In Jasper Fforde’s lighthearted “Thursday Next” series of books, people can use a “prose portal” to enter the world of a book, to change the plot or kidnap a character. The prose portal is an imaginative metaphor for a familiar experience: feeling taken away by a narrative, sucked into a good book so that we forget about our actual surroundings. This phenomenon is called “transportation,” and it’s common and revealing enough that scientists have done a lot of research on it.
Getting lost in a good book is a bit like getting lost in your own daydream—it is an act of imagination, in which we mentally simulate events and experience them as a kind of organic virtual reality. With literary transportation, though, it is a guided imagination, where the simulation is led and constrained by the text. Readers become absorbed in a world created by the author of the text and fleshed out by the reader’s own powers of imagination.
One of my first memories of the publishing industry is the story of a friend who was asked to provide an author photo to help sell the international rights to her debut novel. My friend is not a person who thinks particularly of her looks—she has always focused on her writing. She submitted a photo of herself standing in a doorway wearing a winter coat. The Italian rights sold, the French did not. Her agent, also a woman and a veteran of the industry, joked that perhaps the French would have gone for the rights if the photo had been more revealing. “The lesson I took,” my friend told me, “was that I was being vetted for physical attractiveness”—not the value of her novel.
The author photo is something writers agonize about. Should you smile? Should you seem remote or accessible? Should you lose weight? It is the prelude to the public life of a book: the tours, readings, interviews, and media appearances a writer hopes to undertake on her publishing journey. A writer spends so much of her time subordinating her personal life to write fiction, and then suddenly, on publication, the personal life is all that matters. I recently listened to an interviewer ask a very famous author about a scene in her new novel, how it surely resembled the recent death of her father. As the author began to answer in earnest, I turned the radio off. I couldn’t bear to hear it.
What should we do? The answer seems clear. We should wake up. Let this election of Donald Trump call forth a great awakening. Specifically, I call on people like me—soft white liberal upper-middle-class college types—to get off their asses, our asses, and fight. That’s what this is, a fight. If you doubt it, if you’re telling yourself (perhaps for reasons of emotional survival that are forgivable) that this is just another election, that the Republicans and the Democrats pass power back and forth in a kind of game and that only fools get over-excited, you are telling yourself a story. I will mention a single issue and let it stand for a dozen others. Climate change. We have just elected a man who professes not to believe in the existence of it. Yet it is real. Why even write this? Isn’t it virtually guaranteed that anyone who has read to this point in the piece already knows as much or more than I do about the climate?
At some point between the day the first cowboy rode out west and when Bruce Springsteen’s ass appeared on the cover of Born in the U.S.A., jeans became both the quintessential and the default American pants. They’re an article for labor and leisure, everyday wear for the everyman. In reality, they’re pitiful for both. Jeans are not comfortable, not flattering, and not carefree. The American public has been duped. We've been sold an image of freedom and rebellion, conned into expecting effortless style and casual Fridays. It was all a lie. Jeans are bad.
(Here I should say that when I say “jeans,” what I mean are blue jeans. [The word “jeans” is always plural.] Denim trousers come in every color, but when you hear “jeans” you first think blue. They’re far and away the most ubiquitous and the most iconic. Beyond this, the indigo used to dye denim blue fades with age in a way that poses problems other dyes do not.)
“Moonglow” takes the form of a faux memoir by the narrator, Mike, a writer who bears more than a passing resemblance to the author himself. The story centers on tales told by his maternal grandfather as he lies dying of cancer, high on painkillers that have cracked his habit of silence and made him eager to spill “a record of his misadventures, his ambiguous luck, his feats and failures of timing and nerve.”