I have a new co-worker in my office. I like her a lot. She fits right into my circle of simpatico colleagues, and we’ve all been having a good time lunching together. Recently we were discussing childhood trauma in literature (I was recommending the Patrick Melrose novels) when she told us that her 8th grade teacher had been eaten by his pet ocelot. I burst out laughing, assuming this was meant to be comic relief, but in fact the story turned out to be true, as I could immediately tell from the expression on her face. I felt terrible, still do, and apologized profusely, but things have never been the same between us, and now our lunching group feels strained. Should I recuse myself and eat cottage cheese at my desk?
Mortified in Morgantown
I feel your pain. Something similar happened to me once, except that the incident involved a British colleague whose uncle, a rugby player, died after he ran into the maypole while performing a Morris dance in his village, which had some name like Greater Bromide-in-the-Wold. Luckily, my colleague was very gracious about it, and I took care to be especially attentive to him the next few times I saw him, so that was that.
I am sorry you haven’t been so lucky with the ocelot episode, and I think that your new colleague should just get over it and move on. This was clearly a misunderstanding. You had no idea your colleague was recounting a serious trauma, or even telling a true story. I suppose, given the context – I assume you were talking about the loathsome predations of Patrick Melrose’s father – you might have been more sensitive to the gestalt. But, come on, an ocelot? Whose eighth-grade teacher keeps an ocelot? If you’re like me, the only pet ocelot you’ve ever heard of is Babou, who used to travel with Salvador Dali. Dali was as close to the antithesis of an eighth-grade teacher as a man can be; and Babou, who was about the size of a hefty Maine coon cat, looked much less alarming than her owner.
But since it is you, not your traumatized lunch mate, who wants my counsel, my thinking that she should suck it up does not get you very far. So here’s my practical advice. You have already apologized profusely. It is hard to see how you could be expected to do more. But if you can bring yourself to talk to her about the matter one more time, it may help to take her aside, say that things still seem strained between the two of you, and ask her if there is anything else you can do to make her feel better and repair your relationship. Tell her that you value the relationship, and why. Perhaps you could even draw her out and get her to say what she had planned to say before your laughing fit. She may have been truly devastated by the violent death of a beloved teacher, perhaps at the paws of a pet she and her classmates had come to know and like. And she may have learned some truly horrific details about the death. (This really happened, you say? Hard not to wonder how. But I will be strong.)
If you don’t feel up for another face-to-face discussion, there is always that perennial June fallback: a letter, preferably a physical one.
As for your lunch group being strained, I assume that this is solely because of Ocelot Woman’s sensibilities? If the rest of the group is also offended, or is somehow in solidarity with her, over this one incident, they must be exquisitely sensitive, or seriously overdramatic, people. They all know that you apologized, right? Make sure they do, I say, and soldier on with the lunches. These things almost always blow over in time.
Do NOT recuse yourself. There is no reason to lose not just your new colleague, but also the others in your work social group, because of one innocent mistake, which is all your gaffe was.
None of this is in any way meant to disparage cottage cheese, that much-maligned, protein-rich, filling, and surprisingly complex food. Just try not to make a habit of eating it alone.
I used to read literary fiction, and very happily, but lately I only want to read trash. Should I just accept this about myself, or should I try harder to read more ambitious fiction?
Added to the problem is that I am actually trying to be a writer of literary fiction. I have published two stories in literary magazines and am working on a novel. But it seems preposterous to be writing a book I would probably be too lazy to read.
What do you think?
Indolent in Indiana
Are you sure that the issue is your being indolent or, as you also put it, “too lazy”? It sounds as if you lost interest in reading literary fiction at about the same time you started seriously writing it. If this is the case, there may be other factors at work here.
One is the fear of stylistic contagion: some writers, especially beginning writers, have a tendency to mimic the style and even the themes of whatever admired writer they happen to be reading. Another is not wanting to feel intimidated and discouraged: sometimes the gap between masterful literary writing and one’s own writing makes one’s attempts seem hopeless.
Conversely, it can be galling for an unknown writer to read a critically or financially successful book that doesn’t seem all that good. All three of the responses I just outlined—“I want to do that,” “I could never do that,” and “Hell, I could have done way better than that”—are, obviously, the result of reading as a would-be writer, and indeed as a competitor, instead of simply as a reader. I am guessing that you have not completely found your own voice yet, or become very self-confident.
It may be that, unaware of your own motives, you are taking a break from literary fiction as a protective measure. This is not a terrible idea, at least for now; but I would suggest that you still try to read good literary writing at least some of the time. It doesn’t have to be modern fiction. Great nonfiction and classic fiction can keep your overall standards up, nourish your soul, and polish your style without leading you too far into odious comparisons. And classic novels almost always come with vivid settings and linear plots and a certain amount of suspense, so they can work just as well as “trash” if you are after entertainment and escape. I am thinking Dickens, Tolstoy, Austen, George Elliot, Thomas Mann. Maybe Stendhal if you want to stretch your muscles a little more. Poetry can work, too, and of course the King James Bible. After a while, say six months, I suggest that you get back to reading at least one contemporary literary work every month or so, to keep your hand in.
Or you may simply not like literary fiction any more, which can certainly happen, especially in the years right after leaving school. This is fine, especially if by “literary fiction” you mean writing that tends toward the obscure and experimental, and by “trash” you mean accessible and/or genre fiction. As Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Rossini have all reportedly said about music, there are really only two kinds of writing: good and bad. So read what you like, most of the time (I would still read at least one lit fiction book every month) but lay off whenever the “trash” in question really does seem trashy: dishonest, mean-spirited, sloppily written, or so trite that it fails to hold your attention. I am talking here about the kind of fiction that gives you more numbness than real pleasure while you are ingesting it and then leaves you feeling as if you skipped dinner and ate a family-size bag of potato chips and three Choco Tacos.
I can think of one more possible explanation for your recent aversion to literary fiction: are you depressed? Discouraged? What you perceive as laziness may be one aspect of dysthymia or even major depression. Are you losing interest in other activities you used to like? Are you less motivated than usual to make the initial effort even when you know the result will be satisfying – not just getting into a challenging book, but getting out of bed go running, shopping for a complicated meal, planning an event, taking on new work? I do realize that not wanting to tackle Infinite Jest at the end of a long workday is not usually cause for concern about a possible mood disorder. But for a writer who used to take pleasure in reading ambitious fiction, the question is worth considering, especially if this seeming lassitude carries over into other areas.
There remains the question whether, if you are not just depressed or subject to one of the difficulties I mentioned earlier, but actually have just lost interest in literary fiction, you should be writing the stuff. I don’t really understand why you would want to. What’s it like to reread your own drafts? But if you do want to keep writing literary fiction, and enjoy doing it, and are good at it, and believe that your work has value and will interest other people even though you might not buy it yourself, I can’t see why not. Don’t read too much bad writing, though—literary or nonliterary. (If you are one of the hordes of writers who have to do so to earn a living, inoculate yourself as best you can, with great literature or great “trash.”) Low standards are highly infectious.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
Image credit: daniele paccaloni on Flickr