I'm in Ashland, Oregon, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the largest repertory theatre in North America, with a dozen plays per season, 4-5 of them Shakespeare's. Ashland and the festival have been part of my annual Pacific Northwest pilgrimage for the past seven years. I'm here with several other couples who have been coming to Ashland and the festival for thirty years. Vocationally, they're medical and scientific people: neurologist, psychiatrist,
histochemist, neurosurgeon, a family physician who was Ken Kesey's doctor (but, ethically flawless, will say nothing about him), a long-time caregiver for two of the people who have post-polio syndrome and MS. They all love theatre. The neurosurgeon was trained at Cambridge and quotes Auden, Baudelaire in French, and Monty Python. The psychiatrist has
read Faust in German. The neurologist was friends with John Cage. The conversation over supper is sparkling, often irreverent, and rippling with cross-currents of the arts, the sciences, history, and politics (Elizabethan through Bushian).
I'd sent these people copies of my book. Yes, they are friends -- two of them since I was seventeen years old. But that didn't make it any easier, wondering what they thought, what they might say, or not say. The friendships, in fact, made me feel more nervous, which made me toughen myself even more in anticipation of their polite silence. These aren't the kind of people who would mutter kind niceties or feign enthusiasm to make me feel better. Disappointed, or bored, or astonished that I could write something so uninspired and insipid, they would simply say nothing. As I have said nothing to a number of acquaintances about unmemorable books. And these are people who have been reading with taste and discernment for long lifetimes. When I say "nervous" I don't mean that my self-worth teetered over a precipice. I'd published enough books (poetry and biography) to know that I'd be able to go on living, and writing. But,
hey, this was my first book of fiction. I'd started writing fiction when I was still playing touch football. It had taken me several forevers finally to get my act together, and have a collection to give to friends. Some of whom had been waiting as long as I'd been writing.
Over a glass of Booker‚s bourbon (none better), the neurosurgeon said, "Thank you so much for the book. I'm very grateful. But do you know that you misspelled haute couture and nouveau riche? You have the gender wrong."
What a relief! If he thought the book sucked, he probably would have said so. I was getting off lightly. Then, he began asking me what motivated certain characters, if he had interpreted certain behaviours as I had intended. This was a good sign. But he said nothing that let me know what he thought of its quality. That was cool. He didn't give my book the silent treatment. And he was engaged with the characters. That was more than enough.
The next day, the histochemist said, "I can't wait to read your book. T. [neurosurgeon] has been raving about it."
One friend down, a couple dozen still politely silent friends to go.