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In Praise of the Author Crush

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It seems to be all about the crush these days -- man crushes, chick crushes, book crushes. When readers talk about their literary crushes, most are referring to characters in fiction. Plenty of articles, especially around Valentine's Day, breathlessly extol the virtues of say Wuthering Heights' Heathcliff or War and Peace's Natasha. I shudder to think what it says about me that Jane Eyre's brash, arrogant Rochester has always set my heart aflutter. But when I casually mentioned my longtime infatuation with author Charles Baxter in a previous post, it seemed to strike a chord. Suddenly readers began confessing their own writer infatuations and I discovered another strand of literary crush bubbling just below the surface: the author crush.

Author crushes can arise for any number of reasons, a visceral connection to their work, a particularly charged meeting with them, or just because they happen to be good-looking. I met Charles Baxter, the man and the writer, in 1991 when he came for a few days as visiting author to George Mason University, where I was studying fiction in the MFA program. Besides a gentle attractiveness, Charles Baxter the man exudes a preternatural intelligence and seems incapable of uttering an unconsidered thought. On the subsequent occasions I have heard him speak or devoured his latest work, I have often wondered with a kind of awe what it must be like inside his head. Charles Baxter the writer is responsible for some of my all-time favorite lines in contemporary literature, from the scene in Saul and Patsy are Pregnant when the title characters are making love against a windowsill:

"He felt as though a thousand eyes, but not human eyes, were looking in on them with tender indifference. They were and were not interested. They would and would not care. They would and would not love them. Finally they would turn away, as they tended to turn away from all human things, in time."

Since then, there's been Adam Gopnik, whose tender, bemused evocations of family life in Paris and New York in From Paris to the Moon and Through the Children's Gate also stir my heart but whose essay, "The Last of the Metrozoids," in the latter book pretty much takes my breath away. And of course, there's Neil Gaiman. No discussion of author crushes would be complete without a mention of Neil Gaiman, whose adoration among reading women is so well-known as to have inspired online science fiction and fantasy journal TOR to publish "Fiction World Rocked as Woman Claims No Sexual Attraction to Neil Gaiman" on April Fool's Day 2009.

My son and I read Gaiman's The Graveyard Book together when it first came out and while I think it was a wonderful, more-than-Newbery-worthy book I must admit I also met Gaiman when he visited our campus and the man does possess a certain Clinton-esque je ne sais quoi. He sat across from me at dinner and his gaze was so direct that for the whole two minutes that we discussed creative writing programs in Great Britain, his home country, I felt as if I was the only woman in the world. So, yes, Neil Gaiman. Enough said.

I know it's not just me. For one writer friend, Chris Motto, poet Li Young Lee hangs the moon and as someone who also has certain lines of "The City in Which I Love You" memorized ("late in this century and on a Wednesday morning... "), I would tend to agree. For another, Colleen Kearney Rich, it's novelist Pat Conroy. For my colleague, Bonnie Selting, the moment she was able to express her fandom to Garrison Keillor at a live Prairie Home Companion show years ago will remain etched in her memory. But I think my favorite author crush story comes from my friend, poet Britton Gildersleeve, "crushing" on Robert Hayden:

When I began to make my writing public, Hayden was there for me. He was a Bahá'í when I was recognizing I was a Buddhist; he was looking at oppression as I began to read critical theory; he never fit in, and he knew it. It became a point of honor for me -- I could read Hayden and know it was okay to be smart, to adore poetry, to want to stay drunk on the roll of polysyllabics in your mouth. He was always there first; he literally kept me alive one terrible November. Hayden was short, almost blind, exceedingly homely, and the most beautiful poet you can imagine. If you're not familiar with his poem "Middle Passage" on the slave crossings from Africa, it's profound, heart-wrenching, consummately crafted, and just downright awesome. I vote for Robert. Any. Time.

Charles Baxter. Robert Hayden. Li Young Lee. Obviously this post is incredibly hetero and y-chromosome-centric in terms of the objects of its affections. It has also really only just scratched the surface of the subject. At any rate, author crush, man crush, chick crush, it's all in fun, right? Most of the time.

There is one author crush I saved for last. When I hear him read aloud lines like "He closed his eyes, as if even the meager light overhead represented too much pressure against his skull. The man's eyelids were a spoiled, fulvous shade of red, oysters with a sunburn... " all I can think is wow, I share a bed, I share two sons, a dog and four cats, I share a life with this guy, John Vanderslice, because...

Reader, I married him.