Writers on How It's Done

BY JAMES ATLAS
FIRST PERSON SINGULAR: Writers on Their Craft compiled by Joyce Carol Oates.Ontario Review Press,$14.95.
THE ART OF FICTION: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner. Knopf, $13.95.
FLAUBERT, IN ONE of his didactic, impassioned letters to Louise Colet, argued that the writer should be an invisible presence in his work, so detached from his own creation that the reader exclaims “How is all that done?” That cold objectivity is out of vogue; how it’s done is the main topic these days.The Anatomy Lesson, the last installment of Philip Roth’s Zuckerman trilogy, gives us the
inside story: “ten false starts and sixteen drafts and all that pacing around the room.” But why shouldn’t Roth reveal what goes on behind the scenes? Writers who scarcely have an audience can be found discussing their methods of composition in Stephen Berg’s recent anthology, In Praise of What Persists, and now Joyce Carol Oates has come out with First Person Singular, a collection of essays, interviews, and reminiscences in which a variety of known and less known hands discuss their “craft.”
Berg’s anthology, however uneven, is organized around a single theme: contributors were invited to “explore personal experiences that have significantly influenced their lives and their work.” Oates’s is a more haphazard affair: there’s no introduction, and I could discover no organizing principle. Interviews, memoirs, essays, polemics— whatever Oates read and liked over the past few years, I suspect, went into this collection. If there’s any generalization one can make about a group of contributors as diverse as John Updike and Ned Rorem, William Stafford and Bernard Malamud, it’s that great writers talk about their work with ease and less great writers talk about their work with . . . less ease.
The poets, who’ve been having a hard time finding an audience lately, do their case no good here. Dave Smith’s “Assays” is a heavy-breathing meditation that doesn’t survive even grammatical scrutiny (“Feeling cannot exist apart from the context of generational events and the poem’s voice than it could exist apart from the creative music of words and phrases in the harness that is the form of the poem”); Hayden Carruth drones on in an essay about poetic form, laboring distinctions (“The form is the apple”) that elude his grasp; John Hollander, emulating the French practitioners of écriture, writes about the act of writing in a mannered voice that’s meant to be whimsical but that could hardly be more self-conscious. The efforts of these poets to elucidate their work have a tentative, groping tone, a coy sensitivity (“Elms, maples, and Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary were fundamental to my early years”) that would have had a no-nonsense critic like Randall Jarrell drumming his fingers on the seminar table and staring moodily out the window.
Not that the poets are the only ones capable of incoherence. John Hawkes, interviewed by two fawning acolytes, comes across as curiously unsure of himself, speculating one minute that he’s the victim of “a strange conspiracy, conscious or not, to keep my work from getting really public attention” and asserting the next that he’s “quite invulnerable as a writer.” Hortense Calisher’s hectic prose careers from one bewildering declaration to another (“Modern times is a bad place for seeing the great metaphors that all art must have”) and lurches out of control: “An age when change can be caught like quicksilver and held up against the gloss of what we think we remember, where all the gauntlets of starvation and curtailed freedom are still thrown down to us, while sex will be our aphrodisiac and the documents our earthly paradise—who can fail to recognize that description?” Who indeed?
Still, the old pros are as diverting as ever. John Updike’s lecture “Why Write?” defends the writer’s “shabby, precarious, and even craven” life with his usual shrewd eloquence. Malamud and Bellow answer the same tired questions they’ve answered a hundred times (“Are you a Jewish writer?”) as if they’ve never heard them before. Their spoken voices echo their literary styles. Bellow is haughty, learned, contemptuous, at once a cranky moralist and a comic working the crowd. He manages to let drop in an interview that he attended a White House dinner, but in such an offhand way that it doesn’t even seem like boasting; a man of the people, he prefers to be honored in Chicago. Describing a ceremony at which Mayor Daley presented Bellow with a check from the Midland Authors’ Society, he recalls with obvious delight Daley’s reply to a reporter who asked him if he’d read Herzog: “I’ve looked into it.” “Art is not the Mayor’s dish,” says Bellow. “But then why should it be? I much prefer his neglect to the sort of interest Stalin took in poetry, phoning Pasternak to chat with him about Mandelstam and, shortly afterwards, sending Mandelstam to die.”
Malamud’s interview, reprinted from the Paris Review series, is like a Zen parable; every question is deflected, dodged, refined, and handed back in the form of an aphorism. “What about suffering?” says the dogged interlocutor, as humble and earnest as a character out of The Magic Barrel. “I’m against it,” retorts Malamud, “but when it occurs why waste the experience?” Asked if the novel is dead, he predicts, “It’ll be dead when the penis is.”
The liveliest voices in this collection are always telling stories to illustrate some point. Instead of just claiming that writers are treated with more respect in other cultures, Bellow recalls the time he entered a restaurant in Paris with a French novelist whom the waiter addressed as “Maître.” Comparing the fictive imagination with a child’s innocent play, Updike describes what it was like to sit drawing at the dining-room table, “under a stained-glass chandelier that sat like a hat on the swollen orb of my excitement.” Anecdote, parable, analogy: these are the writer’s basic tools, and they should never be put aside, no matter what the task. William Heyen’s account of a drunken evening spent waiting for a still more drunken John Berryman to arrive—how Heyen and his English-department cronies sat around playing poker, how Berryman, once he got there, scattered ashes all over the house and screamed at his wife on the phone—gives a more vivid sense of the demands poetry makes on its practitioners than any of the essays in this book.
How it’s done is interesting, and a valid literary subject. Many of the contributors to Oates’s anthology will reach a wider audience through it than they ever reached with the work that prompted these essays and interviews. Besides, who can deny the appeal of gossip? To learn that Mark Strand wrote one of his books while his marriage was failing and that Adrienne Rich had three children before she was thirty makes the authors
more vivid to us than do their difficult, evasive poems. This is why biographies of writers are so popular and why The Paris Review has its interview series, Esquire its “Why I Live Where I Live” feature, The New York Times Book Review its “Making of a Writer” column. Writing is a private activity, but a writer is a public figure—“an instrument,” in Updike’s words, “a means whereby a time and a place make their mark.” And the more finely tuned that instrument is, the more curious we are about how it works.
To THOSE WHO are really curious, I can recommend two manuals by the late John Gardner, whose posthumous output exceeds that of even prolific liv-
ing novelists: On Becoming a Novelist, which Harper & Row brought out last spring, some months after the author was killed in a motorcycle accident, and its sequel, The Art of Fiction. More impromptu than its predecessor, this compilation of notes, advice, obiter dicta, and class exercises is animated by the same attractive zeal.
What was so appealing about On Becoming a Novelist was Gardner’s fervent practicality. He believed that being a writer was a useful vocation, that writing could be taught, and that nearly anyone, with enough hard work, could become one. It was clear from his impassioned account of how he himself learned to write, and from the enthusiasm with which he imparted what he knew, that he regarded literature as a high calling. Yet he never romanticized it. The beginning writer had to be “driv-
en,” afflicted with a “daemonic compulsiveness”; he had to possess “the stamina, patience, and single-mindedness of a draft horse.” Nerve, conviction, will: these were the traits Gardner emphasized. “Mastery is not something that strikes in an instant, like a thunderbolt, but a gathering power that moves steadily through time, like weather.” Randall Jarrell claimed that the poet is struck by lightning maybe half a dozen times in his life; the novelist has to slog on like the mailman to complete his appointed rounds.
On Becoming a Novelist is crammed with lore: what books to read; what kinds of workshops are useful; how to get an agent, an editor, a grant; how to induce the dreamlike state essential to composition. Gardner takes apart stories, paragraphs, sentences, words. He shows us how other writers did it, comparing the “tentative” opening of Omoo with the “booming, authoritative voice” of Ishmael in Moby Dick. (How gratifying it is to be reminded that even Melville had trouble loosening up, something you don’t learn in American Lit.) But for all its practical advice, On Becoming a Novelist is really a book about the inward hazards of the trade—the loneliness, the sense of neglect, the doubts and self-absorption—and the hard-won pleasures that make it all worthwhile. Writing novels is “a yoga, or ‘way,’ ” Gardner insists, “an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world.” The rewards it offers are “spiritual”; they enable the writer to make sense of his experience in a way offered by no other profession, and to do it on his own terms, charged with the conviction that “he is life’s hope, he is the Messiah.”
That book was Gardner’s Tao, a handbook for seekers of literary enlightenment. The Art of Fiction is a practical guidebook, a primer that shows the reader how the novelist does it: how to vary the length of sentences, how to structure narrative, how to avoid the passive voice, sentences that begin with infinitives, and inappropriate diction. Some of what Gardner has to say might seem obvious: we expect characters who’ve been introduced and described to return to the narrative, even if only in another character’s thoughts; the protagonist must change in the course of the narrative (“the central character must act, not simply be acted upon”); a plot must have exposition, development, and denouement. Gardner’s two key terms are profluence, “our sense, as we read, that we’re ‘getting somewhere’,” and energeia, Aristotle’s term for “the actualization of the potential that exists in character and situation.” In Gardner’s paraphrase, “Certain forces, within and outside the character, must press him toward a certain course of action, while other forces . . . must exert strong pressure against that course of action.”
If this sounds self-evident, it is, and Gardner can get to be pretty tiresome on the whole subject. He glosses plots with hectoring tenacity, like a schoolteacher addressing a classroom of inattentive seventh-graders, and the exercises in the last chapter are naive: “Write the first three pages of a tale” and “Describe a landscape as seen by a bird. Do not mention the bird.” No one can learn to write a novel by reading such a primer, any more than one can learn to write a novel from a creative-writing seminar. The only way to learn is to do it, and even that’s no guarantee. Gardner himself was known to ignore the advice he hands out here with such breezy self-assurance; too many of his novels were ponderous and ill conceived, and the last one, Mickelsson’s Ghost, was a disaster. (Writing it brought him to “the edge of despair,” he confesses in On Becoming a Novelist, and I can see why; he forgot all about profluence and energeia.)
What Gardner does offer in these two books is reassurance that writing is a legitimate activity, a rational thing to do. “For better or worse, the practice of fiction changes a person,” he declares in On Becoming a Novelist. Writing fiction demands empathy and forces the novelist to become “as impartial and detached as God, giving all human beings their due and acknowledging their frailties.” (See Flaubert: “An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.”) In The Art of Fiction, Gardner distinguishes between “faults of technique” and “faults of soul,” which include “sentimentality” (effects achieved by manipulating the reader); “frigidity” (indifference to one’s own characters); and “mannerism” (posturing or self-importance on the writer’s part, putting himself forward in his prose). It was Gardner’s conviction that the writer could become aware of these flaws in his own nature and conquer them on behalf of his art.
Is this true? Whether literature is good for society—whether it has a moral function—is an old question. (Gardner was convinced that it is, and that “art produces the most important progress civilization knows.”) But that the artist himself is changed by his art, that he becomes a more sentient person by virtue of what he does—here Gardner is making a different claim. An awful lot of creeps have produced great novels, but Gardner’s vision of the literary life is utopian; it posits a world in which a writer could labor for years, enduring poverty, neglect, humiliation, and then stride into a publisher’s office one day in a leather jacket and emerge with a threebook contract. A world where such a thing could happen—this is Gardner’s version of how he got his start—is a world where the novelist can attain the sort of transcendence once reserved for perfect masters: “The true writer’s joy in the fictional process is his pleasure in discovering, by means he can trust, what he believes and can affirm for all time.” Most novelists I know would probably settle for a less exalted form of joy—getting published, being read—but even writers have their fantasies.