Some novels make you feel like you absolutely must become friends with the novelist. You start to daydream: I know, I'll write a letter. The letter will be so charming and funny, so insightful and interesting, the novelist will write back. We still strike up a correspondence, and eventually meet. We'll finally have a chance to discuss the really important things in life.
I get this feeling powerfully about some living writers. I never get it about dead ones, which suggests I have absorbed the non-existence of an after-life pretty deeply. Generally, I only have the feeling while I'm in the middle of reading a novel. Let me be clear: I've never actually written a letter to a novelist at all.
The impulse strikes me as benign, even good, except for one thing: if you want to be friends with someone these days, and you don't know them, what's the first thing you do? You google them. Before you know it, you're inundated with information: biographical information, interpretive information, critical studies, information about things the author said in interviews, and, of course, contact information.
Some of this may be stuff you just didn't want to know. But, you know, you can't go back.
The novelist who first gave me a powerful feeling in this direction is Philip Roth. Roth's first-person, highly emotional, ranting narrative style gives me an inescapable feeling that I am getting Roth himself, right there on the page. When I encounter some familiar feeling or thought on the page, as I frequently do, I think, "Oh! Yes! I know what you mean! I'm like that too! Let me tell you all about it."
I had the feeling recently with Alicia Erian, whose book Towelhead has lingered in my mind. I was overwhelmed by the feeling reading Julie Doucet (not exactly novels but close enough; see previous post here). And my recent literary infatuation with Michel Houellebecq has this quality, too.
I had a stranger reaction recently to Bret Easton Ellis: reading Lunar Park last summer, I felt not that I wanted to know him but rather that I already did. Very strange. I can't explain.
The feeling doesn't correlate with my liking for a book, necessarily: there are books by Don DeLillo that I love, but I've never had the impulse to invite the author to cocktails. And I know, rationally, that the self on the pages is not the self of the author. Obviously. This knowledge, though, doesn't make the feeling go away.
Through Herculean self-control, I've managed to google each of these folks only once or twice, ever, and to have read very little of what I've found there. So nothing bad has happened.
"What bad things could happen?" you ask. I've always thought that there was danger in too much curiosity about a novel-writer. Once you get thinking about the author and his life, it's almost impossible not to think about the events in the book as they relate to events in the author's life. And then it becomes impossible to really experience the novel in its proper form: as its own little made-up novel-world.
This mix of the biographical and the fictional detracts from the power of the fictional, by creating false explanations, and making the artwork into a kind of commentary. In the worst case, the biography and the fiction fuse in one's mind, and the fiction can no longer exist there.
So there's reason not to know.
In a purely practical sense, the internet has made such ignorance harder to maintain, since the knowledge is all right there.
In a more complicated sense, the internet has made not-getting-in-touch more difficult, too, and thus more artificial. Everyone has an email address; everyone is reachable; even famous people who live in other countries are often just a click away. This means writing that fantasy letter is not a matter of finding paper and pen, and looking up an obscure address. Instead it may be ten seconds of typing.
So the choice not to know, and the choice not to write, they have to be real choices. You can't rely on laziness and inertia to save you. Not anymore.