Can Writing Be Both True and Beautiful?
The author Ethan Canin probes the depths of a single sentence in Saul Bellow’s short story “A Silver Dish.”
By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.
For Ethan Canin, the author of A Doubter’s Almanac, Saul Bellow’s short story “A Silver Dish” is a masterwork. The protagonist is a businessman named Woody Selbst who’s unsure of how to mourn his con artist father. Pop didn’t just abandon the family when Woody was a teenager. He tricked his son into becoming an accomplice in his escape—a cruel ruse that permanently thwarted Woody’s ambitions in the process.
In our conversation for this series, Canin explained that his favorite part comes at the very end. As Pop pulls off one last con on his deathbed, Woody’s coming-to-terms is expressed in a simple final sentence: “That was how he was.” We discussed how Bellow infuses five ordinary words with such uncanny power; why endings should make us feel, not think; and what “A Silver Dish” teaches about dialogue, plot, and character.
A Doubter’s Almanac is a family saga about the destructive power of genius, and like “A Silver Dish” it concerns a complex father/son legacy. It’s the story of a groundbreaking mathematician from northern Michigan, whose brilliance is only equaled by his capacity for betrayal and violence. A cast of long-suffering characters support the celebrated work, including the son who fears he’s inherited his father’s gifts and penchant for self-destruction.
In 1998, Ethan Canin left medicine to teach fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (where he was my professor). The best-selling author of the story collections Emperor of the Air and The Palace Thief, and novels including America America and For Kings and Planets, his fiction has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Best American Short Stories. We spoke at a coffee shop in downtown Manhattan.
Ethan Canin: When I went for my medical school interview, I had an old paperback of Henderson the Rain King in the pocket of my coat. I was wearing the best clothes I had, a pair of cords and a sport coat—but when I got to the office, all the other interviewees were lined up in their black suits. As they stood there talking about whether they preferred intravenous versus oral chemotherapy, I thought, “Oh my god, I’m about to get myself into the wrong line of work.” But when I went in for the interview, the guy noticed I had a book in my jacket pocket. He asked what I was reading, and when I took it out, he said, “Oh, that’s my favorite book.” All we did was talk about Henderson the Rain King. I think that’s how I got into medical school.
I think Bellow’s the greatest American writer of his century, personally. When I read him, I’m in awe.
One of my favorite works is the great short story “A Silver Dish,” a story not too many people seem to know. It ends with, for me, one of the most memorable lines in fiction:
That was how he was.
There are five words in that sentence, each one essentially meaningless: That was how he was. Two of them are the same word: “was” and “was.” Hardly any sounds even, in those words, there’s no tilt, no break, no angle to the rhythm—just tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. Of all those words, only “he” and perhaps “was” have any sort of meaning. “How” is technically an adverb the way it’s used here but feels more nounish to me, in the sense that I get a little visual spark when I read it, entirely from what has come before in the story. The whole sentence uses only seven distinct letters, and contains only 15 letters total: three a’s, three h’s, three w’s, two s’s, two t’s, an o, and an e.
It’s an amazingly restrained line from Bellow, who was a poet of the first order. I think he was intentionally restricting his palette. Compare it to some of his other great sentences, like the famous first line of The Adventures of Augie March:
I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.
You can open that book up to page 400 and find the best sentence you’ve ever seen. It’s an astonishing, volcanic eruption of ideas and language. Or take this section from “A Silver Dish,” when Woody takes a streetcar ride that leads him to the story’s culminating moment:
What he heard and saw was an old red Chicago streetcar, one of those trams the color of a stockyard steer. Cars of this type went out before Pearl Harbor—clumsy, big-bellied, with tough rattan seats and brass grips for the standing passengers. Those cars used to make four stops to the mile, and ran with a wallowing motion. They stank of carbolic or ozone and throbbed when the air compressors were being charged. The conductor had his knotted signal cord to pull, and the motorman beat the foot gong with his mad heel.
That passage is full of visceral, Anglo-Saxon words, and every single one of those words means something instantly. I think that’s what poets try to do: They try to sidestep neurology and go straight to meaning.
But the last line of “A Silver Dish,” is nothing like that. I can’t tell you what any single one of those words means. Imagine you’re a lexicographer and you have to define the word that, or how. And on top of this, there’s none of Bellow’s typical play with rhythm and language—it’s almost a non-sentence. And yet, when I get to it in the story, I weep. I’ve read the story three times in the past few weeks, and each time I arrived at that sentence, tears came to my eyes.
How does Bellow pack so much emotion into those five ordinary words?
I think it’s their very blankness that allows them to channel so much emotion. Because they don’t bring anything specific to mind, they allow us to feel without thinking. At the end of a story or novel, you do not want the reader thinking. Endings are about emotion, and logic is emotion’s enemy. It’s the writer’s job to disarm the reader of his logic, to just make the reader feel. You’ll often see this in the final moments of a film: The camera tilts up, and the movie ends with a non-distinct image of the sky, or the sea, or the coast. Something the eye can’t quite focus on, which allows you to focus on everything that’s come before. That’s how “that was how he was” works, too. It brings nothing else to mind. This sentence would be a non-sentence if it began the story—but, placed at the end, it’s packed with the charge of everything that precedes it. Each of those non-words is nitroglycerin, and the story that precedes it is the fuse.
To me, this line also shows that content trumps style. I have a theory about writing, which is that you cannot simultaneously write something true about character and, at the same time, write something linguistically beautiful. There are too few words to express both truth and beauty, so most empathetic—or another way to say this might be character-driven writers—tend to naturally reserve their beautiful constructions for when the content is less urgent. You’ll see Bellow get poetic when he’s writing about the scenery, like when Woody and his dad take that streetcar ride. But when he’s trying to write something that really gets to the narrator’s deep emotional experience, the prose is mostly very simple: That was how he was. Five plain words. At the crux of the story it pays to write what’s true, rather than try to write what’s true and then dilute that by making the prose beautiful. It’s a continuum, of course, but I don’t think you can be at both ends of the continuum.
For me, I should also say, this story answers almost every question a young writer could have about fiction writing.
That dialogue is conflict, for instance. Bellow doesn’t write down a word of dialogue unless people are fighting. As I always say to my students about dialogue in fiction: If you can’t say something nasty, don’t say anything at all.
Or that any story about death must be a story about life.
Or how to approach one of the most difficult things for literary writers: plot.
In a way, plot is very simple: You have someone do something wrong. You don’t plan out a plot. You have somebody do something wrong, and that engenders other bad behavior. Behavior—especially bad behavior—is what forces character to emerge.
When “A Silver Dish” begins, it’s remarkably static: Woody, pierced by the sound of church bells all over Chicago, is mourning his father, a lifetime of old memories and impressions washing over him. But the story snaps into sudden focus when he recalls one of his father’s transgressions, a betrayal that’s haunted the younger man all his life. It’s that individual transgression—that memorable instance of bad behavior—that gets the story rolling.
I think of that moment as the story standing up. The moment when the black lines on the page suddenly become a story.
I’ve heard [the Deadwood creator] David Milch say (though I might be butchering it slightly) that it’s easier to plot your way into an idea than it is to idea your way into a plot. And I think a lot of writers start out making the mistake of trying to write a novel about something. Novels are discussed as though they are intentionally about something, but they’re not. They’re stories. We’re taught to think about them that way by literary critics, or by English teachers, who are, in their defense, generally trying to teach you to write a paragraph rather than a novel. But to be a writer, I think, you have to abandon the idea that fiction is “about” something. This concept is bad enough in your reading life. But it’s fatal in your writing life.
I’ve seen plenty of students come in and say, I want to write a novel about blah blah blah. But you just can’t do it. You can only write a novel about a character who does something wrong, and see what happens from there. Novels are compendiums of bad behavior, and literature is the gossip about it.
In other words, if you’re writing a piece of fiction, I’d urge you not to try to show anything—instead, try to discover something. There’s no way to write anything powerful unless your unconscious takes charge.
The biggest problem for young literary writers, besides plot, is how to characterize: how to make a character seem like a real human being. One of the more subtle ways, which Bellow does beautifully, is to have a character describe other people. The trick is that when characters describe other people, it’s they themselves who are being revealed. In this section of “A Silver Dish,” Woody’s description of his father, gives a sense of his own diction, articulation, and philosophy:
Pop, as he took his sheepskin off, was in sweaters, no jacket. His darting looks made him seem crooked. Hardest of all for these Selbsts with their bent noses and big, apparently straightforward faces was to look honest. All the signs of dishonesty played over them. Woody had often puzzled about it. Did it go back to the muscles, was it fundamentally a jaw problem—the projecting angles of the jaws? Or was it the angling that went on in the heart?
It’s physical description and self-contemplation and contemplation of others, all at the same time. As Woody meditates on his father’s inherently crooked appearance, we get a sense of Woody, too: that he is in some ways an upright, noble, kind man but also has a sense of his own unworthiness, his own brutishness—a sense that he himself is as crookedly bent as his father.
Writers tend to think that their own prose is the compelling thing. You have to strangle that off, I think. Talk about killing your darlings. It’s not just about killing your good scenes, it’s about killing your instinct to try to impress with witticism and handsome phrasing—becoming, instead, a vessel for telepathy in a way. The less present you can be, the more you can be the character you’re trying to write about. Some of the writers I admire most—like Philip Roth or Alice Munro—they’re beautiful prose stylists in the sense that their sentences are lovely, but as I read them I’m not thinking about the prose. I’m thinking about the truth. I’m lost in their ability to make me into another human being. That, to me, is the compelling thing.
With characterization, you have to let go. You’ve got to release yourself from your grandiose intentions, your ambitions, your ideas about humanity, literature, and philosophy by focusing on the being-another-person aspect of it—which, by the way, is freeing, delightful, and one of the few real joys of writing. Stop worrying about writing a great novel—just become another human being.
I should add that, to a remarkable degree, it’s a physical thing. I try to do it by pausing for a moment before I begin writing, by taking a few seconds at the beginning to let my self drop away.
I also find that restrained bits of physical activity help. I have a standing desk—which I have to say, I built myself long before it became fashionable. That works for me. I also put in one of those mini elliptical trainers below it, the kind without handrails, so that I have to concentrate a little to not fall off. I’ll start to walk. And as I try to balance, trying not to topple to the side, I’m starting to type—somehow the slight physical activity takes the brakes off. In the same way, I often get good ideas when I’m driving a stickshift car: The shifting requires just enough concentration that it unglues your inhibitions. It allows your unconscious to bubble up.
Ultimately, I read for the sensation of being another character. That’s how I know a book is good, when I can no longer tell that I’m reading a book, when I become not a reader but another human being. I read for that sensation of transport, and I write for that sensation, too.
I had this weird experience once. I was on stage, I think at the Kansas City Public Library. Some kind of on-stage conversation. And the first question the interviewer asked me was: What’s the purpose of literature? Imagine getting that question unannounced. And out of my mouth popped: “It’s a rehearsal for death.” I’d never thought about that before I said it, but in some ways I think it’s true. Fiction’s about running through other people’s lives, running through the great and terrible things that happen along the way, and especially the thing that lies at the end, experiencing it over and over and over. Whether or not a novel actually contains death, it’s often about the highlights of a life. Literature allows us to experience thousands of lives, to understand how we might want to live our own.
But back to “A Silver Dish.” There’s a little mystery in this story: Twice, Bellow slips out of third person and into first. “He wanted me like himself, an American,” the narrator says, at one point. Is it some sort of meta-fiction, as if Bellow anticipated the current trend of narrators having the same names as their authors? I don’t know what to make of those two little shifts in point of view, unless they’re little tacit admissions that this story is indeed about him. Some kind of winking admission that this is I, Saul Bellow, and not Woody.
Whatever it is, “A Silver Dish” gives us profound access to the life of another. For me, that’s what great fiction is: the window through to someone else’s days on earth. That was how he was. It’s all of literature, isn’t it? Or pretty damn close.