Home > jim harrison, john steinbeck, oscar wilde, writing > The importance of being earnest

The importance of being earnest

February 24, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

These various lists of rules for writers begin to irritate me, because as interesting as these lists may be, so many of the rules listed thereon are what we writers, what with our advanced vocabularies and all, like to call horseshit.

Which brings me to an offering from Joyce Carol Oates, who quotes Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”

This word, sincerity: I don’t think you’re using it very carefully.

Quick — who can name one, just one single important and lasting work of literature that is disingenuous and insincere? That was tossed off by a writer with nothing at stake?

This is why I’ve never really had much time for the wit of Oscar Wilde. I can easily picture Wilde sitting up at night, thinking up new sparkling witticisms while preening in the mirror. The man was both a sartorial and an intellectual fop. His overwhelming quality was self-regard.

Sincerity is good. It’s that quality of earnest import that’s deadly.

Witness Steinbeck at his worst, in the more obnoxious intrusions of his various Doc Ricketts characters, who give him license to muse at length on Serious Topics, and in his sentimentality. This is what people object to in Steinbeck — apart from his occasional tendency to drive in a thumbtack with a ball-peen hammer.

But as Jim Harrison said, “the people who condescended to Steinbeck didn’t even write the Grapes of Goofy.”

As much as I hate writerly talk of risk-taking — if you want risk, take up commercial fishing, logging, or fighting Afghan insurgents — Harrison is on to something. It isn’t possible to write anything great without taking a risk, without abandoning chickenshit and standing for something, whereupon everyone gets to smirk at your sincerity, without walking that tightrope and risking sentimentality.

Jim Harrison again: “I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and risk being corny, than die a smartass.”

Oscar Wilde died a smartass.

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