I'm always reading something, usually multiple books at a time.
If possible, I'd give this book 3.5 stars. I was a little torn between three and four. [Update: I've revised this to 3.5 here on Booklikes.] The only thing holding me back was that things almost got too clever at the end. I don't want to spoil the novel by being more specific, and this was really a minor reservation.
I am a sucker for meta-fiction, and this book qualifies as meta-fiction, meta-criticism, and possibly meta-auto-biography (at least I think the latter is alluded to). The premise is that two professors who are constantly taking potshots at one another--not directly but to their students--are challenged to a friendly debate to determine who is "right." The judge is to be Eve Birdsong, daughter of the English Department's chair, and the setting is a local pub. The prize is overtly preposterous: Eve's hand in marriage. Charlie Mercer, an untenured young professor, is to assist Eve in making her decision, but he inserts himself into the critical debate, as do others, rendering it a roundtable.
Wright underscores fictionality of his fiction in his descriptions of Eve and Charlie:
Stop there. How do you see Eve Birdsong? We need some description of her, for I have an image in my mind which you probably do not share, since I have taken no pains to communicate it to you. It has grown up for me in the course of writing: I did not have it when I began, when she seemed to me quite unformed, and you may be surprised to hear that in my first writing I dressed her in a slightly satirical virgin-white veil. After a while I saw this was wrong and gave you instead how Tuttle and Birdsong and Charlie saw her, but not my own view, since this still needed to be fed with character. No doubt, Eve in my mind now is still made of stereotypes, as all characters are, but she has acquired idiosyncrasy and body and seems more alive (Jackson would say "interestingly incoherent"), and I have tried to suggest this to you in details which I hope imply more than they say: she is shorter walking beside you than you would have thought from looking at her in other contexts. This evokes a sense of nearness of her shoulder to your arm as you walk along, risking (delightfully, charmingly) bumping into her should as you walk. And she has a lunging stride which you find charming and graceful. If you have trouble thinking of a lunging stride as charming and graceful--if it makes you think of a jogger or shot-putter or broad-jumper, or a geologist making his way across the countryside, or a panther, we haven't communicated. I would like you to see her as a simple and good-natured child of a student, whose long stride enables her to make Charlie comfortable with his pace beside her and announces (or tries to) a certain forthright denial of affectation on her part. She also has a mop of brown hair and a denim jacket to go with the denim jeans to make a point of being unpretentious. Whether all this naturalness is sincere or not is not relevant now. You may fill in her face as you like so long as you make sure to light it with intelligence and humor and the kind of unmade-up prettiness that creeps up and catches people like Charlie Mercer by surprise. (76-77)
We have come this far without a description of Charlie Mercer, protagonist though he be. Since I have described Phil's Pub, Tuttle, Birdsong, Jackson, and Eve, this constitutes a gap. Be assured, then, the image in your mind from reading his words is mostly correct. You need just these modifications: he is a shade shorter and slightly stockier than you thought. His hair is darker, and you probably have not correctly anticipated the cut of his mustache. His glasses are half glasses with gold rims (reading only). The nose is bumpier, and the line from nose to corners of mouth deeper than you supposed, and on the whole, I'm afraid, he is not good-looking enough for the movies. Just now his eyes are bloodshot; I suspect you had not noticed that, nor that all his suits are brown. Otherwise, you can count on the pictures in your head. (129-130)
I enjoy Wright's invoking the partnership between reader and writer in conceiving of a character's appearance and these playful allusions to the picture readers have developed in their own imagination. Naturally, each reader has a different picture, so it amuses me that the author simply makes some edits to that existing picture.
This is a book I've had sitting on my shelf for at least ten years, and I'm glad I finally got around to reading it. It really has me thinking about the processes of writing fiction, reading fiction, and writing criticism--and inspires me to do more of each.