Why write when so many forces in the world seem pitched against writing?
Why write when it sometimes feels that so few people really read? I mean read slowly, tasting the words: read deliberately, as if their lives might be changed by what they’re reading.
Too often now the public reads for information, not enlightenment. People read to be brought up to date and put in the know. They want telegraphic bursts of prose. They want the words to be transparent, not artful or arresting. They need to get right to the truth, or failing that, directly to the facts. It can seem now that writing is a service: the writer dishes up information the way the counterman dishes lunch at the fast-food restaurant. In his worst moments, the writer feels that the world doesn’t really want writing: if by writing you mean thoughtful, nuanced interpretations of experience that could actually shift some basic perceptions—maybe even change some lives.
And if that is the case, why write? Why try, with as much selflessness as you can, to enlarge the contours of your mind—and to give others what real writing always has: pleasure and instruction, beauty and truth?
The world wants to be informed not enlightened, and the world wants to be entertained not inspired. Fiction writers now are supposed to give the readers exactly what they want. Novelists are to provide well-crafted, modest explorations of modest but badly crafted lives. Poets are to speak of themselves and themselves only (no big reach—no justifying God’s ways to man, or man’s to God) and speak in a timid whisper of a voice. To be a poet in America now is a slightly shameful condition, like having a mild drug habit or talking occasional smack to other people’s kids.
In America what once were artists are supposed to be entertainers. They shouldn’t offer tough or potentially dispiriting work to the world: they need to shake their rattles and jangle their bells. They live in a culture that measures success by the number of copies sold not the number of spirits touched. They have to shorten their sentences and compress their sentiments to the common bandwidth. They ought to stop worshipping low-sale losers like Virginia Woolf (a suicide) or Herman Melville (died in despair) and begin to model their careers (writers now have careers) on palatable entertainers.
Above: A special edition of “A Christmas Memory”, published in 1989 with watercolor illustrations by Beth Peck. The story has been anthologized, published in a stand-alone hard-cover edition, recorded, and made into two award-winning films: one in 1967 starring Geraldine Page*; and one for Hallmark in 1997 starring Patti Duke. Capote considered “A Christmas Memory” his best story…many critics, writers, and readers of his work agree.
A Christmas Memory
First published in Mademoiselle, 1956.
Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.
A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the…
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“Since each story presents its own technical problems, obviously one can’t generalize about them on a two-times-two-equals-four basis. Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is just this: after reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.”
– Truman Capote, quoted in “Truman Capote, The Art of Fiction No. 17”, The Paris Review, 16 Spring–Summer 1957.
Author, Peter Taylor, Kenyon College, 1941 (Wiki).
“His stories deepen, brushstroke by brushstroke, by gradual layering—by the verbal equivalent to what painters call atmospheric perspective. Their surfaces are no more to be trusted than the first ice on a lake.”
– Ann Beattie, on the fiction of Peter Taylor
More on Peter Taylor, here: