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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Last Preface
The publisher’s database must be obsolete by decades, because they called my office.
“We have a manuscript,” they said.
“Of course,” I said. “You would, you always do.”
“We need a preface,” they said. “We can provide a manuscript with the original coffee stains.”
Unfortunately, I was interested.
“My preface will be misleading,” I warned.
“We know,” the publisher replied. “We know all about you.”
“The manuscript arrived in fine shape,” I wrote a few days later, “but I am not going to open it for a while.” The publisher spent $15.90 to overnight the parcel, in the mistaken belief that this would expedite the writing of my preface. But I am an unprolific and obstinate man. Out of sheer boredom I broke the seal. The coffee stains were merely traces. The MS measured eight by eleven inches, and was printed on near-translucent paper. The font: fourteen-point. The typeface: Linotype in Fairfield, which, I read, “displays the sober and sane qualities of a master craftsman whose talent has long been devoted to clarity.”
I smoked the first five pages after jamming the office door with my doctoral robe.
I spat phlegm on the next five pages.
I rolled pages into spitballs and blew them at unsuspecting junior faculty through a hollow pen barrel.
I folded paper airplanes, which wafted down, digressing all the way, to nudge the limbs of undergraduates tanning on the quad.
I ate several crucial-looking pages.
I taped the remaining text to the wall and shifted it until I found a pleasing arrangement. I was ready to write my preface.
The “Speckian” or “Speckesque” preface—the horribly misleading preface—is a recent development in my interminable career. The shift in my style can be dated precisely—May 12, 1970—the day on which, due to a severe administrative error, I was granted tenure at this institution. Before that day, I had been only an averagely misleading preface writer. In my early prefaces, I noted the recurrence of certain words, here and there for example, which I would then dubiously connect to a page of Freud that happened to be lying open on my desk, perhaps noting, in an aside, that the author’s father had been frequently absent throughout his or her probably traumatic childhood.
My early prefaces are now repellent to me. They were misleading, but only in a slipshod way. It was mostly the fault of the form, but my incompetence as a writer played a part as well.
In the winter of 1969, a publisher sent me a book. Let me say frankly that I wish I had written this book myself. It was clear to me from the get-go that I was reading the book I might have written myself, were I not a writer of prefaces. It was the book the prefaces had been leading up to, or perhaps the books the prefaces prevented. I made several false starts in the old style, never more aware of my literary poverty. I missed several deadlines. I berated my students and abused myself.
After several months, under threat from the publisher, I devised a solution that I still consider the summa of my early style. I retyped the book word for word, titled it “Preface, by John Speck,” and submitted it to the publisher.
“We cannot afford to print this,” they said.
“It’s the only good thing…” I began—
But they did not listen.
After getting tenured, I amused myself by trying to get fired, not by conventional means such as sexual harassment, but through the sheer incompetence of my work. In my prefaces, I would construct anagrams from authors’ names. “Andrew” became “wander”; Andrew’s book was therefore about “wander[ing],” and I felt anagrammatically justified to “wander” away from the book to other subjects. Instead of mining anan an author’s biography, I would relate the book to the life of another author. Some of my prefaces were rants about the junior faculty, others were encomia to the chocolate, tobacco, and hallucinogens I consumed while writing the prefaces. Everyone agreed that they were misleading. Nevertheless, my mailbox was fuller than ever. Each time my name appeared in print the university sent me a limp arrangement of flowers, as if a part of me had died. My prefaces began to have a certain cachet; some people even claimed that I had become a maker of fictions in my own right. I received awards, my prefaces were collected in a book to which I contributed yet another misleading preface, and soon others began slinging their own scholarly tinsel and light bulbs over the starved tree of my work.
My vita swelled. The university asked me to become Distinguished Professor of Humanity and Morality. I declined. I tried new stratagems. In my class Modern Realism I showed nothing but muted, slow-motion episodes of reality shows to a soundtrack of Wagner, but the kids didn’t mind! They liked my classes! On evaluations they wrote, “Professor Speck’s pipe smells good” or “That day Speck’s tweed coat caught fire was amazing.”
One of the junior faculty pulled me aside. “Hey Prefacer,” he said, “why don’t you just retire? You hate academia, and besides you’re what, one hundred and three?”
“Because I am on the verge of something,” I said.
You may be wondering about the book in your hands—why it exists, what it has to say about your soul.
I’m afraid you are on your own there.
Misleading was not what I set out to do. I once aspired to more, but that initial hope fades ever deeper into the fog of my prefaces. It is the nature of my craft to be always looking forward, into a world I may comment upon but never fully enter. I continue to see glimmerings in the distance, but I am no longer sure what they signify—if they aren’t, for example, the ghosts projected on my glasses, by this lamp.
So there you have it.
Eric Lundgren is a graduate of Washington University and lives in St. Louis, where he works at a public library. His first novel, The Facades, was published this week by Overlook Press.