Sherburne--Stories by R.T. Smith
I'm scheduled to moderate a panel on short stories in March that will include discussion of Sherburne by R.T. Smith, so despite the fact that I've read this book, I'm going to reserve direct comment and share some more general thoughts about writing and writers that occurred to me as I read it.
Poets and Fiction Writers: Very few great fiction writers are great poets and vice versa. I can think of three--Thomas Hardy, Robert Penn Warren, and D.H. Lawrence. Others might add James Dickey to that list or Herman Melville. William Faulkner wanted to be a poet and famously said that if he could have written The Sound and the Fury in ten pages, he would have done so. From the poet's perspective, it seems to me that the habit of producing poetic forms, which are so condensed, often makes them run wild when they try fiction. They just come up with one great formulation after another, all of which seem equally compelling, and don't prune them back. This damages the fiction. From the novelist's perspective, writing poetry seems to be writing something lyrical or even dramatic in just a few words, but that's not poetry at all. Poetry is a big thing seen small from the beginning, and it's not easy, it's hard, because poetry rests so heavily on possessing exactly the right vision to begin with, before the words even appear on the page. The one poetic mode of fiction, which is to say the one mode of fiction that is perfectible, is the short story. Novels, someone else said, are long pieces of imaginative prose that have something wrong with them. Hemingway didn't write much poetry, but his early short stories were darkly representative of his central vision and flawlessly executed. He subsequently wrote a few good novels, but when he should have been peaking, he was growing mawkish. Somehow--in my opinion--he got everything right in The Old Man and the Sea, a prose parable that tells life's tale as well as anything.
The South: I am a great admirer of most of the South's greatest writers: William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, and Robert Penn Warren, to name four. Singling O'Connor out a moment, she was a short story writer more than a novelist; she just had a brilliance and intensity and drive that worked best in short stories. Of the writers I've mentioned, Faulkner is the one who comes closest to erring in his treatment of the South's great theme, but "closest" is foregiveable in his case because he worked through his romantic fascination with Southern perspectives on the Civil War and came out knowing how horrendously slavery mutilated the slaves, the South, and the nation. What do you write when your greatest theme--memory--is sodden with guilt? You write books like Faulkner's great books. You don't gild memory and focus fancifully on the valor of defeat. That's cheap, threadbare, erroneous history in the case of the South. As Faulkner might have written: because of slavery…because of slavery…because of slavery.Grant said in his memoirs that he always felt the South would win the war because when it lost all the battles, it would lose its grip on slavery, too, and what a grand victory that would be. There are very few ways in which we can say humanity has improved in recent millenia. The universal condemnation of slavery is one of them (although it's still practiced around the world, with a focus on women and children). This does put the Southern writer in a special position, but there may be, in this day and age, too much emphasis placed on Southern writers. When did you last see an anthology called "New Writing from the North"? A "Northern" writer like John Edgar Wideman has demonstrated many times that the black-white scar of the Civil War is as raw in the North as in the South. I grew up in the North and have lived in the South for many years. We have an African-American president, but we still aren't whole as a people, and by now, the South has no monopoly on the problem. Writers from everywhere have a legitimate reason to address it.
The Western: I haven't read many Westerns, but those I occasionally come across run the danger of formulaic plotlines that defeat the characterization "literary." Nowadays we see the Western's threadbare plotline transported to police procedurals in L.A., Miami, Philadelphia and New York. Writer beware: noble as the law may be, it's a lame and imperfect morality. Collectively, the Constitution, our basic law, is the best we Americans can do and it's what we Americans are. But literary writers eschew good guy/bad guy/judgment stuff for serious engagement with the ambiguous. Cormac McCarthy shows the way to do it.
Editing: Some tiny percentage of writers may like editors. It's truly possible. But that doesn't mean writers don't need editors. If there is one thing they need them for, it's getting the story told in fewer words than the word-mad writer prefers. Kathleen Parker, the journalist, recently wrote that pruning your prose is like killing your children. So writers either have to become cold-blooded murderers or hire editors to act as executioners. The alternative is a reading audience that falls asleep.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund