Elisha Cooper is writing this piece. He's writing it in New York, where he lives with his wife and daughters. He's the author of numerous highly acclaimed blah, blah, blah....
Stop! The “about the author” note is the most awkward piece of writing, especially as authors often write it themselves or edit the ones written for them. But how could it not be awkward, trying to positively represent oneself in just a few words?
Writing short is hard enough. Sometimes I have trouble leaving a note for my family: I'm running and will be back soon, or I'm running and will be back breathless. Ten minutes later, my desk is littered with crumpled pieces of paper and I still haven't left for my run (maybe that's the point). Add the oddness of writing in the third person and the shameless bragging—Elisha Cooper is running, and fast!—and you start to get at the unique ridiculousness of the author's note.
The bragging may be the worst part—words like “ethereal,” “brilliant” and “glowing” thrown around so casually it sounds like a wine is being described, and not a person and her work.
Even details about where the author lives sound self-aggrandizing. As in: “Ms. Bigtime Author divides her time between New York and London.” Do we really need to know this? And what division, exactly? (By this logic, I divide my time between New York and a yurt in Idaho, since I spent a night in one back in 1995, though the division is around 1 to 13,000.) But there's no missing the meaning in Ms. Bigtime Author's note, which is that she's successful and glamorous and owns multiple houses. She could add, at the end of her note, “...and you don't.” This need to impress ends up sounding so needy. It's possible that this is why I find such notes annoying—because I have done the same thing myself. The author's note for my first book mentioned that I was 24, which practically shouted: Look at me! I'm precocious!
The real wonder is that we can read the spin, and still buy it. Buy the book, even. Maybe it's not so surprising. People gravitate to success. Award-winning, good-looking (another essay could be devoted to author photos), bestseller-list-topping. We're human. Publicists, reviewers and marketers align themselves to take advantage of our humanity. And who would be persuaded to buy a book if the author's note and promotional material were brutally and truly honest? “Mr. Midlist Author worries a lot. He lives in New Jersey. He's hoping his new novel is better than his last one.”
For my latest book—Elisha Cooper is making a segue!—I followed eight students around their Chicago high school. The students constantly had to represent themselves, from conversations in the hallway to college application essays. Sometimes they were unable to escape the stereotypes that had been made for them, but for the most part I was struck by how well they were able to say who they were, and when that didn't work out, say who they were again. To reinvent themselves, invent themselves even. New haircut, new tag on Facebook, new narrative in their personal essay, and Monday morning they were a new person. They were practicing, in some way, their author's note.
They didn't always succeed, of course. But underneath their attempt was the most human of urges. The hope that we are who we say we are. And that we can, with a few well-chosen words, craft how others see us.
Elisha Cooper has written this piece. He wrote it in a cafe in New York, with his laptop. He drank numerous highly caffeinated beverages, and now he is done.
|Elisha Cooper's most recent book is ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool: A Year in an American High School (Dial).|