On the last night of September—the weather cool, the hills yellow-green, early autumn coming to Appalachia—the poet Edward Hirsch gave a reading in our university library. In introductory remarks that echoed Levinas and Martin Buber, he called our attention as critics and writers to the intimate relationship between self and other, between author and reader.
This relation is difficult to define or quantify. We teach our freshmen English classes the legs of the rhetorical triangle. We trace the line between Author and Audience. There is much talk of efficacy, little of intimacy. Even in the graduate seminar room or on the conference panel, it is easier to practice a shallow hermeneutical skepticism, to assume bad faith, to approach ready for polemos rather than eros. This is not all the time, mind you. Piercing light can still shock me from cynical routine.
This kind of light breaks through the New England forests of 18th century poet Philip Freneau’s “The Indian Burying Ground”:
By midnight moons, o’er moistening dews;
In habit for the chase arrayed,
The hunter still the deer pursues,
The hunter and the deer, a shade!
This quatrain calls me, each time I read it, into intimate relation with
Freneau. Not only do I imagine the ghostly deer he depicts, I imagine Freneau himself in a real Northeastern forest coming upon a real deer, its movements even in life as fluid and delicate as a ghost’s. This is a man who has seen a deer move, who has known or imagined the breathless exhiliration of the hunt, and who through his craft transfers that experience into something strange and striking. Like the deer and hunter which repeat their chase after death, the dead Freneau also repeats his experience to us over and over, through the ages, per saecula saeculorum.
Of course as a reader for a literary journal, I cannot spend all day appreciating an intimate connection with authors through their submitted work. One must eventually judge the quality of their expression. I am keenly aware as I read through my pile of non-fiction submissions that I am not a creative writer. Or rather, I am aware (as I assume many of my literary-critical colleagues are) of my status as a failed creative writer. How many graduate students in literature have the same file on their computers—hidden in a folder within a folder –containing secret creative attempts. My own contains love poems: some effusive, some fragile and affected. I showed them once to a close and particularly candid friend, who told me:“Reading your poems is like dancing with a woman at a seventeenth-century ball. We move formally, exchange expected pleasantries, and leave knowing little about one another.” So much for intimacy.
I am keenly aware as well that many of the pieces I mark for rejection I could not produce myself. Making such judgments requires that I adopt an attitude of great humility.
Often I’ll send a submission to the genre editor with a note explaining my disinclination to give the piece the standard “1-to-5” rating we use to rank contenders for publication. Typically I make this decision because the piece confesses—in graphic detail—abuse, shame, abjection, all manner of degradation. Who can raise the critical pen to dismiss trauma testimony as lacking in polish or sophistication? I am by no means over-sensitive. I have forwarded my share of snarky, biting editorial notes, but there is a limit to cool distance. There is a point where the writer of creative non-fiction is no longer a writer, but a human person trying (well or poorly) to confess some tangled, painful mystery.
Reading these creative submissions reminds me as a student of 19th-century literature that the authors who line my bookshelves were not only once anxious amateurs sending off their work to editors. It reminds me—most fundamentally—that they are women and men who confronted the same tangled mysteries that many of us confront today. They are real. They are individuals. They hold out their experiences as invitations to intimate relation.
As I work through my inbox on the Submittable server, these authors on my bookshelves surround me: a cloud of witnesses, a literary communion of saints. I imagine some strange high priest, his arms raised orans before a bookshelf-altar, reciting their litany: Chopin and Cather, Verlaine and Dostoyevsky, Mann and Mauriac.
To his litany I would add other names—the submitters’ names that glow on my computer screen. They too call us to share in their experiences. They too invite us to traverse—albeit in small, provisional ways—the divide between author and reader, between self and other.
Matthew P. Smith studies 19th-century American literature as a Ph.D. student at the University of Tennessee. This is his second year as a non-fiction submission reader for Grist.