Writing about writers in ‘Writers & Lovers’

Wednesday, April 1, 2020 - 5:42pm

The other day I was cursorily perusing my housemate’s New York Times, and, amidst the portents of apocalypse, I came across an agitated letter to the editor in the book review. 

“Confirming a trend I’ve noticed with annoyance on bookstore shelves,” the man wrote, not one, and not two but “fully three” of the novels reviewed last week had writers as their protagonists. This isn’t counting Elizabeth Tallent’s memoir, which is also about writing. Four books, each written with what this man seems to see as the same sort of unforgivable myopia, the same sort of decadent navel-gazing, a literary inbreeding that can only be a dead end. “Based on the reviews,” the man continues, “all the aforementioned writers appear to be frustrated in some way.” It’s unclear whether he means the writers depicted in the novels or the writers themselves, though, of course, it can be difficult to separate the two at times. “Maybe they could find some satisfaction in writing about people with a job title different from their own,” the man writes. “There are lots of us out there.” By this point it’s mostly clear that the man wants the writers who have published novels to write about something else now; though I like the idea of him offering advice to the fictional characters of books he hasn’t read; for if these characters have the misfortune to be created by writers, they can at least avoid another level of recursion. 

Petty as it is, his accusation isn’t unfounded: A lot of debut novels I’ve come across recently do seem like a frustrated writer’s attempt to exorcise their process. This can produce good art, of course: The process of becoming a writer is an extended mundanity that transforms itself into a psychodrama if you let it. While we all know that writing is mostly just fiddling with characters and situations and sentences and above all the proverbial “ass in chair” that we are all so very good at avoiding, it can be fun to pretend that it’s something else. For my part, I confess that literary fiction about writers is like candy to me. Maybe that makes me elitist by someone’s metric, and I don’t care.  

Another thing our irate epistolarian might have missed: A lot of people with more humble “job titles” are also writers and (depending on how you want to look at it) vice versa. Lily King’s fifth novel, “Writers & Lovers,” is a novel about a writer who also works as a waitress, and a lot more time is spent on waitressing than on writing. It’s a job title that is starting to make Casey, the first-person protagonist, seem a little ridiculous: She’s 31, an age that functions as a pivot. Here, one is faced with the reality of adult life and the fading of the exuberance of your twenties; there are suddenly considerations of stability. To persevere as an artist requires a certain amount of fortitude, especially if, like Casey, you haven’t found much success as an artist yet. She’s been working on her novel (provisional title: “Love & The Revolution”) for six years, in the process going between cities and boyfriends all over North America and Europe. She’s ended up in Cambridge, Massachusetts after a bad breakup, is working at a restaurant on the third floor of a Harvard social club and living in a tiny room sublet from her brother’s sadistic friend Adam (who at one point tells Casey “I just find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say”). King might want us to see Casey’s stubborn perseverance as heroic, but it also seems like Casey is doing this simply because she can’t be happy doing anything else. The recent death of her mother in a freak accident has left Casey emotionally fraught and it becomes increasingly clear that her novel, which incorporates elements of her mother’s biography, is a way for her to cope at least as much as it is a work of art that she eventually wants to finish and show people. Casey’s character isn’t self-dramatizing in the slightest; she instead has a talent for noticing things about people, picking up on intentions and empathizing. Casey feels everything in a way that’s contagious. A lot of sentences in this book start with “I love…” 

Additionally, King shows us how complicated this kind of life is to sustain while maintaining one’s sanity; we see how Casey has to adapt her mind to at least two playing fields, that of the service worker and that of the aspiring artist. She goes from writing her novel in the mornings to working at the restaurant in the afternoon to going on dates with other writers or going to literary parties at night; each space requires a particular use of language, a particular code. The restaurant itself is a kind of microcosm of the double consciousness she has to sustain on a larger scale in the rest of her life — she ducks into the kitchen and has to deal with the crass behavior (and sometimes harassment) of the cooks, then brings food to the restaurant’s wealthy patrons, doing her best to charm them. 

This theme of double consciousness is further elaborated by that most quintessential of novelistic tropes — a love triangle. Like all good fictional love triangles, each vertex represents a possibility for Casey’s life. She meets Oscar, a 45-year-old author who runs a regular writing workshop, when he comes into her work with his sons for mother’s day. They are, in a slightly morbid fashion, celebrating Oscar’s dead wife. Casey charms Oscar’s sons, and he takes a liking to her. Through being around Oscar and his endearing children, Casey starts to imagine a life for herself that settles nicely into adulthood but might mean giving up her writing. Also in the picture is Silas, a regular attendee of Oscar’s workshop who spurs intense physical passion in Casey but has boyish qualities, not the least of which being that he tends to vanish for weeks at a time. Her struggles to choose seem increasingly like a referendum on her life: a gentle fade into the responsibilities and small joys of adulthood or the continuation of the sometimes messy process of trying to make it work as an artist. 

In the meantime, so much happens. Casey has reams and reams of backstory to intersperse this mostly straightforward plot with; there’s also, of course, the business of writing and getting published, the mundane struggles of life exacerbated by precarity (a cancer scare, sexual harassment, her landlord threatening to sell out her apartment, etc.). In many ways, King has a maximalist approach to realist fiction, one that seeks to capture life as it is lived. Life tends to pleasantly overwhelm plot. The jumble of situations, the huge chaos of characters (I counted 26 after the first chapter, and more keep getting added later) and the endless backstory started to feel like the point after a while. In the face of the luminous digression of King’s style, the writing that Casey does often ends up being the least interesting part, though I was definitely rooting for her success.

I feel as though accusations like that of the writer to the New York Times assume that writing about writers is necessarily self-involved, that writers treat their work as uniquely heroic and deserving of attention. It’s not like anyone has to respond to an accusation of self-involvement (really, who isn’t self-involved?) but King’s writing ultimately feels very generous. Casey’s ambitions give the plot of the story a motivating force, but it’s by no means what makes the novel compelling.