CONFESSIONS OF A LOVER, SPURNED
BENJAMIN H. CHEEVER
Do you remember me? We were in love. Or rather I was in love with you. I remember
everything: the way the sheets smelled, your sour breath in the morning, your tangled
hair. You went into the bathroom. I look horrible, you said. I didnt
think so. Ive always had a weakness for runny eyeliner. I made you scrambled eggs
and coffee. But that was before. This is now. Now I hate you.
Youve betrayed me. You arent a reader anymore.Youre a customer. The
customer is always right. I hope you like it. I dont.
I spent half a lifetime mooning around about how Id write a novel, and youd
get it. Publication is like archery. Thats what I imagined. You let go of the
string. Your hear the arrow whizzing through the air. Thunk!
Thats what I thought before I published anything. Since then Ive shot an
arrow into the air. Several arrows, actually. They didnt lodge in the breast of a
friend. Or anybody else for that matter. Maybe theyre still up there, defying
I was so afraid of writing. Shouldnt have been. People dont read books very
much. Although they sure do talk about them.The morning Christopher Lehmann-Haupt gave my
first novel a great review, I must have gotten fifteen congratulatory phone calls. Fully
half of my well-wishers had no intention of reading the book. Theyd read the review.
They were calling up to congratulate me on the review. But then I hadnt written the
review.Shouldnt they have been calling Christopher Lehmann-Haupt instead? O.K. O.K.
I know what youre thinking. Hes not much of a stylist. He wrote a couple
of coming-of-age novels. I already came of age. Besides which, if Im going to read
something by Cheever, Id rather it be by John Cheever.
But listen, Dear Reader. This isnt the issue. I didnt expect a zillion
lovers. I expected one or two. And afterwards, I expected them not to be so embarrassed.
Ive read your book, they say. Which means thatt heyve spent
roughly five hours on a project which may have taken me as many years. Im supposed
to smile bravely and thank them back, knowing that its not enough. Its as if I
did something to them, instead of having done it for them. Its as if I spent the
night, and afterwards, while they were making breakfast,I snuck back into the bedroom and
stole their grandmothers Georg Jensenbroach.
I made a boo-boo. I wrote a book that will never be on Oprah.
Sex hasnt always been like this. Im not a virgin.When I worked at The
Readers Digest, and before that, when I worked at The Rockland Journal-News,
Id write anonymously for the bulletin board. Sometimes Id be in the hallway. A
man would stop, read my work, and chuckle.
Was I a regular E.B. White? Probably not. And yet somebody had invested the one minute
and seven seconds required to read what Id written. And afterwards, he didnt
think hed been gypped.
I wasnt the only writer who composed for the bulletin board. When I was at The
Rockland Journal-News, we had a star writer who used often to get his content-free
articles on the front page. He wasnt a bad guy, just another victim of success. His
name was John Costa. He wrote an article about rabies: Although there has not been a
case of rabies reported in the tri-state area in forty years, Rockland County Health
Officials continue to fear an outbreak of the disease that....
So somebody else -- I believe it was Bill Tucker (he went on to ghost Newt
Gingrichs CONTRACT WITH AMERICA)-- wrote a parody. The by-line
was John Costerica: Although there has not been a single case of bubonic plague in
the tri-state area in forty years, Rockland County Health Officials continue to fear an
outbreak of the disease that swept through Europe during the Middle Ages, carrying
It was a funny story. Bill had given us something precious, something for which we were
utterly thankful, a shot of unalloyed joy. Which is what Id expected writing to be
There are still bulletin boards, of course. Perhaps Web magazines like this one can
replicate that sort of candor and immediacy. But I remember when books were intimate as
When I was eleven, and it was raining, and there was a family expedition, I decided to
stay put and to read THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO instead. I read until
I fell asleep. I woke up and read again. I was eleven, remember, and had long suspected
that there were women out there, and that some of them were wicked, or at least weak. I
had had no idea. Suddenly I wanted to grow up.However many cars they sell, Mercedes will
always be a woman to me.
Other peoples writing has actually saved my life.When I was in college, I broke
up with a girlfriend once, just after our courtship had reached the point where neither of
us had any friends.Perfect isolation. Thats what we used to mean when we said true
She went to one school, I went to another, so I was all alone. With a roommate. This
was a roommate I didnt much like. He had a girl friend I liked a lot. I had to get
out of the room every afternoon so that he could screw her. I went to the library and read
from the collected poems of William Butler Yeats.
I suppose you think I got the better deal. I doubt it. Maybe Lori Baker chewed with her
mouth opened. Maybe Lori Baker was a castrating bitch, but I didnt know that. She
looked pretty good to me. And I can say with absolute certainty that if my roommate had
ever come to me and said, Look, Ben, I want to read Yeats this afternoon, and Lori
wants to screw you, I would have been supremely happy.
Never happened. Although there were a couple of days when I was too sick to go to the
library, and so my roommate and Lori went ahead and pretended I was in the library.
Dormitory doubles are quite small. I was careful not to look, but I couldnt help but
hear my roommate and his girlfriend. I knew what it sounded like to turn the pages of
William Butler Yeats. What they were doing sounded like a lot more fun.
But then Lori Baker wasnt available to me, and William Butler Yeats was. Which is
one of the great things about books, theyre easy. Books are sluts. Books are whores.
Anybody can get intimate with a book.
I used to sit alone in the stacks at Antioch and read those poems, and reread them. I
was just some kid, some lost and lonely kid at one of the two billion colleges in the
state of Ohio, the Buckeye State, and yet I had William Butler Yeats all to myself. I had
that mans heart in my hands. I got much closer to him than I got to anybody else I
knew. I read his biography, his autobiography, even his turgid work of philosophy. Mostly
I read the poems. And I wont say I understood those poems, but I did know one thing,
and that was that I was no longer alone.
Ever read To a Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing? Listen to that title.
There was once a man, a great man, who didnt insist on success in those he loved.
Heres how that poem ends:
Bred to a harder thing
Than Triumph, turn away
And like a laughing string
Whereon mad fingers play
Amid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known
That is most difficult.
In the preface to SURPRISED BY JOY,C.S. Lewis tells us, I
have been emboldened to write it because I notice that a man seldom mentions what he had
supposed to be his most idiosyncratic sensations without receiving from at least one
(often more) of those present the reply, What! Have you felt that too? I always
thought I was the only one.
Like Yeats, Lewis meant to break my isolation. Like Yeats, he succeeded.
So thats what Id hoped to be: a lineal descendant of Alexandre Dumas, John
Costerica and William Butler Yeats.
Which hasnt happened.
Books have become products. Which makes readers customers. Which often makes readers
fools. Meet a publisher at a cocktail party and he or she (often its a she) will say
they published this or that horrid book. I smile and nod. Judge not.
And then my new friend, the publisher, will smile slyly and say the same horrid book --
its always the publisher who described the book as horrid in the first place-- sold
X-hundred thousand copies. As if the volume of sales made the bad book good.
Now this is the sort of reasoning I cant wrap my mind around. If youve
published a bad book, thats unfortunate. And if you sold a hundred thousand copies
of this bad book, well then, thats got to be worse.
Think of books as products and it follows that readers are customers. Which may help
explain why readers have gotten so tetchy, so unthankful, so suspicious. You dont
need to work to be a customer. You need to work to be a reader. Its almost as hard
to read well as it is to write well. And its almost as rare. Reading, like love, is
a long row to hoe.
Customers have been told that they are always right. And they believe it. Which makes
them somewhat more than human, or else a good deal less. Customers are like sheep, all
they need to do is stand still while somebody else works the electric clipper.
More and more the books out there dont really require a reader. Often
theyre written by doctors, politicians, or men and women who have retired from a
long and shameful career in advertising. Often these books have pictures and charts. They
tell you how great you are. They make no demands on your character or intellect. Unless
you consider credulity a demand.
Did you ever notice, though, how when you read those diet books, you dont get
thin? And when you read those romances, you dont get along with your spouse? And
when you read that easy philosophy, the world itself is not made comprehensible, but
instead becomes even more strange and threatening than it did before you let yourself in
on all that good news?
Its escapism, and people are always telling me, I read to escape.
OK. But there is real love out there. There are people who have been over the top. And
theyll tell you about it. Theyll share knowledge that was dearly won. If
its winter, theyll tell you its winter. They may even insist on a coat
and mittens. Theyll be bossy,argumentative, and real. Like real lovers in a real
life, with runny eye make-up, sour breath and appetites. Avoid these books and youre
going to miss a lot.
Youll be reading whats hot. Youll be able to buy the T-shirt, see the
movie, join the debate. But when the days get short and the wind blows chill, youre
going to be just as stupid as you were before you read all those splendid escapist best
sellers. And youre going to turn to the other fat, naked sheep in the corral and
trade diet tips: Its simple, you just believe in yourself and eat protein.
Its simple, you just believe in yourself and eat fat. Gosh its cold out here.
Didnt we have wool once?
©1997 Benjamin Cheever
ARCHIPELAGO Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1997