“A book, a true book, is the writer’s confessional. For, whether he would have it or not, he is betrayed . . . by his characters into presenting publicly his innermost feelings.”–Nelson Algren
“A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.”–Franz Kafka
IT’S NO revelation that a writer reveals himself when he writes, but Algren is saying that if he doesn’t, he’s not really a writer. “[A] true book” is one where the writer actually says what he feels and thinks–the others are mere bagatelles. That definition would seem to exclude many of the books that show up on “best seller” lists today, the formulaic genre fiction aimed at an ever more discrete slice of the readership pie. It’s also true that it’s those same books–mysteries, thrillers, “chick lit”–that dominate the marketplace, Anyone who participates in the book industry is eventually told that genre fiction is the only way to fame and fortune, thus the assembly-line “books” we have today.
The fact is, it’s hard to write one of Algren’s “true” books because saying what he really means exposes the writer. Ideas and emotions that have been secret since childhood are disclosed to the world with all the risks that that entails. It’s no wonder that it takes Kafka’s ax to free them (Can you imagine the “frozen sea” inside Franz Kafka?). The “true” writer is like one of his characters. In life, he never knows anyone and no one knows him but, in fiction, his thoughts and feelings are right there on the printed (or electronic) page. It’s not for the faint of heart, particularly in our secular, opinionated (but never “judgmental”) age.
In the end, the person who writes words on a page or taps on a keyboard has to decide for himself: Is his work a book or a bagatelle?