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What do we love when we love books by dead authors?

In reading, we feel ourselves able to get up close and personal with a dead author. glassghost

What do we love when we love books by dead authors?

It was the first tutorial of the semester. The course was on American literature and film. The room was full of MacBook-toting undergraduates with the bright-eyed wariness that is the natural correlative to the first encounters of undergraduate seminars.

I asked my students to share their most-loved American text, past or present, high or low brow, in any genre or medium. One student said The Shining (1980); another rhapsodised about Breaking Bad (2008-2013).

Then a student volunteered The Great Gatsby (1925), and unwittingly set off a chorus of praise for its author, F Scott Fitzgerald. Student after student – almost half the class – professed The Great Gatsby as their American beloved.

Photograph of F Scott Fitzgerald c. 1921, appearing in The World’s Work (June 1921 issue). Wikimedia Commons

Maybe that’s unsurprising. The declarations of love I educed from the students were, after all, shaped by the sociological conditions and institutional environment of the university. No doubt students bring along with them to every class an intuitive sense of the “appropriate” and “inappropriate” artefacts of study within the formalised, hierarchically-organised context of the university.

In the case of English or film studies courses, this sense is collaged out of personal and educational experiences in reading, watching, learning and writing about texts, liberally overlaid with the wider cultural whims of taste or aesthetic quality – however unstable or even arbitrary those directives might be.

The question of which literature is “real” literature, or of which films are “good” films, will hang in the air of the classroom even if a teacher seeks to ventilate it.

And a student’s perceived position among her peers in that classroom rises and falls, at least to some degree, on the kinds of texts or authors she aligns herself with at crucial moments in the social development of the class. That exercise on the first day of semester was a forced moment of disclosure for my students, who were made to introduce themselves to one another through the conceit of a most-loved poem, movie, novel, or play.

It’s like bringing a new boyfriend or girlfriend to dinner at your boss’s place for the first time: for good or bad, their repartee and table manners are going to reflect back on you.

In short, in spite of my attempts to open up the range of responses, it’d take a student of special confidence to confess to a bunch of strangers in a university classroom that they most loved, say, the Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen straight-to-video films from the late 90s and early 2000s. My personal favourites of which, I admit with less irony than you might assume, are Passport to Paris (1999) and Winning London (2001).

But Fitzgerald, on the other hand?

He has an extraordinary posthumous reputation as the modern American writer par excellence. The Great Gatsby in particular is lauded as the “Great American Novel,” though its path to canonical status was quite rocky. It is, therefore, as good a choice as any in the setting of a university English class – and a safe one, especially as more and more Fitzgerald hats were thrown into the proverbial ring.

No doubt, too, The Great Gatsby sprang to mind for some students due to Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of the novel – a visually extravagant and frenetic film that was compelling for much the same reason that Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald’s narrator, is captivated by the “low, thrilling” musicality of Daisy Buchanan’s voice: because it is “full of money”.

But for at least some of my students, the love they expressed for Fitzgerald, elicited by and structured through their experience of reading The Great Gatsby, was genuinely felt. As the flush of initial interest suffuses into fixation, infatuation and devotion, those of us who find ourselves enamoured of books – and, importantly, their authors – might well recognise in ourselves the ontogeny of romantic passion.

Portrait of Jane Austen, drawn by her sister Cassandra (c. 1810). Wikimedia Commons

It is out of this experience that cults of personality constellate around celebrity authors. The Jane Austen obsessives self-identify as Janeites; Sylvia Plath is worshipped as a patron saint of second-wave feminism. Just a few weeks ago, before my very eyes, one of my undergraduate students joined the ranks of the Allen Ginsberg cult, wooed by his biting, angry, hilarious poem Howl (1955) – 60 years after it was first performed.

To love literature, however, is quite a modern phenomenon. As literary scholar Deidre Shauna Lynch explains in her recent book Loving Literature: A Cultural History (2015), there was a shift in attitudes toward reading in the 18th and 19th centuries. Once a “rational, civic-minded” activity, reading became increasingly a “private and passional” one.

As a result, Lynch argues, in this period the literary text became a kind of affective time-travelling device, a mechanism for bridging “the distance between self and other and now and then”.

The reader who loves the literature of the past seeks to forge intimate connections with those who are no longer alive. In reading, we feel ourselves able to get up close and personal with a dead author. Indeed, it’s almost always through the act of reading an author’s writing that we fall for them in the first place.

To most people, this argument would feel abstract. We sit down with a book like The Great Gatsby out of a casual inclination to see what it might offer in social commentary or narrative pleasure, or to find out first-hand why it’s venerated as a classic work of fiction – or maybe just to finesse that dinner party conversation to make up for when our new beau makes a fool out of us in front of our boss.

But when it comes to the true believers – readers whose interest in literature tips over into the fanatical – I think the logic stands up.

It’s certainly evident in the way Fitzgerald’s editors talk about the best way to edit his writing. This is especially true when it comes to work that was unfinished at the time of Fitzgerald’s death, such as the novel The Love of the Last Tycoon (1941).

In a 2000 article in the F Scott Fitzgerald Society Newsletter, the editor Milton Stern described the task of editing an unfinished work by a dead author as a “vibration of mutual identity” that emerges from the editor’s “fine sense of what the author sounds like” and a “sympathetic presentiment of what the author would want”.

In Stern’s view, the editor experiences a dynamic identification with the lost author. Through the act of editing, she works toward a “mutual identity” that imaginatively reanimates the author’s lifeless body. Her revitalising ventriloquy speaks out the author’s choked, inchoate desires.

For editors such as Stern, and for those readers who obsess over authors of the past, literature is an inconstant lover, at once propositioning and rejecting us.

Books by dead authors, like photographs of them, function as material traces of loss, bearing witness to bodies that once laboured in writing and in life and that do so no longer. Their paradox is to make present, in the words on the page, the author who is absent. They produce desire for the dead author even as they stand in for the dead author.

To love literature, following this line of thought, can be to enter into a melancholy yearning for an impossible communion with the dead.

In the case of Fitzgerald, over the last couple of months, the amorous pursuit of his remains, as it were, made headlines. The Long Island mansion in which Fitzgerald lived with his wife, Zelda, for a couple of years in the early 1920s – and, apparently, wrote some or all of The Great Gatsby – went up for sale in May for a cool A$4.8million.

But to visit with – or be visited by – Fitzgerald, my students don’t need to scrape together cash for a stunningly large down-payment. The Great Gatsby is a ghosted edifice, a space in which Fitzgerald’s presence is felt, made palpable, in his absence.