Bad Behaviour

What do you do when you find you have taken a notable dislike to the author of a collection of personal essays? This is the conundrum I’m in at the moment, picking the book up every few days, stumbling instantly on some other incident that makes me wince, putting the book back down again. Here are a few of the events that have made a certain impression on me:

  • The writer had a difficult relationship with her father, who was hearty, cynical, often unkind and clearly lacking in empathy. However, the author describes how she ‘got back at him later’, by turning up to a Christmas Eve dinner with a boyfriend in tow and on board and ‘let him have it. The boyfriend and I blamed him for everything – my mother’s alcoholism, which by then was full-blown; the Vietnam war which he abetted by supporting; the general unhappiness of our family. We left him in tears, and hugged each other in triumph while my mother and brother and sister looked on in dismay.’
  • When she gives her first novel to a new and somewhat untested friend to read, the friend has to admit she had trouble reading it because she found it ‘misogynistic’. ‘I put myself in the wrong by shouting an obscenity and slamming down the phone,’ the writer states, and that was the end of the friendship.
  • The author has spent much of her early life in therapy, and a fair chunk of the middle of it, too, and she blames it for increasing her problems rather than resolving them. A faint awareness of this makes her behave very badly with the last therapist she ever has, becoming ‘hostile and prickly’, ‘sneering’ at his décor and his clothes. ‘I behaved unpleasantly because I was paying to behave any way I pleased,’ she explains.
  • And the one I’m really struggling with: at a graduate barbecue party, one not providing enough elemental passion to maintain the writer’s interest in it, she sneaks off with her husband and a friend into the apartment of the couple who are hosting. First they can’t contain their giggles when they peek into the bedroom and find it done out in frills and flounces and fresh flowers. Then they find a calendar on the kitchen wall that has been marked up by the hostess with all sorts of ordinary events, her mother-in-law’s birthday, illustrated with candles, reminders to make a dentist appointment, the mention of a nice sunset. The naïve enthusiasm of the calendar gets right under the writer’s skin. Leading the others on she fills the calendar’s days with parodic entries, shrieking with laughter. That’s the end of another friendship.

In all fairness I have to point out that the author is not suggesting that these incidents represent anything other than bad behaviour. She’s fully aware of it, and there is often some gesture towards elegantly composed remorse at some point in the essay. But I find my jaw dropping simply because she did these things, and wrote about them, and the point of writing about them is not really her sense of guilt and regret. Underlying the anecdotes, because this is personal essay territory after all, she is seeking for understanding and empathy, for the reader to laugh a little with recognition since, after all, these are the sorts of things anyone might do, or want to do, if they had the nerve. I’m finding her like a naughty child who decides that if they are clever enough and entertaining enough subsequently, all will be forgiven and forgotten.

The main problem is that the character of the author is about as opposite to mine as it is possible to be. ‘I don’t mean to say that I’m passive-aggressive,’ she writes, ‘I lack the manipulativeness that is a key element of that syndrome – only that I’m passive and aggressive.’ In other words, she’s the sort of person I’ve spent my life quietly identifying out of a crowd and then crossing the road in order to avoid. But I also think of myself as someone who can put herself in other people’s shoes, who can find a sympathetic perspective, see it from the other side, and accept people exactly as they are. And so naturally this author bugs me most of all because she’s messing with my own sense of who I am, and who it is acceptable to be. Even holding in my head the thought ‘my goodness, this person is ghastly’ is contravening my sense of what it’s polite and respectful to do.

I came to this book because I’m intrigued at the moment by authors who claim kinship or a feeling of friendship with Franz Kafka. I want to write my own essay about it, to think about what it means to have a friend in Kafka, and I need to get past my dislike of this author to hear what it is she’s really saying. The essays themselves are good, and there could be many interesting things here, only the voices in my head are drowning her out. All I feel at the moment is that Kafka would not have felt a reciprocal friendship with her, because for all his sense of isolation and exclusion (her belief in herself as an ‘anomaly’ is heavily imprinted into her narrative), he was a sweetie, even if a wretched and troubled sweetie.


19 thoughts on “Bad Behaviour

  1. I have to say, I would probably just put the book down and give up on it – I loathe unpleasant narrators. On the other hand, if you are reading it for research re Kafka, should that make it easier to say to yourself “this person is just someone whose life I am researching, not a protagonist”?

  2. Hey, at least you wrote a long, thoughtful and insightful post about this, not simply slagging her.

    Sorry for a long comment, but this is an issue I’ve been living for months.

    My new memoir is binary — people love it or absolutely loathe it, and the reason the haters loathe it is me, the narrator, my voice and my point of view. So instead of intelligent reviews of the material, I get *&^$# like “Bitter, pretentious and lazy, lazy, lazy” as an amazon “review.” I’m thinking of having it printed on a T-shirt.

    Readers need to keep in mind, as you did, that every narrator is:

    1) a human being with his or her own filters in how s/he sees the world; 2) you may absolutely hate their choices, but, hey it’s their book! 3) any sophisticated reader, or writer, is fully aware that a published work is merely a carefully edited version of that person, not their full character, 4) Any book worth publishing establishes a tone, the narrator’s voice, and sticks with it — whether the obnoxious brat, the witty raconteuse, or whatever. If your narrator suddenly turned Pollyanna and became cuddly and cute, you might like her better — but that’s not the book she intended nor the persona she and her editor decided were worth writing about.

    My point is that reacting vehemently and violently (and sometimes with shocking brutality, in my view) to a memoir is silly. If you hate the writer’s POV, maybe there’s something powerful in it that’s hitting a nerve in you. I see your point, certainly. I recently read a memoir by someone I found smothered in privilege (and unaware of how it affected her choices and behaviors, the core of her book) and that turned me right off her book as well.

    If a narrator is self-aware and calls it, how much more can readers reasonably ask of them?

  3. Well, I think this proves that a writer who is a real asshole is still more asshole than writer at the end of the day, if you will forgive my being so frank. I might leave that review of her book on Amazon, were I not quite certain that she would then burn my house down and skin my cats to wear as fashion accessories.

  4. I feel that your personal reaction to her essays is valid, and you needn’t feel apologetic or work to get around it too much. Explore it, and try to see her views and points as you’re saying, sure; but your reaction is as important as any other way of receiving her work. You could write an essay on it. Perhaps you just did. 🙂

  5. Ahha! I think I know who this is. I think I’ve seen a couple of her things in American Scholar Magazine. The incident about the calendar sounds familiar. In any event, this person might be very talented, but she doesn’t sound very nice. And, quite frankly, I do not see why one cannot be both. By the way, I’m just catching up on my favorite blogs, and thank you for the list of summer reads. I definitely want to read the Rona Jaffe.

  6. She does sound ghastly and down right mean too. I admire your fortitude and generosity in continuing with the book and trying to winkle out the good and the interesting. I wouldn’t be able to do it. It sounds like she’d get along better with the Fitzgeralds than with Kafka.

  7. To be honest, my first reaction is to the audacity of a writer who would dare claim a “kinship” with Kafka. Awe, intimidation, obsession, fear, anxiety, devotion, love–all of those are great. But “kinship”? With Kafka of all people? How presumptuous! Would someone say they feel a kinship with Shakespeare or Jane Austen?

    Seriously, I will put up with a lot from a writer if they’re good enough. Laura Riding was by all accounts an difficult person, but I think she was a genius and even her personal-ish essays are a joy to read, albeit somewhat uncomfortable at times. EFG does not quite seem to meet the standard from these excerpts. (Cool alphabetical initials, though!)

    And to be fair, Kafka did treat Felice Bauer rather badly, pretty much breaking an engagement with her twice.

    Another writer who I think has said she feels very close to Kafka is Can Xue. She is *very* peculiar. Have you read her? I think she has an essay on Kafka somewhere on the web.

  8. I have had this same problem with memoirs in the past, and I never know exactly what it is that I want from these authors. That they have been better people in the past? (which is impossible) That they display recognition they were behaving badly? (which they usually do) But I think you’ve put your finger on it here — it’s the tone that yes, this was wrong, but I’m writing about it in an amusing way, so ha ha ha, water under the bridge. I need more remorse, dammit, and preferably some indication that the writer has grown up since then and (why not get crazy?) tried to make amends.

  9. I am perfectly happy to read books by authors I find detestable (at least on the basis of what I’ve seen of them in the media), and I love many books with detestable main characters, but somehow the personal essay only works for me if I like the writer at least a little. I don’t need strong affection or want to be friends with her, but there has to be something about that person (or her persona in the essays) that makes me want to spend time with her. I’m not sure I could have stuck with this book, unless the “train wreck” quality of it were to keep me going (and if that were the case, I’d feel kind of dirty after, LOL).

  10. I’m not sure I would get on very well with this book as I would likely cringe at her enjoyment of making fun of others–because I would likely be the person who is the object of her hilarity. Makes for uncomfortable reading. Maybe you could skip these bits and go directly to the parts on Kafka? I always think of him as having been pretty sensitive (?), so I bet he’d cringe, too.

  11. I’m curious – Is there anything in this specific book showing her kinship with Kafka? To me this author sounds like a person with a “sarcastic personality disorder”, and thats not Kafka-ish to me. But maybe she can be an example on how many different Kafka’s there are – that is to say; maybe on can postulate an idea saying there as many Kafkas as there are readers …?
    (I guess this sounds pretty post-structuralistic, doesn’t it?)

  12. I kind of like reading authors I wouldn’t want to spend time with, who are difficult and mean, and who probably wouldn’t like me particularly, but it’s really only fun if you have some bit of sympathy with the person. Then, for me at least, it’s a way of enjoying bad behavior without actually doing it myself, which I would never do. It’s a little fantasy escapism. But if there’s not that level of sympathy with the author, then it’s just appalling. I have a sneaking suspicion I know the author you’re talking about 🙂 and I’m very curious how this collection of essays will affect me if I end up reading it.

  13. Writers aren’t generally interested in winning popularity contests, and most of the ones I’ve read about have egos that don’t care too much what the majority of readers thinks of them. (They may care too much for what critics or their peers think.) What they present represents their conscious self, their unconscious, and their persona. If they come off sounding like a crank or judgemental to others but not self-reflexive, we can shut the covers, or be amused, or feel grateful we’re not them.

  14. I was wondering why you decided to withhold the name? It has been published, no?
    What I find the most striking is that she doesn’t have a sense of boundaries, she is aggressively transgressive. This does not sound like Kafka. Maybe she was only referring to the relationship with her father and sees a similarity with Kafka because they both have a troubled relationship with the father.

  15. reading with tea – I think you’re right. It may be that the most objective stance I can muster, along with a mantra that says something like, stay curious, don’t judge, just be interested in what happens, might both make it better for me and more useful for research purposes!

    broadsideblog – I feel for you. I dislike knee-jerk reactions of any kind to books, because most of them have ambiguity or complexity of some sort written into their structure which is being ignored in a purely emotional response. I know this author is just pushing the wrong buttons for me, and I think that what she’s engaged in here is an exploration of certain states of mind and ways of behaviour which she thinks give her the most to write about. And she DOES show remorse often for what she’s done. For her, these acts offer rich seams of exploration in personal essays, and probably for a lot of her readers, too, that would be most intriguing. I never feel comfortable with those ugly comments on amazon, and I do think they say more about readers than the writer.

    Lilian – aw bless you – you always give me encouragement!

    David – your comments always make me laugh so. Protect the cats at all costs. One can always be right, privately, to oneself, and not put valuable cat skin at risk. 🙂

    Pagesofjulia – I was so used to using my reactions as a starting point for academic analysis that would soon be buried under other things that I thought. It’s odd to be derailed by my response and not to be able to see past it! But you’re right and I really like the idea of exploring that response in a mildly curious way. It might be illuminating.

    Grad – in the lives of authors it has so often proved to be the case that talent and unpleasantness go hand in hand! It’s funny how sometimes it gets me and sometimes it doesn’t. I’d love to know what you think of the Rona Jaffe – I really enjoyed that book.

    Stefanie – lol! Such a good point that the Fitzgeralds would be perfect company for her! It’s the meanness that gets to me. So much else I can be sympathetic about, but not that sort of snarkiness. 😦

    David – you are a mine of information. I was thinking that the name Laura Riding was so familiar but I couldn’t place it. And then I remembered I have a biography of her – Robert Graves’ mistress, no? And a relatively well-known poet, although I haven’t read her poetry beyond quotations in the bio. To be fair, the author (and ten bonus points for spotting her, and ten more for not giving her away) doesn’t exactly claim kinship – she writes an essay about her friendship with Kafka, based on an MA dissertation she writes about him. But yes, awe, anxiety and devotion might be more reasonable responses to have. Good call on his relationship with F. B., although he seems to have been very attractive to women because he was so lacking in confidence and unsure of himself, combined with a certain charm and good looks. And I’d never heard of Can Xue – thank you so much for that lead!

    Jenny – sometimes I think you have been inside my head – that’s exactly how I feel about the situation. It’s ridiculous to expect anything different from the author, and yes, it is that level of remorse I’m after! 🙂

    Teresa – well you put your finger on it. The personal essay does involve slightly different standards, doesn’t it? I never mind biographies of monsters (after all, I’ve just got through In Cold Blood feeling quite sorry for Perry Smith by the end) but they don’t ask for sympathy in the implicit way personal essayists do. There is a sort of train wreck quality to these essays, but it’s bolstered by the sense that it was caused by other people, and gah! that gets to me too!

  16. Danielle – as ever, we have very similar responses! Yup, I feel I’d be the person being mocked, too, and that is such an uncomfortable feeling. I remember all those mean girls at school, who were unhappy with themselves and took it out on others. It was hideous, and I’m sure that’s at the root of my dislike. I loved your comment about Kafka – he WOULD cringe, I’m sure!

    Sigrun – I’d be so happy to see some poststructuralism about the place in this book! One of the essays focuses on Kafka, who becomes a ‘friend’ of the author when she writes an MA dissertation on him. She bonded with his sense of being isolated and excluded, out-of-place, and I guess, being creative too, although that isn’t explored very much. I must go back and read that essay again, actually, as I’ve forgotten a lot of what she said – it’s been blotted out by other horrors! And really, I could just concentrate on it and save myself a lot of grief!

    Dorothy – yes, the idea of vicarious mischief is a good one. I quite see where you’re coming from, and it would be a much more productive attitude to hold when reading this book. I’ll be extremely interested to see what you think about this author if you do read the volume!

    Jeff – in all fairness the author is self-reflexive, and takes a fair amount of time and trouble over unpicking her behaviour. Normally that would set it all straight with me, so it’s intriguing that in this instance it doesn’t. As I say, she’s just pushing the wrong buttons. But I like your thinking that I can just be grateful I’m not like her. That never occurred to me, and yet it’s a good way to proceed. 🙂

    Caroline – I didn’t mention the name because I didn’t want other bloggers to be overly influenced by my responses here. It wouldn’t be fair, when I recognise that my dislike is because of very specific emotional buttons she’s pushing that probably wouldn’t affect a large proportion of other readers. Well, I always like to leave authors with the benefit of the doubt and readers with an unbiased attitude! But you’re right she’s aggressively transgressive over boundaries, and that’s very interesting. She DOES have a very vexed relationship to her father, and so it’s interesting to see the different consequences it had for her and for Kafka – thank you for that, that’s a very productive thought for me.

  17. I wonder if she is the same writer who wrote a personal memoir of her time in therapy. Hmm, well from what you describe of her behaviour she does sound a bit ghastly. Perhaps she writes about her bad behaviour in order to try and justify it and make herself feel better. I would suggest taking her ideas of Kafka as a reference point and then moving off to other more sympathetic authors.

  18. Google is quite wonderful for a little Sherlock like myself. Personal essay + Kafka et voilà… But I’m not telling. I was just so curious whether I know the other and, no, I didn’t. I’m interested to read the Kafka chapter.

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