February 11, 2004: Reading Room
panky in the stacks
By Maria LoBiondo
For his second book, Michael Griffith 87 has created a carnival of characters ensnared in comic situations: A hair doctor who goes bald. An English professor trapped in a monkey cage. A librarian who polices the stacks for chastitys sake.
Bibliophilia: A Novella and Stories, published by Arcade last summer, takes readers on a zany jaunt through situations that seem at once ludicrous and possible.
The pleasure of writing is imagining oneself into someone elses skin and context, making a leap of empathetic imagination. I try to think my way into a persons circumstances, way of speaking, and thinking, says Griffith, who teaches English and comparative literature at the University of Cincinnati.
The title story, set in Louisiana, features Myrtle, a postmenopausal librarian hired to stalk the librarys stacks searching for students taking advantage of the dark and quiet to indulge in sexual escapades. Myrtle befriends Seti, an Egyptian exchange student who works at the circulation desk. Myrtle eventually needs Setis help leading both to a surprising reevaluation of themselves and each other.
Its about the nexus between two kinds of book-love: love for books and love among books, says Griffith, who was inspired in part by a Princeton roommate who had a passion for perusing the riches of Firestones stacks.
A Germanic languages and literatures major at Princeton, Griffith took a creative writing course with Joyce Carol Oates as a sophomore and was terrified. I came out thinking I didnt have the tools to be a writer, he says.
But a week after the semester ended, Oates sent Griffith an encouraging note about his writing ability. After graduation and a stint writing advertising copy in New York City which he hated that note, which he kept, helped prompt him to try creative writing again. He earned an M.F.A. in creative writing at Louisiana State University, started writing short fiction and essays for literary journals, and worked for 10 years as an editor for the literary quarterly The Southern Review. His first novel, Spikes, published in 2001, received favorable reviews, as did Bibliophilia. Publishers Weekly called Griffith a formidable literary talent.
A native South Carolinian, Griffith is not surprised to be asked if he considers himself a Southern writer. Yes and no, he says, adding its not the nostalgic South that he focuses on. Im more interested in the polyglot, multiracial new South, and the pressures and changes over the last 50 years.
And although he acknowledges models in Southern writers like Flannery OConnor and Walker Percy, his deepest influence is the Russian-born American novelist and poet Vladimir Nabokov. For Nabokov, as for Griffith, literature is play, albeit play of a high order. Griffith asks, If a writer is not taking pleasure, how is a reader going to?
Griffith recently received a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship, which he plans to use to work on his next book about a band of grammar terrorists who root out people who use incorrect grammar.
Maria LoBiondo is an occasional contributor to PAW.
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