does this with such ridiculous and yet sharp details that the story is a delight.

And the "nugget" is very real. When we writers eventually meet authors they've idealized for decades, we can act a bit nutty. The first time I met Ursula LeGuin, I couldn't stop babbling. On and on and ON, until I'm sure she doubted that I was really Nancy Kress, or sane. A friend of mine told me she was too awed to say anything whatsoever to Joyce Carol Oates. Another friend related that, standing in the back of a room to listen to Ray Bradbury, tears pricked his eyes.

A recent poll of teenager found that a huge majority could not name one person they considered a "hero." I don't think that we fortunate people who love books have that problem. We just need to figure out how to look "normal" in the presence of heroes.

Or maybe not. Lethem's characters end up abandoned in an EconoLodge by their idol, scorned, naked -- and happy.


Elver said...

I wouldn't call any author my "hero" either. I certainly respect and admire people like Ayn Rand, Neal Stephenson, Nancy Kress, Isaac Asimov, and others, but to call them "heroes"? Not my cup of tea.

karen wester newton said...

For me the authors who have that deer-in-the-headlights effect on me are the ones I read when I was young. When Mindy told me she had dinner with Larry Niven I kept repeating "Larry Niven!" over and over. Mind you, I think you are every bit as good a writer as Larry Niven but I'm old enough that when I was young, you weren't publishing science fiction.

Michael A. Burstein said...

I certainly know what you mean about what it's like to meet an author I admire. I'll never forget meeting Isaac Asimov when I was just a kid.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

I've met a few writers and musicians whom I admire, but never have suffered from the "deer in the headlights" effect. Always figger, "Well, Little Blues is one of the boys too." But if Bob Dylan wanted a book at my place of woik, I do believe my eyes would grow wide and my body would freeze up. Would still be telling myself, "Lindner, be cool. Be cool right now. 'Cause the Master doesn't dig paralysis too well."
Yeah, right. Still be saying that 10 minutes after he left.

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