By Joan Frank
Sometimes we decide to see what we need to see.
Any articles coming from a cherished author must (we therefore reason) be meaningful and—well, lovable.
The second, maybe more freighted persuasion?
It’s a cancer narrative—a violation, but (almost) no one’s saying so.
We can’t do this, but I will.
We can’t talk about what I’m going to talk about without becoming sidelined by the problem of taste—something already nearly hopeless in literary realms.
Too bad. I’m going ahead with it.
Full disclosure: my own literary taste remains as old-fashioned as they come—language-driven, style-framed, skewed toward a certain moral ethos or ambience. Call that ambience a kind of questing interiority. I’m a bloodhound snuffling for the secret heart of each work—the It of Its, as a friend and I once termed it, the thing that’s new news even if it treats the oldest concerns on earth, that will speak to me in my bones.
Nonetheless, I swear it’s possible—desirable—to temporarily wall off the issue of taste to focus on a recent (at this writing), terribly troubling literary event.
An essay called “These Precious Days” by Ann Patchett appeared in the longstanding, highbrow Harper’s Magazine, causing tremendous, impassioned fanfare. I was urged to read the piece by one of my dearest, oldest friends—my high school English teacher, an exceptionally kind, patient, discerning man. He thought he was handing me a gift. I’d already noticed that a number of writers in my Facebook network, most of whom I hugely admire, adored this essay.
I mean: they were melting for it. Worshipping it.
Patchett is famous—someone whose work is not my favorite but whom I’ve always respected; always assumed to be smart, awake, aware.
The essay horrified me.
Why? Because it broke, or fouled, a basic covenant of serious literary writing.
The molested covenant is this: A writer’s words represent her bond. The printed words—especially in a distinguished venue—translate as a warrant: This is my best, deepest truth, told as well as I can. I stand by it.
If we disagree with a piece of writing—clash with its ideas or its style—that’s fine, even expected. Writing ought to provoke and disturb. Worthy work may or may not persuade, but it inspires critical thought.
If the piece as a whole intention, however, strikes us as elaborately dishonest—at the expense of its human subject—that’s something else.
You’ll correctly guess it’s the second category I’m naming—and by which I’m sickened. The disappointment hits hard because—first, as noted, Patchett’s renowned, and skilled. But second and far more strangely: I’ve assumed that people who know better—an arts-craving demographic, many of them artists themselves—would surely have instantly seen the problem.
They should have called the emperor naked.
The piece starts cheerfully. Patchett meets and gets friendly with the ultra-beloved movie star, Tom Hanks. (This opening soured me straightaway because it seemed to brag: “Here is the level of star I am known to hang out with.” I read on.)
Patchett soon befriends Suki, Hanks’s kind, thoughtful, self-effacing personal assistant.
Cutting short an insanely long story: Suki becomes Patchett’s e-mail pen pal.
At some point, we learn that Suki has been diagnosed with cancer.
Patchett goes to enormous, personal, complicated lengths to help the assistant.
That’s the gist of it.
Many, many, many activities, thoughts, and comments follow.
The two become closer in the course of this excruciating arc, though—heaven knows with good reason—Suki quietly, firmly guards a certain threshold of privacy.
By the tale’s end, no one knows how Suki’s various treatments (including clinical trials at state of the art medical centers) will play out.
But Patchett has, during this account, built a palace of self-regard and led us through dozens of its shimmering rooms.
She does this by describing her acceleratingly dramatic, labyrinthine efforts to help. Each detail pulses with intensifying urgency. Patchett ultimately houses Suki, procures travel, makes bazillion arrangements, and thinks up and performs countless frantic—not to say desperate—actions on Suki’s behalf.
Because the story was concurrent with COVID-19’s rampant hold on the country and world, the virus and its restrictions also frame this narrative, tightening tensions and pumping stakes. Things roller-coaster along. I won’t itemize each new crisis here (there are dozens) since that would amount to paraphrasing the entire piece, which went on so long that by the time I finally arrived to its last lines I felt almost ill—not from sympathetic symptoms but from exhaustion. Patchett builds a plot where fear and efforts to stanch it double and redouble. A powerful anguish looms up and sways before us like a kind of Godzilla, crashing around, shrieking.
What I could not shake, pushing through paragraph after paragraph of this colossal, dense, grains-of-sand-parsed, moment-by-moment, hair-on-fire report—which also recruits the goodhearted clout of Patchett’s doctor husband—is the stunned numbness that gathers under the unceasing lash of its demand: Pay attention. Pay attention. Pay lavish attention. Longer, expository lines interleave with short, powerful sentences: the breaking-news pow-pow-pow of it shocks readers into a daze, helpless not to track every note, praying its audible sweep will soon, somehow, land.
It doesn’t. The sweep simply halts.
Then it evaporates.
At its close, the kind, wearied Suki seems at least to be holding steady following treatments. In an email, she pays modestly grateful tribute to Patchett, noting the author’s “specialness.”
Finally, Patchett murmurs, essentially, “No one knows what will happen.”
These last words, dropped like a coy hankie, are presented almost as a sly triumph. Patchett is perfectly aware of having built dramatic momentum to a near-unbearable frenzy. She’s aware that her readers are by then panting, drained, crazed with worry, awaiting any least reassurance let alone closure. And Patchett seems almost—almost—to be mocking a reader’s need for that by halting the piece as and when she does, puttying it up with a hasty line or two about the windfall bonus of late-life friendship.
In fairness: this essay bore a subtitle declaring there’d be no definitive ending, to wit: “Tell Me How the Story Ends.”
The piece might have been more accurately subtitled “I made a friend. Things got hard and weird. That’s all I got.”
The friendship and Patchett’s exertions may be real. That’s not enough.
There’s been a violation. Patchett’s essay is, at some gruesome level, slightly immoral.
Her essay is dishonest because it never cops to its own, appalling subtext. Behind its breathless striving and anxious scheming, all those infinitesimally-documented, acrobatic and emotional swoops to fix and fortify, Patchett is saying, “This is me; this is how I roll. I do good. Look at me doing good.”
Cancer or no, friendship or no: Patchett’s screed cannot stand as fair for what it gobbles of a reader’s faith, time, and care—and for its shameless self-display: the floor show of Patchett itemizing her own rescue operations. My reaction has nothing to do with caring for the fate of Suki, who sounds like a superb human being and whom I pray will survive and thrive. But in this essay, poor Suki’s survival has somehow been commandeered as a measuring instrument for Patchett’s self-regard.
My reaction is gut-born from a lifetime of love and respect for language—by an instinctive rearing back from the pungent smell of its fraudulent use.
In the words of Madeline’s Miss Clavel: Something is not right.
Self-aggrandizement under a veil of blow-by-blow derring-do can’t be moral.
Clearly, Patchett has no clue about the size or substance of her error. I cannot understand why. This author’s been on the literary scene for years. She is surely as porous as any writer alive to human nuance, to layers of motives and behavior. Yet she appears serenely unconscious for thirtysome pages of her material’s screaming subtext: behind an intricate fan-dance of helping, it is wildly self-glorifying; a lengthy, bloated boast at the expense of an innocent, struggling friend.
I spoke of my horrified bewilderment with a friend who’s herself an accomplished author—and who reacted to this essay as I did.
“What,” she wondered in an email, “were the magazine’s editors smoking?”
I think the editors were smoking a brand of marketing called (by a long-ago magazine editor in a blunt moment) “The Names.” Meaning, famous writers. To paraphrase a movie line: “If you run The Names, readers will come.” The magazine’s editors must have figured: Patchett’s well-known, well-loved, and wow, she’s pals with an adored, megawatt movie star.
Again: for me the fundamental wonder of this piece was why more smart readers, themselves sensitive writers, did not instantly see through it and call it out.
My friend answered my bewilderment gently: “Even the smartest among us—maybe also the kindest—are susceptible…and lose full command of [our] otherwise sharp critical faculties because the famous person’s glow is so blinding.” It seems people feel bound to preserve and protect what they believe they most admire. Therefore, anything coming from a cherished author must be meaningful and—well, lovable.
Another friend—this one a veteran of her own hair-raising medical challenges—was instinctively repelled by the essay. I must quote her now:
It occurs to me that if good manners are (somehow) to endure, we are responsible for calling out bad behavior and upholding truth whenever and wherever we can…Personally, I don’t think Patchett and Suki ever [truly] became friends. Patchett [sounds] more like the B&B host that interferes so much you’re happy to hear the thunk of the door on a Marriott the next time you travel.
What comforts me most is this friend’s bemusement: “It’s beyond my understanding that the literary community is ga-ga over this, yes, violation.”
I’ve cross-examined myself. Have I pulled similar stunts in my own work? Have I insisted behind and between lines, “Look at me, look what I did, look how good I am?” Do most writers occasionally stumble into this pothole? Might it explain why the much-praised, endless, messy diatribe in Harper’s smashed such a major nerve in me?
Yeah—no: I’ve done plenty of stupid things in my work, but I can’t make that particular case. The reason’s too real, too close: I could never, respecting a reader’s trust, deliberately construct a show guest-starring my own glorious generosity.
Readers pour so much care, so much distilled attention into writing by authors they admire. They are “bustling about,” in Sven Birkerts’s lovely words, building the story in their minds detail for detail as they read. They deserve, as they come away from a long, dense work—from any work—to be left with more than simply to contemplate what a wondrously selfless hero its author has proved herself to be. Because if that’s the rub, the opposite’s been true: Self has been the author’s meat and drink the entire while.
No human suffering serious illness deserves to be exploited this way—as an ersatz documentary subject who’s instead deputized as a decoy for the real subject—its author.
Sometimes, it appears, we decide to see what we need to see.
Yet both reader and author deserve to emerge together with something received from an honest reckoning. They deserve to feel that the absorbing and assimilating of the world they just traversed comprised a better, deeper truth than that.
Joan Frank is the author of The Outlook for Earthlings; Because You Have To: A Writing Life; All the News I Need (winner of the Juniper Prize); Where You're All Going (winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize); and Try to Get Lost (winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize). Book reviewer for The Washington Post, she holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC. She lives in Northern California.