Review: At Large and at Small, Anne Fadiman; or, A Review Post that Took a Turn for the Introspective

Verdict: An excellent and eclectic collection of essays.

I liked-not-loved the first Anne Fadiman collection I read, her book Ex Libris, which contained essays only about books. I think the problem may have been the similarity in subject matter — when everything’s books, it’s easy for me to feel like I’m in an argument with Anne Fadiman about one thing or another. The essays in At Large and at Small cover a much wider range of topics, from ice cream to Arctic explorers to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the constant throughout is Anne Fadiman’s enthusiastic interest in and affection for each of these subjects.

Her voice as an essayist is enthusiastic and subjective and intelligent and wry (all qualities I like in an essayist). She moves easily from her own childhood to the Darkest Polar North, as comfortable poking fun at herself as at arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, whose abandonment of his family troubles her about as much as his abandonment of his men on one arctic mission. (It’s not clear whether he intended to come back for them; Fadiman believes that he did, but who knows?)

Some of the essays — like the ice cream one and the butterfly collecting — were less aligned with my interests, but Anne Fadiman’s writing puts it over. She’s so interested in things, and if there is one thing I can consistently say about my opinions on people, it’s that I like people who like liking things. (Yes, I used the verb “like” three times in one clause. Deal with it.) Even when she’s writing an essay that’s critical of her subject, like “Procrustes and the Culture Wars,” she’s clearly delighted with her metaphor (not in an obnoxious, self-aggrandizing way! in an endearing way!). And the writing is just fun to read:

I do not suggest that the attractions of a single set of marching orders are easy to resist. It is far more work to start from scratch every time you open a book than to let someone else make up your mind before you read the first word.

This, y’all. This right here. I admit that I have let myself fall victim to this with particular authors. Nathaniel Hawthorne, for instance, hated women writers. Good. Me and Nathaniel Hawthorne have no further business to transact. He will not like that I exist, and I will not read any of his books or stories. That frees me up to read other nineteen-century writers. I like this kind of exclusion because it makes my life simpler, and I have made up my mind about all of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s books without the bother of reading them (except The Scarlet Letter and some of his short stories, which I did not care for).

Anne Fadiman argues (persuasively, but I stick to my guns because SHUT UP NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE) that this is maybe a lousy idea:

But if you believe, as I do, that great literature can be written by bad people, then your library can remain intact, no matter how much respect you lose for the authors as individuals.

It’s hard for me though! Respect and love are intertwined for me in this really instinctive way, and I’ve never figured out how to separate them. It is hard for me to bother about people I don’t admire or at least respect. I have a hard time being interested in people who were not sufficiently bothered about being good to their loved ones (like Charles Dickens or Anne Sexton), for instance — it’s not that I would never read them, but it’s that I sort of veer away from them. Even Milton I did not feel the same way about after learning how he treated his daughters. I still like Paradise Lost a lot, but it’s impossible for me to be unreservedly enthusiastic about it, the way I was when I read it for the first time in college. You know?

(To take it to a sports place: Watching Drew Brees play football (or like, Jimmy Graham or Adrian Peterson) fills my heart with unabated happiness. He is a good person and good at his job. When he throws a touchdown pass, there is nothing in me but joy. If I discovered that he or one of those other guys had beaten his girlfriend or wife, I would stop enjoying watching them succeed. I am not in control of this. It’s just what happens, willy-nilly. When I discover that someone is an actively good person, I enjoy watching them play football more.)

I guess the exception is funny people? If people are funny? Funny, or admirable. One of those two things. Ideally both, like Stephen Colbert or Amy Poehler or W. Kamau Bell. But funniness goes a long way. I love Oscar Wilde with a fierce and unrelenting love, and he is not really the dude you admire.

Fadiman also takes up a question that I’ve discussed in this space before, which is how to deal with books whose authors appear not to want you. I feel this way about Ernest Hemingway, for example — that he not only wasn’t writing for me but that he doesn’t acknowledge the legitimacy of someone like me. And there are authors like this throughout the Western canon. (More on this later! I am reading The Madwoman in the Attic and I have a lot of thoughts.) Anne Fadiman says:

What should you do when a work’s language excludes you? If the very words leave you on the sidelines — because, for instance, they are addressed to men and you are a woman — should you stick your tongue out and say, “Well if that’s the way you feel about it, I reject you too”?

And I still don’t know the answer. Should you do that? Should you say, reasonably enough, “There are plenty of fascinating and beautiful books in this world that don’t exclude the possibility of me as a reader, and the number of books I am able to read in my life is finite. I am not going to be bothered with Hemingway anymore”? Or should you persist because you want to be able to participate in the cultural conversation?

Well, this post turned into a discussion of authorial biography, which I did not exactly intend. But weigh in please! Does admiration factor into your reading enjoyment, and if so, how much? Do you, like me, rejoice to hear stories about the kindness of your beloved authors? Does it sadden your heart to hear about their failings? Do you wish Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen had not trash-talked each other because it forces you to take sides in your mind? (I love Charlotte Bronte better but find her criticism of Jane Austen unfair.) Are you able to completely separate an author’s biography from his or her writing?

31 thoughts on “Review: At Large and at Small, Anne Fadiman; or, A Review Post that Took a Turn for the Introspective

  1. I think there’s a certain line for me, when it comes to the personal life of the author. For instance, Jeffrey Eugenides’ publicity campaign for The Marriage Plot came off as very pretentious, but that does not cancel out how much I adore Middlesex. Even Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen trash-talking each other is fun for me to hear. But Orson Scott Card clearly hates me, so that definitely flavors how I read his work.

    As for inclusion… I would prefer to read a novel that includes me. But my reading desires take me far and wide, and I have always enjoyed subterfuge. I imagine I am wearing a ridiculous moustache, feeling much like Jan Morris when she was in the military before she transitioned. Obviously, I shan’t go out of my way to read a misogynistic, homophobic, or otherwise hateful piece (life’s too short, as you point out), but I usually barrel through texts that assume I am a dude or share their problematic worldview. All the better to discuss!

    Also: Steven Moffat. Just… I’m shaking my head at him.

    • Orson Scott Card is one of the writers that makes me doubt myself. I loved his books first, and he wrote nice responses to my fangirl emails first, and I found out he had these awful conservative ideas later. I can still enjoy the books I enjoyed anyway (not to the extent that I once did, although that could just be a function of being a bit older and reading with a more jaundiced eye), but I haven’t loved any new book he’s written since I discovered he was a jerk.

      I suppose I have an easier time dealing with shitty worldviews where there’s some excuse for them. I don’t give writers from Ye Olden Days a free pass on race/gender/sexuality prejudices, but it doesn’t affect how I feel about them in the way that it does when I discover Orson Scott Card thinks such things. Whereas Hemingway met kickass feminists, and he still wrote his books all full of lady-problems, and that pisses me off because I want him to have known better.

  2. The thing about Nathaniel Hawthorne, say, is that he isn’t here right now to stand up for himself. Or for you to meet him and find out that he’s a misunderstood soul. Biographers do their best, but so much that they know, they know of second hand. And suppose when they come to write the blockbuster biography of Jenny, it’s the emails from the wrong person they focus on, the grumpy person who didn’t like anybody, or had an axe to grind? Wouldn’t that be so unfair? Biography is such an incomplete art. So I would always let the work stand by itself, because who knows, maybe the guy was thinking, I may be a bit of a chump, but hopefully people will read my work and know thusly, the best of me….? So I tend to err on benefit of the doubt. As to inclusion, being a big introvert, I rather like feeling on the sidelines. It’s sort of restful, and a good place to snigger from, if necessary. 🙂

    • Oh what a wonderful point. I don’t yield on Hawthorne, because he said enough things with enough vitriol about women not being able to write (and him knowing Louisa May Alcott personally! what a jerk!) that I’m pretty sure it’s indicative of his real opinion and not just some passing thing. But in general, I think that’s a very good point. I suppose I’m inclined to love people better if they acknowledge the possibility of fault — which it seems like Hemingway would never.

      The other possibility, of course, is that I seek out reasons to love the authors I already like, and I seek out reasons to dislike the authors I don’t. Except then I don’t know what’s to be said about Ezra Pound or TS Eliot.

      (The comments on this post are really interesting, but I feel like I’m not getting myself and my opinions sorted out very well!)

  3. You know, I have no trouble at all divorcing the author from his/her work. In fact, sometimes the less I know about the author, the better I like it because then it is just me and the words. And I can make of those words what I will because they don’t belong just to the author anymore. They belong to everyone. Reading is a creative act. We bring our thoughts, experiences, likes, dislikes, quirks—our entire selves—to bear on everything we read, and it is not the same literature for everyone. I do not have to like an author to love his or her work. Hemingway is a good case in point. There are others. Or stretch it to music. I’ve been reading a lot about the Beatles lately, and from what I gather, John and Paul were not always such nice folks, and they especially shunted George aside and disparaged his writing. John was a real jerk to his first wife and a poor father to Julian. Paul was bossy. But I still love their music. Or take Mozart. He would have been maddening to know in real life, I think, but what a glorious composer. Or look at poets. Most of them are insufferable, aren’t they? Byron? Shelley? Although I think Keats was fairly nice. I would rather they were nice people, but the fact that they weren’t doesn’t reduce the quality of their art.

    • But I don’t like Hemingway’s writing. I’m not avoiding something I enjoy because I’m mad that he wouldn’t have liked me; I’m trying to work out if I’m justified in giving up trying to like the writing of a Figure from the Canon on the basis of thinking he’s a jerk and not wanting to be bothered with him any further.

  4. I do love the chance to meet an author, sometimes, but I don’t go out of my way to make it happen because the author is pretty much completely incidental to the book; what happens between me and the book does not happen between me and the author. I think of it as like how I think I know something about a person I’ve seen act in a play. Once I was in an elevator with a college student who I’d spent two hours with, about ten feet away, and I was trying to place her. Finally I figured out that she was in a play, so while I’d spent two hours gazing at her in a spotlight, I was nothing more to her than another face from the darkness. Where she was headed–or what the author of any particular book is like–seems unrelated to whether I get caught up in the web of fiction someone has created.

    • Oh gosh, I definitely don’t go out of my way to meet authors. It’s such a dauntingly imbalanced relationship between readers and writers — JK Rowling (to take an easy example) occupies a largeish amount of imaginative real estate in my mind, but she has never heard of me. It feels unfair for me to demand that she, as a person, should be held responsible for the emotional connection I have with her books.

      I suppose what I mean is that I find myself more likely to be caught up in a web of fiction created by someone who isn’t awful. When I read something by Orson Scott Card (to use an example from an earlier comment) and he talks about, for instance, Islam, even if it’s in a context very far from our own world’s, I get taken out of it. I think “yes, but” and I forget about the story because I’m thinking about this other thing.

  5. In college I came to the conclusion that great artists are almost never nice people, and they are no fun to live with. I have certainly felt reluctance to read awful people’s works (or watch their movies for that matter–just now I refuse to watch anything with Salman Khan in it! But he’s still alive to receive royalties and plus he’s got googly eyes).

    The other day I read a blog post by a comp. lit. professor. And I thought something he said was very good: “The real challenge is not to hear the man in the voice, but to hear transcendent truth expressed through a human medium. ” So, yeah, writers are often awful people, and really we’re all kind of a mess, but the trick is to look for the truth that might be in the mess.

    I started off unwilling to read awful people, and I’m still often reluctant, and I’m happier when I know they’re nice. Jane Austen was *nice.* That is so rare! But over time I’ve been coming around to the idea that I might be able to read, enjoy, or even learn from some awful people too.

    I don’t care if books ‘exclude’ me or not. Tough for them, I’ll read ’em anyway. I still don’t like Hemingway, because I don’t like Hemingway, but he can suck it up, I’ll read him if I want to.

    • Not almost never, surely! Surely it’s just that the nasty ones are the ones you are always hearing about.

      That is a very good thing for your comp lit professor to have said. I should try to think that way more. It’s a fairly similar sentiment to the one that helped reconcile me to my faith when I was in college, but I don’t apply it to literature enough probably.

      At least part of the reason I don’t like Hemingway is that his writing excludes me, though. I have a hard time letting myself fall into the story because I keep thinking about how entirely excluded I am from the world of the book.

  6. dude, I have two thoughts & they are both about your footnotes [not that the actual post wasn’t fantastic, it was, but I just have many many thoughts re: the footnotes: 1) I am so much more likely to read something by Silas Tomkyn Cumberbache because that is AH-MAZING & 2) I just finished Lolita & I don’t care how beautiful Nabokov’s writing is, I just.can’ The writing is GORGEOUS. I could write ODES to how beautiful & spotless & wonderful it is, never mind that it wasn’t even his first language. But I’m sorry, as soon as you have a story about a step-dad repeatedly raping his 13-year-old step-daughter, I don’t care if you’re being ironic or whatever, I just can’t deal with that. I’m missing whatever moral you stuck in there & going with you have got to be SERIOUSLY messed up to write this book.

    that is not necessarily relevant to your post but it is kind of a little.

    • That is totally fair about Lolita, dude. I would never ever ever judge anyone for not finishing that book. I am typically very, very squeamish about sexual violence of any kind in books. I can manage it with Lolita because I think the idea of what Nabokov’s doing is so fascinating — the way he spins out these beautiful words and sentences and uses them to make the reader complicit with his taking-over of Lolita’s person (literally and figuratively).

  7. Several other people have said this already, but I don’t have to have a nice relationship with the author (or composer, or actor) for me to love his or her work. If we read things only by good and nice people, there’d be nothing left to read in short order, and very little left to read about: I want my reading to represent the whole of human experience, the good the bad and the really reprehensible. I also don’t care what audience they were aiming their work at. Their limitation of imagination was not anything to do with me. I can see their work through any imaginative lens I choose, and be part of the creation of that story in that way. Reception theory FTW!

    Incidentally, Nabokov appears to have been an extremely decent human being, with a deep soul of compassion in all his work (including Lolita.) He loved his family and cared about people and chased butterflies and by all accounts was a genuinely good person. One of the few, I guess.

    • well, yes, & I read lots of things about the human experience that aren’t necessarily nice & pretty, and I think that’s important–because the world, as a whole, isn’t nice & pretty. but mostly I like to have some point to the not-nice & not-pretty, and I want to learn something new about humanity. In this case, I knew that people can be awful & disturbed, but the POV especially just really made my skin crawl.

      I will have to give Nabokov another try. Pale Fire, maybe. Anybody that chases butterflies is worth another chance.

    • So this is the thing! Reception theory! I know that my thing is all wrong. I know you aren’t meant to mind about the author being a bad person. But truly, I do mind. I think it’s because I want the books to be, to be, I want them to be vast and multitudinous, and it makes a difference to have seen the smallness of their creators.

  8. I remember reading ‘War & Peace’ back when I read a lot more than I do now. It took me around a week. I never expected a classic to be so engrossing. But about two thirds of the way through, Tolstoy intercuts the plot with his own musings on history, theories so farcical and ridiculous they almost spoilt the whole book for me.

    I read a lot of Tolstoy subsequently and a lot about him too: enough to wonder how somebody can be a genius and such a prize jackass.

    • Oo, I love that you brought this up! I’ve been assuming moral respect for authors (or lack thereof), but since you’ve said this, it occurs to me that respect isn’t limited just to morality. Intellectual disrespect would put me off an author as well. Hmmmm.

  9. Tolstoy’s personal life left a lot to be desired as well. He had a kid by one of his serfs but still felt entitled to lecture Turgenev for doing the same (Turgenev’s indiscretion was in the public domain because Turgenev actually ensured his daughter grew up in relative comfort whereas Tolstoy played no role in his child’s life whatsoever) and I think this largely unconscious hypocrisy coloured his whole life.

    The title – “Tolstoy: kind of a dick” pretty much sums up my attitude as well.

  10. FIRST OF ALL. Hawthorne is a beautiful writer and should be read. And Scarlet Letter is wonderful and ahead of its time and you have to take cultural context into account and ALSO you can be good in some ways and bad in some ways and this is true of everyone, and maybe his bad-in-some-ways was an ignorant attitude about women writers because a lot of them at the time weren’t educated and probably sucked.

    “I have a hard time being interested in people who were not sufficiently bothered about being good to their loved ones”

    I’ve done multiple posts about how I love Dickens’s work an insane amount, but would punch him in the nose if we met. So I won’t talk overly much about that. And I do find myself far less forgiving of contemporary authors who’re supposed to be jerks (sorry, Franzen), but you can be terrible at dealing with people, but get out essential truths in your writing nonetheless. I don’t think entire authors should be discounted because of some dumb things they say in real life. If that happened, no one would read Ender’s Game, which would be a terrible thing.

  11. I can often (though not always) compartmentalise whatever I know about the author’s life and/or whatever horrible views they may hold, but I do struggle with the not feeling wanted as a reader thing. I don’t know whether this is something we SHOULD try to get over. I suspect that if we do, it’s only to the extent that it might be beneficial to us – maybe our lives will be enriched if we engage with this person’s work even though said work excludes us; maybe there’s something we can take away from it that will be valuable to us and worth the effort. But at the same time, I try to go easy on myself when I just can’t push through the feelings of exclusion and persist. We’re only human, after all, and feeling actively rejected by a text is such an unpleasant thing.

  12. I read with awe (but not agreement, necessarily) those people who don’t care who the author is or what s/he does. I definitely care. I loved Alice Walker’s work so much more when I didn’t know what a crap mother she was. It’s not the only thing, but now it is an eternal asterisk in my mind. Because, you know, while I am reading I am living in the author’s world -s//he is the God of that world, so his/her character matters to that world. It doesn’t mean that the world is not clever and beautifully crafted. But it does mean that everything in it is a little bit tainted and corrupted. Or so I see it. I mean, after I read Hawthorne saying that women writers should have their faces scarified by broken oyster shells, how can I ignore that, or think it didn’t impact his conception of the men and women in his novels?

    Re: Lolita: I thought the point was how Humbert Humbert had thrown the veil of his own fantasies over another human to the point of utterly ignoring the actual person – whose name is not even the name he calls her? Which is a thing we all do to some extent? That’s a pretty cool point to make, and an artful way of doing it, I think.

    Also, I must hear more about this feud between Austen and Bronte. I never knew that! Dang, that’s what happens when you major in Arabic instead of English.

  13. Jane Austen, according to Kate Williams’ book, also did not care for Emma Hamilton which… I feel like we should all strive to love Emma Hamilton because she got such a rough deal and she kind of made Nelson the oh so very famous man he is today. While I still love Jane Austen’s work, I can’t help but think about her and her objections to Emma’s fashions (turbans etc) when I think about her rather than her books.

    I think for me whether I can get over an author being obnoxious, or vile to the people in their lives, has to do with how long ago it was and what they were being obnoxious about (am I going to read books by James Frey – no I am not, but I would like to go for more Dickens despite his awfulness). And how long ago they were writing has a lot to do with whether I can get through books that make me feel excluded too. It’s much easier for me to be more objective about writers who are dead (which probably says something terrible about me) and it’s easier for me to push through that exclusion knowing they aren’t around to add any more comments to what they’ve already left behind.

    How do you feel about authors who really don’t like bloggers btw? Do you bother with them or no?

  14. I was very sad to have lost my ability to appreciate William Mayne’s books (English, children’s books) when it came out in 2004 that he lured adolescent girls into his company with the bait of being characters in his books and then molested them. The sickness of the author is far too much part of the reading, certainly when the main characters are girls, less so when its all boys, to pretend all is well.

  15. I like the verdict up at the top of these post. I always have a super hard time summing up thoughts in a sentence.

    I think the personality of the author mostly bothers me in memoirs, especially those written by politicians. I don’t worry about it so much in fiction, although I do feel a little “Ugh, gross” when the language or tone of an older piece of writing deliberately doesn’t include me.

  16. I think people are often too quick to seize on one aspect of an author and say,”This is bad, therefore this author is a bad person, therefore I don’t like his/her writing.” People are complicated, and I think part of the beauty of fiction is that we get to see a side of the author that we would not have seen if we had just known him/her in person. I think, also, that you have to distinguish between the qualities/ obsessions/ prejudices that are central to the writer’s life, to the point where they spill over into the work, and the qualities that are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. And when you reach the point where the writer’s problems become problems with the work, you’re back at evaluating the work, not the author.

  17. I’m very late to the party but I do think this is such an interesting question. Do you know, it never occurred to me to feel excluded by an author’s books, that s/he might not want me to be a reader? Too bad, authors.

    I was thinking that I didn’t mind about how horrible people were in real life until Charlotte reminded me of William Mayne. There the horror is just too close to the material, it’s part of it. Ugh.

    As for your dilemma, Jenny, I think if you don’t like someone’s books – let’s call him Hemingway – and you don’t care for his character and there’s basically nothing of his work or himself that interests you, then don’t read him. There are already too many good books out there for us to read in our lifetimes. Gavel.

  18. I think that sometimes I’ve been affected by the author’s life story, when I’ve known of it. But on the other hand, I’ve loved two of Dickens’ books wholeheartedly and do not feel conflicted about it. So I can compartmentalize in that sense.

    But yeah, if the book itself seems unwelcoming to me as a reader, i.e. incredibly misogynistic, then I feel fine not liking it for that reason.

    The quotes you’ve included from Fadiman’s book are great.

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