I recently hit on a bunch of things written or said by other people, which speak to my notion that fiction has to be engaged with the world. Being too lazy to write my own defence of that notion, I’m just going to quote those things and pretend I’ve published a manifesto.
First, from Benjamin Woodard’s review of Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting at Raintaxi:
Not once does “Miracle Mile” drag. Instead, it unfolds with such skill and proficiency that one forgets on occasion that the story is a work of fiction, and that MacLeod didn’t conduct interviews with a series of men and women and transcribe their lives onto paper.
This sense of engagement is a thread that keeps Light Lifting consistently admirable.
Next, Thomas McGuane speaking at an event in Lansing, Michigan, touches on this notion of transcribing lives:
Frank O’Connor was asked about the relationship between journalism and literature and he said that much of fiction is really journalism, but in the case of a great writer, like Chekhov, it’s 99 percent journalism. And that’s kind of a challenging remark, but there’s something to that. I mean, if you look at the best of Updike, it’s perilously close to some kind of photo-realistic journalism.
Jim Harrison, responding to McGuane:
It’s fun to read Dostoevsky’s notebooks because you see how much of his fiction was sort of veiled journalism. He would get obsessed about a news item. He thought he’d found a new theme in European literature (this was 1868) because a girl in St. Petersburg had committed suicide and left a note saying she committed suicide because she was bored.
Richard Ford expands on the theme:
When I don’t like something, or I read a piece of fiction and I think to myself there’s really something defective about this, what I always say about it is, “This is just made-up stuff.”
It’s not thingy. That’s what I say: it’s not thingy. Nothing, no details are observed, there’s no observation of the attenuations of the kind of emotions people could have.
Now that one is fascinating, going from a standard writing-class insistence on concrete detail to that insistence not only on accurately observed human behaviour — the kind of emotions people could have — but on the attenuations of our emotions. It is not how people might feel, but how those feelings fade and lose force, or perhaps how they are muted in the transmission. “Hills Like White Elephants,” perhaps, is the kind of thing Harrison is driving at, Hemingway’s genius in showing us an iceberg by its tip. And Hemingway, notably, was writing fiction as one might write a newspaper story.
On the subject of concrete detail, of thinginess, I have previously quoted McGuane on this blog, talking about the necessity for a writer to be engaged with the world that his fiction reports on:
I have a primary interest in the world and feel if the ratio of world to word is high, that rightness and concision are honoured, I may safely avoid the often suet-filled oeuvre that characterizes the writer who has no other interests … Any writer can disappear up his own ass in a New York minute. You’ve got to have a life. Otherwise every noun in the book looks like it came off Google.
Which I tied back to John Metcalf, who among many other things is my editor:
The real poetry — the names of materials and tools in the trades. Visit hardware stores.
Speaking to a creative writing class, I defended my digressions into photographic technicalities in Combat Camera on those grounds. It is not necessary for the reader to know what a Tessar is, or what is meant by “fourteen elements in eleven groups.” It is necessary, however, for a story to work from carefully observed detail. If the reader does not understand all those details, that’s fine; we encounter things we don’t understand every single day. Gobbledygook is good.
Consider this wonderful passage of gobbledygook, a ranch hand speaking in McGuane’s Something to be Desired:
This time I’m thinking about, I was trying to prove up on a lease I had over at Kid Royal. And we was getting ready to load out at Deadrock. I had the heeler up front with me, the radio on, when I threw a recap right on the scale. I was with Boyd, and he cusses and dumps a set of dead batteries from his hot shot, throws it in the jockeybox and said he’s got a come-along to get our outfit to dry ground with. This was supposed to be the last of a big run of yearlings. And it turns out we got a five-hole spare for a six-hole rim. I knew right then and there my luck was shot.
This puts me in mind of Blazing Saddles:
Now who can argue with that? I think we’re all in debt to Gabby Johnson for stating what needed to be said. I am particularly glad that these lovely children are here today to hear that speech. Not only was it authentic frontier gibberish, it expressed a courage little seen in this day and age.
Which actually has nothing whatsoever to do with my point. But who can resist Blazing Saddles?
I am in Cincinnati tonight, having spent the week in Colorado Springs, very much on the road again. All next week I’ll be here in Cincinnati, which means I’ll finally learn to spell it, then home for a week, then Toronto for a week, then Halifax and Edmonton to round out the month. The first week in June, I’ll spend in Calgary, and then back to Edmonton for five days. This is my job.
It’s not, in my mind, a particularly hard job, although I know that it would shred some people, just as some other jobs would swiftly shred me. On the upside, my periodic bouts of heavy travel give me time to write. I have no kids and no obligations this week, just a soundproof suite, a bottle of George Dickel’s Tennessee Whisky,* a six-pack of Heineken, and a whole multi-coloured universe of … well, not really.
But I am getting some writing done, and some reading. I re-read Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter on the way down to the Springs, carried Rock Springs in my carryon bag but didn’t get to it (next week I will), and am now reading Huey Guagliardo’s Perspectives on Richard Ford. That last is the kind of thing I have to take in small doses, as I am unable to read more than a paragraph or two without getting up and pacing around and responding to it. In any case, I am on something of a Richard Ford kick.
And for that reason, I appreciated Richard Ford’s Guardian thing on “The Writing Life,” which I read this evening. Ford has always taken a hard-nosed approach to the bullshit fooferal that surrounds writing. Asked how one switches gears mentally between writing short stories and writing a novel (he worked simultaneously on The Sportswriter and Rock Springs), he said (I paraphrase), “It’s a job. You do one thing, and then you do another.”
And here is Ford, true to form, simultaneously eschewing talk of art and vocation, and acknowledging that writing isn’t a particularly hard job, as jobs go. He has, I think, a healthy attitude, although writers less successful than Ford might well resent it. Writing is, ultimately, a job, even for those who, like me, have the luxury of writing what we want thanks to another source of income. And it is not a particularly hard job; for all our talk of taking risks, writing is nowhere near as hard or risky as commercial fishing, logging, or patrolling the country around Khandahar. It is, all in all, a pretty cushy gig.
And this is one of the things you find in Ford’s fiction: people are often defined by their work, and Ford respects hard work. Frank Bascombe’s job selling real estate in Independence Day and The Lay of the Land is cushy, and this forms part of his alienation, his disconnect from the hard and concrete. It is interesting that in the Guardian piece, Ford singles out taking tolls on the Jersey turnpike as a hard job, for this is Wade Arcenault’s job in The Sportswriter — and Bascombe sees Wade, sentimentally, as salt of the earth. Rock Springs, similarly, is full of people with hard jobs.
Somebody really ought to write an essay on that one of these days. But it will take somebody less lazy than me.
* I am aware that American whiskey is conventionally spelled with an “e”; in fact, I had this discussion with a certain copy editor of Combat Camera, and gave up because it wasn’t really clear that on some pages, Zane referred to Scotch, and on others, bourbon. Regardless, Dickel’s label is spelled in the manner of Scotch, and it is unavailable in Canada.
One of the things I’ve always liked about Richard Ford’s writing is his use of setting. In fact, I like to think that I learned a lot about setting by reading Richard Ford, although someone, somewhere, no doubt feels that I didn’t.
I have always been annoyed at those people who insist on complaining that, for example, the details of some setting are wrong—that there is no pizzeria on such-and-such a street, for example, or that the gas station on the corner of This and That is not open 24 hours. Who cares? As soon as one steps into the fictional universe, the setting (and, indeed, history) belongs to that fictional universe.
So I enjoyed this, from Richard Ford, answering a question on the BBC World Book Club podcast:
Years ago, I was working on a story set in Great Falls, Montana, and I was publishing the story in The New Yorker. And I had said that the YWCA, the Young Women’s Christian Association, where there was a swimming pool, was on 2nd Avenue South. And the fact checker from The New Yorker called me at home and said, “Mr. Ford,” he said, “ah, the YWCA is actually on 8th Street North-West. Would you just mind if we just corrected that?”
And I said, “No,” I said, “it has too many syllables.”
For me, I want the freedom that is possible in all ways to make the landscape of my fictional town be amenable to my needs.
I’ve always thought fact-checking fiction is something of a contradiction in terms. But that’s me.
Not a homecoming for me, but for someone else. I discovered, by an accident of web surfing, that I’d missed the 2010 Michigan Author Homecoming in Lansing, which featured Benjamin Bush, Philip Caputo and Doug Stanton in a panel discussion called “Writing War: Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam.” Fortunately, it’s all available on video.
If you scroll down that page, you’ll also find information on the 2008 event, which featured Richard Ford, Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison in a panel discussion on, well, whatever the hell Richard Ford, Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison wanted to talk about. That would have been well worth attending—I like all three of those guys.
And I did attend, driving for three hours in the sweltering heat in a car with banjaxed air conditioning. Admission was free, and the hall’s seating capacity was 600; over 700 showed up, and they were packing them into the aisles. I rolled back across the Canadian border at 11:30 at night and presented to the customs agent my battered passport, which I had accidentally put through the laundry. He eyed it with suspicion, and inspected the information page.
“Sir, do you know the expiry date on this passport?”
“That passport is valid for another half-hour,” I said. “So you better hurry up.”
I do like the Canadian Border Services Agency; they have a sense of humour.
In any case, the Ford-McGuane-Harrison chat is available as a podcast and worth listening to. A nugget:
“What two people do in a room where they are alone together is a real little laboratory for morality, in a sense, because that is where you can really concentrate on what’s right and what’s wrong and who’s lying and who’s not.” — Richard Ford
All these lists of Rules for Writers have me paralyzed. I’m unable to proceed, sitting as I am at the wrong kind of chair, using the wrong kind of pencil, working at the wrong time of day … and now I’m thinking I might as well quit, because apparently I’ve already broken Richard Ford’s rule number two: don’t have children.
I’ve consulted with my wife, but apparently there’s no way to stuff this genie back into the bottle.
There are probably risks in following other people’s rules, as suggested by The New Yorker: “I delight in Richard Ford’s terrifically sourpuss ‘Don’t have children,’ because I’ve read his books and this rule strikes me as being so Richard Ford.”
Being Richard Ford works for Richard Ford, but only because he’s Richard Ford. And if you consider his attitude towards children in fiction, and in life — “I sometimes see them as such malevolent little creatures who rule (and not often benignly) the lives of adults” — and then read The Sportswriter with that in mind, you might decide that his attitudes have limited his emotional range.
I can’t think of any genuinely tender depiction of the father-son relationship, fraught as it can be, in the Frank Bascombe novels; certainly nothing on the order of that Thomas McGuane achieves in Something to be Desired. Ford’s children are usually teenaged boys (Rock Springs, Wildlife), or small, manipulative creatures who speak in preternaturally adult voices.
Which is no accident:
You use them as extremely potent characters, rather than as bothersome non-entities (which they mostly are in life); little oracles who speak as adults or who affect events in large ways yet remain deceptively “innocent.” You know, if you have to have children speak as children, they won’t say anything very interesting. They don’t know anything.
But surely what a character says is not his sole value to a story. Perhaps Ford’s attitude towards kids prevents him from seeing them as important in other ways, and most importantly to the motives and actions of his adult characters, over whom their influence, to him, seems primarily malign. In fact, he seems to resist their possible influence:
… children are, for me, little condiments in stories. You know, you shake them in to spice it up, but the real events take place in the lives of people who are responsible, who bear the consequences of action as fully as it can be borne.
So Ford’s stories center around adults moving through a world in which children are mere ornaments, without any sense that children can, in fact, bear the consequences of action in ways that parents often prefer not to contemplate.
Those consequences reverberate throughout adult life. This is not lost on Thomas McGuane, whose fiction is deeply influenced by a difficult relationship to his father. Something to be Desired begins with young Lucien Taylor and his father, lost on a dark mountainside; father has returned from Peru, whence he has “mailed deranged letters to his son until his son flunked his courses and got kicked off the baseball team,” and has now abducted him. This father is an absentee or a failure.
And then the fictional clock fast-forwards to adult life, in which Lucien abandons his own family and then tries to win them back. Lucien’s son, James, fears him but also loves him as only a son can love a father. Lucien returns that love, but with the father’s terrible sense of his own power. In one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, Lucien takes James to capture and band a prairie falcon. They lie under camouflage netting with a pigeon for bait, and the boy falls asleep only to be awakened in panic by the violence of the falcon’s strike, and the ensuing struggle to band it.
Lucien held the terrifying bird out before him and released his grip. The falcon pulled vertically from his glove and with hard wing-beats made straight into deep sky, swept straight off and was gone.
When Lucien looked over at James, he was holding the pigeon in his hands. Its eyes were closed. Its head was angled harshly onto its back. Blood ran from the nostrils down the domestic blue feathers of its narrow shoulders. Lucien said nothing.
“We both fell asleep at the same time,” said James in an unsteady voice.
One of the great challenges in writing children, a challenge that McGuane meets, that many writers fail, and that Ford, I think, shies away from attempting, is to avoid sentimentality. But this is the challenge that great stories have to meet: to confront the real emotional content of our lives without becoming corny. The relationship between parent and child is one of the most important, and difficult, that we can deal with. It would be a mistake to ignore it altogether.