Because I’m so far from the cutting edge that I’m likely to fall off the spine (that’s the flat part of the blade opposite the edge), I just now saw 2002’s documentary Stone Reader. It’s a must-see for every writer, and especially for writers who wonder if anyone “gets” what they’re doing. This is the story of how a writer and reader connect.
It’s set up as a mystery. Mark Moskowitz tried reading The Stones of Summer when it first came out in 1972, after seeing a rave review in the New York Times. He found it impenetrable. Twenty-five years later he tried it again on a whim, and thought it a masterpiece. But when he sought more books by the author, Dow Mossman, he found not only were there none, but that the author himself had vanished from the literary scene. He was, like Margaret Mitchell or Harper Lee, a writer who was “one and done,” but without the benefit of their subsequent status.
Since this film was made when the internet was in its infancy, it was used only as a tangential tool for tracking down Mossman. Instead Moskowitz relies on letters, phone calls and personal visits, trying to find anyone who remembered the book or Mossman. Along the way he meets some interesting people, but every lead peters out, until…well, if he’d utterly failed, there wouldn’t be a movie, would there?
The destination is compelling, but the journey is also worth the effort. The movie probes the connection between writers and readers, writers and their muse, and why someone can spend years producing a monumental book and then simply stop writing. Moskowitz is a self-satisfied presence as narrator and onscreen guide, and I’ve read some reviews that couldn’t get past this. As a writer I found the film incredibly interesting, and was left with a sort of numb sadness at the idea of so many writers putting forth so much effort for so little return.
All of this took place before the digital revolution in publishing, however, and begs the question, would Dow Mossman have vanished so thoroughly if The Stones of Summer had been available as an e-book? Is this yet another way that e-publishing is changing the whole paradigm of writing? I don’t have an answer to that (and in the deleted scenes, you realize that neither did the publishing industry in 2002), and honestly, it’s only a secondary question. The primary question, for me, remains something still left unanswered by the movie: what drives a man to write like that? And what drives him to stop?