Writing

East of Credence: What’s it Mean to ‘Like’ an Author?

Editor's Note:

Lindsay Hatton is a graduate of Williams College and holds an MFA from the Creative Writing Program at New York University. She was born and raised in Monterey, California, and is most recently the author of Monterey Bay. Hatton joins Signature to talk about John Steinbeck, his role in her debut novel, and her relationship with his work.

“Do you like John Steinbeck?”

It’s a valid question, and I don’t blame people for asking it. After all, I’ve been asking it of myself for the past decade, which is the time it took to write Monterey Bay. In my debut novel, I feature Steinbeck as a character and I revisit a landscape made famous by him. So when I’m asked whether or not I like him, I’m happy to discuss it. There’s only one problem: I don’t have a very good answer.

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I was born and raised in Monterey, CA, a town memorialized by Steinbeck in many of his books. It’s also a town that, in the decades since his death, has recreated itself in his image. On the surface of things, this does not seem unwarranted: the man was an exceptional writer and a colorful local personality. But dig a little deeper, and it starts to get complicated.

For one thing, Steinbeck is not technically one of Monterey’s native sons. He was born in Salinas: an inland agricultural mecca about twenty miles northeast of the seaside with which he is inextricably linked. For another thing, the town of Monterey was, in Steinbeck’s lifetime at least, eager to distance itself as much as possible from the writer.

When Cannery Row was first published, it was to a strident local outcry. The real-life townspeople, who fancied themselves upstanding members of the ascendant middle class, resented their fictional portrayal as indolent drifters and affable drunks. Their displeasure was so intense that they would cross the street to avoid interacting with Steinbeck. When Steinbeck tried to rent office space in town, he was denied on principle. Eventually, the antipathy proved so distressing to him that it resulted in exile: he fled across the country to New York City, where he would reside until his death. It appears, then, that the question of liking Steinbeck isn’t only difficult for me to answer as a writer of quasi-historical fiction; it’s also difficult to answer from the point of view of history itself.

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There’s also the strangeness of the word itself. Like.

It’s a tame, ambiguous word usually reserved for things of negligible consequence. I like (as opposed to adore) wristwatches. I don’t like (as opposed to despise) freshwater eels. So when I’m asked if I like Steinbeck — a topic on which my feelings are anything but tepid or benign — my mind starts to spin a little. I dip back into my research to get a better, more useful handle on him and his work, and I find myself chopping things up into smaller and smaller pieces, which sometimes results in clarity but sometimes does not.

Do I, for instance, like Steinbeck as a writer? Yes and no. I love The Grapes of Wrath and The Log From the Sea of Cortez. I’m very impressed by but deeply conflicted about East of Eden. Cannery Row makes me an emotional wreck in ways both explicable and not. At his best, he creates prose of an almost transcendent spiritual honesty. At his worst, he is like your grouchy old uncle waxing nostalgic about his college fraternity: back in the good ol’ days when men were men and America was America, and so on and so forth.

Do I like him as a person? This question is even harder. From the standpoint of biographical fact, there are reasons to be wary: he forced his wife — an opinionated, brilliant, and devoted woman — to have an abortion, which led to an infection that required a hysterectomy, and then left her for a second-rate Hollywood actress. His views on women in general — as expressed in his writings both private and public — can be simultaneously resentful, fawning, bemused, and dismissive. But he was also a man possessed of great empathy and unshakeable morals. When the socialist overtones of The Grapes of Wrath resulted in death threats from what he called “big agriculture,” he didn’t flinch. He remained a spokesman for the exploited and downtrodden: a quality to which his enduring popularity attests.

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So perhaps the question of liking Steinbeck is best answered in the way all difficult questions should be: with a willingness to embrace uncertainty, not eliminate it. While I didn’t intend for my first novel to pay homage to Steinbeck, I understand that interpretation. I also understand the opposite impulse: to view my questions about his legacy as a deconstruction of it.

As for the question of why I wrote the book in the first place — which also gets asked a lot — the answer has almost nothing to do with Steinbeck. It has to do with my own personal history on that famous stretch of coastline. It has to do with the Monterey Bay Aquarium: an institution whose youth and maturation have occurred alongside my own. It has to do with the book’s protagonist: a formidable fifteen year-old girl named Margot Fiske. I poured my heart and soul into creating her, and I hope readers will “like” her. But because the concept of “liking” is so vague and specific and personal — and answerable only by way of contradiction — I’ll certainly understand if they don’t.