Have you ever been reading someone... when suddenly they died? That is, were you ever halfway through reading someone's book when the news of their death reached you? I can only remember one time that's happened to me -- with Bruce Chatwin. Like many people, I read The Songlines first out of Chatwin's books, then went on to read the others. I was reading The Viceroy of Ouidah when my mother brought me a newspaper clipping of Chatwin's obituary. The immediate effect of this was that I stopped reading that excellent historical novel – although, years later, I started it again and read it all the way through, then reread it... it's as if Chatwin's being dead forced me to rethink my feelings about him before I could process that story.
This makes me wonder if we read living authors and dead authors differently: look at the weird way everyone rushes to reevaluate an author's significance as soon as he or she dies...
Some thoughts from Caitlin Podiak -- “... it's so much easier for me to lose myself in a book if the author is dead and his or her genius is well established. Because with the author's reputation as a safety net, I don't have to trust my own instincts. I have the validation of countless literary scholars. And since a dead author only exists on the page and in my imagination, he or she can't intrude on my reading experience. So it's a bit like masturbating. I'm relaxed and alone and comfortable and the orgasm comes quickly and easily.”
“But when the author is alive and I don't have years of critical context to fall back on, the experience is more challenging. I'm forced to confront the author's continued existence. He or she is out there in the world, being a person, just like I am a person. The author is looking over my shoulder as I read, which makes me feel awkward and self-conscious and pulls me out of the book. I have to like and respect and trust the author before I can relax enough to let myself go. So it's more like sex. Not so safe, not always so comfortable, especially when the author is new and unfamiliar. Things are more likely to go awry. Of course, when the chemistry is right, the experience is vastly more rewarding. But you have to take a risk.”
“So basically, what I'm saying is that canonical fiction is to masturbating as contemporary fiction is to sex.”
I disagree. Maybe we could say that the difference between reading an author you might theoretically one day have a conversation with and one you definitely won't – the author in question being dead -- logically resembles the difference between masturbating about someone you might theoretically one day have sex with and someone you definitely won't – that person being dead. But emotionally the difference isn't the same at all. In our ancestral environment, it was only possible to perpetuate someone's genes if that person was alive -- whereas it's always been possible to perpetuate the memes of someone dead.
So I'd rather say that reading a dead author is like sitting around the camp-fire hearing stories first told by one of the ancestors, whereas reading a living author is like sitting around the camp-fire hearing stories directly from a contemporary. Are we wired to process those two kinds of story differently?