AfterWord edited by Dale Salwak

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Title: AfterWord: Conjuring the Literary Dead
Author: Various - edited by Dale Salwak
Genre: Nonfiction, essay
Publisher: University of Iowa Press, 2011
Source: NetGalley

The idea of this book is to answer the question of what one would say to one's favorite authors and what questions they would ask. The book contains essays answering this question in various forms, from the author traveling back in time to ask the author a question, encountering the author in a more spiritual, afterlife form, or simply speculating on what that answer would have been based on the author's life work.

I requested the book because I thought the question sounded fascinating, although it is a question I have never been able to answer myself. Part of the delight in reading for me has been to wonder about the person behind the story - their motivations, their personalities, and the experiences that resulted in their desire to tell their particular tale. For me this is generally speculation - I am not one to read many biographies or do extensive research. The most important part is the story itself. But I do sometimes wonder about the individuals behind the stories, and hoped this book would give me glimpses of those individuals.

In some ways, the book was successful in this. I was given personal glimpses into the authors' ideas of their selected interviewee's lives, and learned a few isolated facts about some of the authors. However, I think in general to truly enjoy this book you need a fairly comprehensive previous understanding of the lives of the authors mentioned. Several times I found myself lost because I'd never read the work of or perhaps even heard of the author described in a particular essay. Many of these essays were written by people who had written theses or even books on their author of choice, meaning that their questions were specific and occasionally irrelevant to the casual reader like myself.

I did enjoy the creativity with which the contributors imagined their authors' settings and responses. In many scenes I was able to picture the author in their setting. I particularly enjoyed the essay on George Gissing (who, I should mention, I have never read) when he is brought by his friend H.G. Wells to the present for a few days to protect him from something in his normal time frame. Gissing's reactions to modern customs and innovations were humorous and believable. However, at times the conversations between the interviewer and interviewee were very stilted. The interviewer would go on for a page or two about what they already know about the author and then ask the question. It made the scenes seem false and constructed.

Honestly, this book's saving grace was, for me, the initial essay by Margaret Atwood on the nature of death and why writing is a reaction against death. This essay was not written for the book but a reprint used as a sort of introduction to the subject matter. Atwood's exploration of human rituals surrounding death and description of writing as a way to keep ourselves immortal was thought-provoking and apt. The rest of the book did not measure up to the strength of writing or depth of interest of the first essay for me.

If you are a literature student or heavily interested in literary history and the lives of authors, you may get something from this book. For me, while there were a few poignant quotes and well-rendered scenes, this book fell a little short of the mark. I learned a few things that sparked my interest, but in general I was just excited to be finished.

2 stars


  1. That essay by Atwood sounds fascinating. :-)

  2. The essay was fantastic. It was also interesting because she talked about modern celebrations of Halloween in the essay, which she also mentioned in Cat's Eye, a book by her that I just finished.


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