“One truism about contemporary life is that there are no more secrets,” a New York Times article declared in January. “In the age of selfies, sexting, Twitter, and Facebook, people are constantly spilling every intimate detail of their lives. Video cameras trace our every move; our cellphones know where we are at all times; Google tracks our innermost thoughts; the N.S.A. listens in when we dream.” Add to that a crop of new social networks—among them the much-hyped apps Whisper and Secret—upping the collective threshold of oversharing by encouraging users to anonymously and without discretion broadcast their most intimate, unfiltered thoughts to their friend groups.
This premise of the modern-day extinction of secrets, the Times piece went on, is flawed. Secrets, it argued, endure in families.
But there’s another great societal institution where secrets are alive and well: literature. Secrets persist in books for an obvious reason—a secret can be among a good writer’s most potent weapons. There’s inherent dramatic tension between that which is being concealed and its potential for exposure.
One man who knows how to utilize the power of a secret is Stuart Dybek. In June the MacArthur fellow and Northwestern University distinguished author in residence will release a pair of new books, Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories and Paper Lantern: Love Stories. The former takes its title from a phrase in The Great Gatsby, a novel named after a character who reinvents himself by making his past a secret. In both, there are secret affairs, secret visitors, secret rooms, secret preoccupations. Characters keep secrets and sense secrets are being kept from them.
“Writers or not, we all live through stories,” Dybek replied when I wrote to ask about his interest in secrets. “Stories are the way in which we shape and memorize our lives. Secrets have the power to radically change the narrative, and that’s a profound and dangerous power.”
In this issue, we focused on the work of writers trying to harness that power: Julia Glass sends her protagonist off to find the father he never knew in And the Dark Sacred Night; Colson Whitehead, in The Noble Hustle, tries his hand at high-stakes poker, a game in which success is dependent on an ability to keep a secret; Cristina Henríquez takes readers inside the private anxieties of immigrants in The Book of Unknown Americans; and Kathleen Rooney discusses the thorny issue of fictionalizing a disillusioning job in politics for her debut novel, O, Democracy!
Throughout, a handful of other authors releasing books this spring spill their own secrets. “When I saw The Shining, the scenes that got to me were those of Jack Nicholson flinging a ball over and over and over off the walls of the room he was supposed to be writing in—I’d done the same for years,” Dybek recalled when I inquired about his secret to battling writer’s block. “The sound of writing coming from my room would be a tap-tapping followed by fifteen minutes of thumps. It was something I stopped after seeing the film. I don’t think I’ve ever found anything to adequately replace it. A fly on the wall watching me write these days would die of boredom.” —Jake Malooley