Books and Reality

Books and Reality

I remember recognizing how literature and authenticity collided when I was sitting alone at a fake French bakery in New York City reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Perhaps to one who has not read this novel, the title is melodramatic; however, it is clear that its protagonist, Mick Kelly, would be seeking out anything other than a romantic interaction at a coffee shop. I certainly wasn’t lonely; I just wanted a salad. But that’s not the trope to which we’ve become accustomed in American literature; instead, look at Hemingway, look at Fitzgerald, and you’ll see that a girl alone—her literary/dreamy mindset typified specifically by a novel—in a café wants a young boy to buy her latte. I didn’t want a latte, but regardless, the waiter looked at me a little sadly and put extra foam on the drink that I bought for myself.
But I didn’t care. These kind of inauthentic representations taken from the barest bones of a literary character or plot fascinate me. If our postmodern society tries to say anything at all, which is arguable, it’s that expectations and attitudes can be built on the sparest of reasons and, perhaps the next day, these expectations and attitudes won’t exist at all. A waiter can take a book, a girl, a latte and assume something about the situation that is true today, but won’t be true tomorrow.

This idea is particularly true in the field of literary criticism. I’ve always been curious about why many literary critics are essentially on the search for the authentic. Writers must have the background--specifically the regional origin, the sexuality, the ethnicity, the gender--that gives them and their work a perceived genuineness. Furthermore, if authors didn’t claim allegiance to a group into which scholars feel they fit in their lifetimes, these scholars will attempt to categorize them anyway. Simultaneously, authors given this authenticity authority are also charged with the impossible duty of representing the entirety of the marginalized group of which they are a part. If novelists strayed from their perceived areas of expertise, they are again charged with inauthenticity. For example, scholars claim that Willa Cather, a purported lesbian author, was unable to write a convincing “marriage plot” because of her own sexuality.

In addition, literature is saddled with an intended readership, essentially the group that has the possibility to receive the author’s intended—read, truest--message.  Misreadings of certain characters in literature can create myths, stereotypes or “types” that have ramifications in material culture, specifically creating a romanticized nostalgia in fields outside of literature entirely. This is why you can’t read a sad book alone in a coffee shop without the waiters fearing that you’ll return home to slit your wrists.