In The Next Page, Erin Newcomb reads stuff she likes and reflects on things eternal and earthly in the popular literature of our time.
I intended to write this review of Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me? Instead, I find myself in the position of trying to persuade readers that it’s far more worthwhile to read A. N. Wilson’s Victoria: A Life, the nearly 600-page tome canvassing international politics and the domestic life of England’s legendary nineteenth-century monarch. You see, I couldn’t finish Kaling’s book. As much as I loved The Office, I’m realizing that Kaling’s character Kelly only worked for me in that context because she played a small role. Trying to read Kaling’s biography felt to me like a conflation of Kelly and Mindy—where page after page revealed name dropping, desperation, and too infrequent rays of humor. What I’d hoped would be a fun, light-hearted read felt more like an homage to superficiality and the more frivolous concerns of celebrity culture.It’s so easy to forget, particularly in an age that welcomes (and even wallows) in the message “feel my pain,” that all of our public personas are constructed.
The vast majority of reviews of Kaling’s books defy my claims here, but I closed the book after a hundred pages and returned it to the library, making good on my post-graduate-school promise not to waste my time reading books I don’t enjoy. Despite my distaste for Kaling’s text, I do actually endorse reading for pleasure, and I’m not quite so serious as my opening paragraph suggests. My final word on reading will always be: read for joy. The end.
And yet…as I put down a book of contemporary celebrity and picked up a volume of historical celebrity, I couldn’t help but think of the two as related through history as well as our continual fascination with the lives of the famous, be they European monarch of old or current Hollywood royalty. In either case, the lives we read about in (auto)biography are always-already constructed. Of Victoria, Wilson writes,
On the one hand, [Queen Victoria] considered any intrusion into the Royal Family by the press to be an abominable impertinence. On the other hand, she was only prevented with the greatest difficulty by courtiers and by her children from publishing her version of her relationship with her Highland servant John Brown.
A mere two pages later, Wilson reminds readers “that the public image of the Queen, for a good half century and more after her death, was determined by the letters which her editors chose to put into print.” In Victoria’s case, there’s also the issue, which Wilson discusses, of her children’s efforts to censor her posthumously by destroying her papers. The picture that we get of anyone—famous or obscure—is always incomplete.
Consider that Mindy Kaling is only thirty-six years old. I won’t pretend to predict what her star-staying power might be, but I hope that she has many decades ahead of her to continue her self-story, whatever its relationship to Hollywood. Reading Kaling’s own perspective about her present and near-past is not nearly the same project as reading an historian’s biography (one of many on the subject) of a woman who’s been dead for more than a century. There’s more than one Queen Victoria to read about, and no doubt there’s more than one Mindy Kaling as well.
As much as I’ve made my own preferences clear here, I do not mean to suggest that one of these texts is inherently better than the other, at least not based on author, subject, or place within history. What they both do is what all life writing aims to do—to make sense of ourselves within our world. The scope of these texts differs dramatically, with Kaling focused on the personal and the intimate that likely would put even Victoria’s scandalous relationship with John Brown to shame. Wilson’s text, on the other hand, sweeps across British and European history of the nineteenth century with an eye always on the future, and it’s easy to see the roots of some of our continued world conflicts in the diplomatic disputes of Victoria’s day.
Still, it’s hindsight and authorial organization that maps out that progression. Reading these two books requires different lenses. One zooms in and one offers a panorama. My point is that these books achieve different results because of the respective vantage points of reader, writer, and subject. Take, for instance, Wilson’s comparison of Queen Victoria and Princess Diana:
“Feel my pain” was not the invention of Diana Princess of Wales as a royal message to the public. Queen Victoria chose to convey that message to her public in the most modern method available to her: through publication. In 1867, she made a private publication of Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, from 1848 to 1861. It was dedicated to the beloved memory of Prince Albert, and circulated among courtiers and close friends.
Wilson characterizes Victoria by her emotions, an interpretation based on the Queen’s own writing and the writings of her contemporaries. The impulse behind writing one’s life, be it for Kaling or the Queen, seems always to stem from the desire to be known. I can only imagine the ways that celebrity complicates this fundamental human longing to be understood, but “feel my pain” is undoubtedly a message that persists today.
But whereas Wilson’s text leaves me feeling like I understand Victoria better, as a character far more complex than the prudish, fussy caricature of the Queen, Kaling’s text leaves me hoping I’ve misunderstood. I want her to be funny, yes, and I didn’t find that book funny, yet I also want her to be more than funny, with something deeper in her character lying beneath the superficial desperation. Then again, I don’t know either of these people. I know certain versions, carefully scripted, and I read from the perspective of a writer who knows what it’s like to be misread. In that sense, I feel their pain and attempt to interpret gracefully.
It’s so easy to forget, particularly in an age that welcomes (and even wallows) in the message “feel my pain,” that all of our public personas are constructed. I don’t mean to say that we are fake or shallow, but that we are filtered. Even when my students tell me they take selfies with no makeup, no styling, I remind them that there’s always a lens. There’s the lighting and angles, intentionally-crafted or not, that influence our perceptions. And it’s not that I am not myself with my students, but that I am one facet of myself; neither I nor they are fully ourselves in any singular context, and context is king.
Perhaps Mindy Kaling will see herself quite differently in decades to come. Perhaps Queen Victoria would chide us for our impertinent curiosity—or just because we’ve reached too many wrong conclusions. Our desires to know and to be known are both spiritual and fleshly (sometimes intermingled), and “feel my pain,” can cry out for compassion or attention. Sometimes together. It’s impossible to separate our selves from our histories or to see ourselves clearly without some kind of a lens. We change the lens and we change our vision; time passes and we look backwards, forwards, and inwards from a different vantage point. Only God fully knows and fully understands us. And that’s a story, a perspective, a person we simply cannot know or understand in equal measure here. And so I read for joy, but I strive too, to read with grace.