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Writers and Lovers, Lily King

February 25, 2021

Writers and Lovers, by Lily King, is one of those novels about the trials and tribulations experienced by a novelist as she is writing her novel. This one calls herself Casey and works as a waitress by night so she can write during the day.

A few lines of dialogue between Casey and another waitress cleverly reveals that she is no ordinary waitress:
“How’d you get this job?” she says. “You’re not one of Marcus’ usual hires.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re more like us, the old guard.” She means people hired by the previous house manager. “Cerebral.”
“I’m not sure about that.”
“Well, you know what cerebral means, so case in point.”
As the reader, I’m assuming you’re supposed to feel included in the way they’re mentally shaking hands to congratulate each other on being intellectual and stuff (clip from The Sure Thing).

There are lots of parts designed to appeal to readers and writers, like when Casey is sleeping with a poet who quotes Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” during sex or later when she is thinking about dating a fiction writer who reels off a line from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” when Casey refers to it. Like many of us who are readers, Casey thinks of almost everything in terms of characters from fiction. When an older man asks her to live with him and his two little boys, Casey thinks “he calls me his waif, his down-on-her-luck waitress, but he takes it all lightly. In fact, Holly Golightly is one of his names for me. If we lived together I would expose myself as the blighted Jean Rhys character I really am.”

There are moments in this novel where Lily King expresses something so well that I can feel it, like when Casey remembers her mother saying “tomorrow after you leave I will stand here at this window and remember that yesterday you were right here with me” and then Casey says “and now she’s dead and I have that feeling all the time, no matter where I stand.”

Although I want to like Casey because she’s interesting and perceptive, as she tells more of her story I’m increasingly put off by how seriously she takes herself and how pretentious she and her friends are. When an author friend comments on her novel, she starts by saying “Kay Boyle said once that a good story is both an allegory and a slice of life. Most writers are good at one, not the other. But you are doing both so beautifully here.” (Nice work if you can get it–define what is good in contemporary fiction as you deliver it.) Late in the novel, there’s a short paragraph meant to comment on all that’s come before:
“A woman takes a bite of her BLT and sends it back. She says she doesn’t like the spicy mayonnaise. The kitchen makes another, with a milder aioli. I bring it out to her, and a few minutes later she asks me to bring some of the spicy mayonnaise back.
‘I thought I didn’t like it, but I did,’ she says.”
It’s so allegorical, so deep, also a slice of life.

Perhaps because Casey is so pretentious herself, she can deftly pop the balloon of pretention in others, like when she is talking to her friend Silas, the fiction writer, about an author photo:
“It was taken from the side, one of his shoulders in the foreground, elbow to knee, bicep flexed. He’s bearing down on the lens with a menacing look. The contrast between black and white is so extreme his face looks carved out like an Ansel Adams rock face and the backlighting has turned his pupils to pinpricks.
‘Why do men always want to look like that in their author photos?’
“My deep thoughts hurt me,’ Silas says in a scratchy voice.
‘Exactly.’ Or’—I try to mimic him—‘I might have to murder you if you don’t read this.’
He laughs.
‘Whereas with women’—I take a book off the shelf by a writer I admired—‘they have to be pleasing.’ The photo backs up my argument perfectly. She has a big apologetic smile on her face. I bounce the photo in front of Silas. ‘Please like me. Even though I’m an award-winning novelist, I really am a nice, unthreatening person.’”

By the time Casey is interviewing to teach literature in a private high school, I have lost most of my patience with her. When she is asked “have you always been such an enthusiastic reader?” she talks about an obscure German novel translated into English as she replies:
“Not really. I liked reading, but I was picky about books. I think the enthusiasm came when I started writing. Then I understood how hard it is to re-create in words what you see and feel in your head. That’s what I love about Bernhard in the book. He manages to simulate consciousness, and it’s contagious because while you’re reading it rubs off on you and your mind starts working like that for a while. I love that. That reverberation for me is what is most important about literature. Not themes or symbols or the rest of that crap they teach in high school.”
What reader doesn’t love that? But why does it have to be coupled with the insult to more formal methods of teaching literature?

Then it gets worse. Casey gets to pontificate on how she would teach literature, if a high school would only give a Writer the chance to do it the Right Way:
“I would want kids to talk and write about how the book makes them feel, what it reminded them of, if it changed their thoughts about anything. I’d have them keep a journal and have them freewrite after they read each assignment. What did this make you think about? That’s what I’d want to know. I think you could get some really original ideas that way, not the old regurgitated ones like man versus nature. Just shoot me if I ever assign anyone an essay about man versus nature. Questions like that are designed to pull you completely out of the story. Why would you want to pull kids out of the story? You want to push them further in, so they can feel everything the author tried so hard to create for them.”
Yeah, because no teacher has ever tried to get students to talk and write about how a book makes them feel. At this point, Casey has completely lost any sympathy I ever had for her.

Casey gets a happy ending because she is an extraordinary creature, much better than you or me. You might find her type teaching literature at any high school near you.

Really, you can experience the best part of this novel standing in a library or bookstore, if you can find one open and dare to venture in during these pandemic times. Just check out the author photo on the back flap; get a load of the big apologetic smile on Lily King’s face.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2021 11:05 am

    Interesting – thus far I’d seen only complimentary reviews of this book so it’s good to get another perspective. Haven’t read it yet but it’s on my list. I can see why some of her views would grate.

    • February 25, 2021 1:36 pm

      There are good things about it! I tried to say that I enjoyed some of it, especially early on, but as I kept reading I got progressively more annoyed by the way she felt entitled to trash what she thinks ordinary readers and teachers do by contrast with what she, as a writer, could do.

  2. February 26, 2021 12:57 pm

    Just reading what you say about Casey made me grind my teeth. She sounds insufferable. Your final comment about the author photo made me laugh. It is a sad but true thing.

    • February 27, 2021 7:45 am

      But see, that’s why the book may be worth reading even though by the end I couldn’t stand the main character. There are many sad but true things! The author is a good observer of human nature.

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