I Loved Your Book: The Strange Desire To Praise the Talented

Not long ago, some friends and I wandered into a Friday-night art opening in Chelsea for the actor—and apparently the painter—Martin Mull. Like everyone else, we drifted from painting to painting while pretending not to steal glances at Mr. Mull, swirling a glass, off to the side. There should be a German word for when a Hollywood actor produces better paintings than what you’d expected. When we’d finally seen enough, I found myself overcome by a strange feeling: part appreciation, part pity. This poor celebrity, I thought. So many glances and approving nods—but presumably so little direct, thoughtful human niceness. The loneliness of success, and so forth.

“Sorry to bother you,” I said, valiantly puncturing his sphere of loneliness over by the gallery offices, “but I just wanted to tell you I enjoyed your paintings. They’re really … strange in a neat way.”

Well, it wasn’t Art Forum. But the important thing was the outreach; the me was the message. I awaited his meltdown of gratitude, his blubbering confession that nobody had really pierced the outer layer in years.

“Thank you,” he said brusquely. “Thanks.” His walrus mustache lifted politely to indicate that would be all.

But it wouldn’t be all—not for me, anyway. An emotional déjà vu descended on me. I’d felt this all before: the affection, the concern, the wish to heap appreciation on what I perceived to be a successful but isolated art maker. How could I never have noticed? Martin Mull was just the latest stop in a lifelong praise-and-rescue mission.

There was the Slate film critic, who received a minor earful for his perfect understanding of what was perfect in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. There was another critic who really got at something about a Miller beer commercial. There was the heartfelt e-mail I sent to a former Salon colleague for an incisive essay about 60’s counterculture. There was the woman who wrote so sparely and fiercely about her autistic son. There was the McSweeney’s writer who was funny in just the right amounts; there was the New Yorker short-story writer who made a bottle thrown from a bridge into something restrained and tender.

Mostly I e-mailed, but there were in-person humiliations, too. When a moronic 22, I once decided at a San Francisco reading that perhaps Lorrie Moore wasn’t receiving meaningful praise from the hundred fawning admirers crowding around. When it came time for her to sign my Anagrams, I put on my best not-insane face and asked if she’d like to grab a soda after the event. Naturally, the exquisite kindness of her regrets—as finely tuned as her prose itself—was the most embarrassing part.

What is this? I swear it’s not stalking. I have no particular interest in hanging out with these people, or rubbing my head on their pillows or whatever. Rather, this habit of mine seems to come out of that weird mix again—appreciation and pity. Will those perfect notes go underappreciated, even in the case of a Lorrie Moore, so clearly beloved? Might her popularity become such a din that she never hears the individual noises of praise?

It occurs to me that I sound like some kind of writer’s pet—depositing the apple on the desk while remarking on the fine elbow patches. To this I can only insist that I, unlike a genuine pet, have nothing personal invested in the exchange. It’s not about me, it’s about them, and I’d be just as happy if a reliable proxy delivered my careful praise in my place. Honestly, I just want these poor, successful, famous, enormously talented people to feel as good as they should.

Which is what I was feeling when Jonathan Ames came to read in San Francisco some months back. My wife and I had both recently gone nuts for his books and, noting that we constituted a healthy percentage of his audience that night on Haight Street, we prepared to make this writer feel necessary in an otherwise uncaring, Grisham-stuffed world. We got our chance when Mr. Ames invited the small crowd to a nearby bar after the reading. A moronic 30 at this point, I pictured some kind of carousing salon, culminating in the minor buoying of a good-seeming man who decided to do hard, thoughtful work for a living when he might have traded bonds instead.

Maybe carousing salons were always dorky and halting, with techno too loud overhead. A handful of us, Mr. Ames included, pulled chairs around some small tables and attempted a chitchat. Are you liking San Francisco? Oh yes, very nice. It was unsatisfyingly pleasant, and after a while my wife and I bid our farewells. Before leaving, however, we found ourselves near the door with Mr. Ames. We told him how special we’d found his two most recent novels. We went to town with the eye contact, with the not couching our appreciation in irony or cleverness. He thanked us, and we caught our bus home.

I’m normal in other departments, really; I make sandwiches and pet cats and go to parties with friends. Presumably, this lone abnormality is a response to some disconnect I perceive within our species—so many unperfected moments and then death, etc. And certainly it’s a reaction to what I see as a frequently cold and vituperative literary world. Maybe, too, my campaign is even some quasi-spiritual prostration exercise, a humility program.

But fundamentally, this is about reading. What is the relationship between writer and audience? Particularly the gentle and friendly-seeming writer—not so much Norman Mailer, who if I praised him would probably eat my head. Shouldn’t the reader meet the writer halfway? Is it enough to quietly click our $22.95 off to Amazon?

A year ago, I published a book: a sideways look at the last decade via conversations with my former high-school classmates. There were a couple pleasant reviews and fun readings, and then the thing slipped off into obscurity; I moved on, now and then replaying dribbles of praise I’d received, generally from my mother.

It was a terrific surprise, then, when months after my book’s publication I received a small package from a complete stranger. Inside was a wonderfully kind write-up in a small Los Angeles–based magazine, as well as a personal letter written by the editor. By “letter,” I mean letter—a substantial, handwritten document of pen and ink. It was perhaps the most astoundingly sweet thing a fellow could remove from his mailbox. The sincerity, the out-on-a-limbness of it made up for all the time I didn’t spend on Oprah.

I never wrote back; I didn’t call or dash off a quick e-mail. Why? I don’t know. I didn’t even raise my mustache politely.

Hoping to have some light shed on this subject, I e-mailed Jonathan Ames recently, asking for his thoughts. Mr. Ames’ characters fondle bras and harbor nose fetishes, which somehow led me to believe that he’d be receptive to a hounding about my previous hounding. Had my insistent appreciation seemed bizarre and creepy? Was it the gesture that made all those hours at the keyboard worth it? And at some level: What would cause a wonderful letter of praise to go unanswered?

Mr. Ames’ reply was more elaborate than Martin Mull’s, certainly; he recalled my wife and me fondly. But the note was cordial and measured, hardly an explosion of either discomfort or joy. I saved the e-mail but did not frame it.

An author puts out a book, and all manner of responses are possible. Maybe it’s the same when a reader bothers to issue one: Sometimes a jerk, fearing a potlatch, is touched to the point of speechlessness; sometimes a far busier man says, succinctly, thanks. If words weren’t murky, maybe we wouldn’t pay $22.95 for them. I’ll consider that unflatterable notion as soon as I get through the latest by this Franzen fellow—does he really know how lifelike his characters are?