This collection of essays from The Believer covers a wide and quirky range of topics. There’s an essay by Eula Bass that explores how the novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder presage current questions about gentrification. Rick Moody profiles the offbeat Christian band Danielson Famile, and Ginger Strand examines the American aquarium boom. “Transmissions from Camp Trans” by Michelle Tea is about Tea’s week at a gathering of trans women held near the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, which bars trans women from attending, and “Waiting for the Bad Thing” by Sam Lipsyte is about the author’s road trip through California with Michel Houllebecq.
I found that the essays I most enjoyed fell into one of two categories: Either they analyzed something I was already at least vaguely familiar with, as was the case with Bass’s essay on Laura Ingalls Wilder, as well as “The Sinatra Doctrine,” Rich Cohen’s piece about the intersections among three musicians–Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Sid Vicious–and a song–“My Way.” Or else they took me into a world with which I have no experience, as Michelle Tea does in her story of Camp Trans and as Paul La Farge does in “Destroy All Monsters,” a story about the rise of Dungeons and Dragons and the man behind the myth-making.
La Farge’s piece is particularly interesting because he does something to get around a barrier I faced with several of the essays in this book. He begins with a note to the reader explaining that the first half of the essay is a manual that will orient readers to the world of D&D. The second half is a scenario about the author’s own trip to play D&D with its creator, E. Gary Gygax. He recommends that those who know the game already just skim or skip the manual and focus on the scenario. Thus, he sidesteps the problem of having to orient readers to the game without boring avid players. It’s a tidy solution to a messy problem, but certainly not practical in all cases.
Several of the essays failed with me because I didn’t have the background knowledge needed. I haven’t even heard of Manny Farber, much less read his film criticism or seen his art, and Franklin Bruno’s essay, “In Praise of Termites” seemed to require at least some sense of Farber’s place in contemporary culture. I have read Nathaniel West, so I had slightly better luck with “The American Vicarious” by Jonathan Lethem, but my memories of reading West are so vague that my understanding was only slight. I can’t really fault Bruno or Lethem for leaving me out in this way–writing a “manual” on West or Farber would be silly. And not every essay about a writer or artist ought to be a primer on that person’s work. Sometimes you have to assume a general knowledge, and these authors (or their editors) assumed that the audience of The Believer would know enough to follow their essays. I didn’t happen to have that knowledge, but not every essay out there needs to be pitched to my level of understanding.
As an editor, I have to consider these questions a lot. What terms will our readers already know? If we define everything, it could seem that we’re talking down to them, yet clarity is essential. Walking that line can be a challenge, and this book reminds me that it’s a challenge for those of us who write about literature as well.
For example, if I’m going to review a Victorian novel, I might want to set that novel against others from its period or against other works by the same author. So if I’m writing about Agnes Grey, I might also want to discuss The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Jane Eyre. What can I assume readers know about those books? Even here I’m assuming readers will recognize that Tenant is from the same author as Agnes and Jane from the same era, the same family even. I tend to assume that our readers have a solid general knowledge of literature and therefore would pick up on the connection without my spelling it out, although if I find a way to sneak a mention in, I might. As a blogger, I can know at least some of our audience through comments, which is helpful in getting a sense of what our readers tend to know.
So with all that in mind, I can’t get too frustrated when I come across an essay peppered with references I can’t follow and assuming knowledge I don’t have. As it happens, most of the essays in Read Hard were pitched about right for me. I don’t read many articles from the magazine online because I find such long pieces difficult to digest online, and I don’t see myself subscribing to the magazine because not all their articles fall quite in my area of interest. But I will certainly make a point of at least checking the contents when I go for a newsstand browse. Perhaps I’ll even take home a copy once in a while.