Thursday, October 27, 2016
Some writers come out with one outstanding novel — and no more.
The reason for this varies. In some cases it’s understandable, in others one has to engage in speculative psychology.
Two of the authors I’ll discuss reaped huge financial gains, and the three lesser known ones were recognized for the excellence of their work. So it wasn’t a lack of acclaim that brought on the silence.
I’ll get to J.D. Salinger first, for if I dilly-dally I fear that all his writing (and the legend is that, for decades, he continued to write every day) will begin coming out of his safe and go into print. To my knowledge his work was not burned, but became the property of some heirs, and surely they’ll be out to profit from their gold mine. An unreliable source told me that Salinger’s will stipulated that a certain number of years must elapse before publication.
I don’t have expectations that another Holden Caulfield will emerge. For one thing, he — or some variation of him — is probably not replicable. Were the creators who gave us the voices of Huckleberry Finn and Alexander Portnoy able to match their achievement? I doubt if Salinger even tried; he was a stubborn soul who would resist doing what the public demanded (and who would withdraw altogether if they didn’t appreciate what he did do). He had a deep sense of privacy, and so would avoid self-examination.
In what direction do I see him going? It’s said that, besides writing, Salinger practiced Zen every day, and perhaps that provides a clue. His inclination to impart profundity undermines the Glass family pieces, but it was evident as early as “Teddy,” the worst of his Nine Stories. The precociously intelligent, spiritually advanced, prophetic little Teddy isn’t real or likable (in fact, he comes across as a windbag). I think, when and if the floodgates open, we’ll get more in that instructive vein. Even the last part of The Catcher in the Rye is a bit preachy.
But that glorious beginning at Pency Prep and then in New York! I say glorious because it’s only common decency to show appreciation for a gift. I’m remembering the feelings of my thirteen-year-old self; I was elated by the book, it opened delightful possibilities as to what fiction could do. For that I’m forever grateful. At the least, give the guy credit: he created an enduring character. Even my spell checker knows “Caulfield.”
Fat City is a solid novel done skillfully, and skill is not a rare quality. Leonard Gardner’s novel rises to a high level because of his insight into people who are scrapping the bottom of life’s barrel. The setting is the seamy side of Stockton, California — its bars and liquor stores, its cheap walk-up hotels, its fields where men “top onions.” And its boxing rings, where fighters with no future earn a few bucks. In the opening page Gardner describes Hotel Coma, where Tully is staying: “Smudges from oily heads darkened the wallpaper between the metal rods of his bed. His shade was tattered, his light bulb dim, and his neighbors all seemed to have lung problems.”
Tully’s failure is not just economic; he leaves behind him a shattered marriage, and in the course of the novel he enters into a dismal relationship with a woman he meets in a bar. The other main character we follow is Ernie, a kid Tully spars with; it soon becomes clear that Ernie is fated to follow in Tully’s footsteps.
Many readers avoid a depiction of failure when it’s served up without adornment. John Huston made an excellent film out of the novel — a rigorously faithful adaptation — and it was a financial flop. Too depressing, I suppose. But what depresses me (and here I’ll borrow a word from Holden) are phony characters and situations. There’s nothing phony in Fat City.
Gardner was thirty-six when the novel came out. It was appreciated by critics and other writers; it was nominated for the National Book Award. So why no more? In an interview he gave when he was eighty-eight — forty-six years after the publication of Fat City — Gardner was asked that question, and he cited the fact that he didn’t make money off the novel, and teaching at a university didn’t appeal to him; instead he turned to writing screenplays and teleplays. That’s a perfectly reasonable explanation. Yet I believe there was more to it than that.
I was not at all surprised to learn that Gardner knew firsthand the world depicted in Fat City (including its boxing rings); it’s too deeply felt for it not to be personal. He succeeded in writing a novel which captured that world and its people. And he did it with compassion. Having accomplished that, what more was there to say?
As a girl Tillie Olsen found that the speech of the immigrants around her was not to be found in the novels she read. Nor were their experiences. She believed that she had something to contribute; she wanted to give a voice to “her people.” At a young age she dedicated herself to be a “great writer.” Yet the extent of her fiction (in a life that lasted ninety-five years) is a handful of short stories and one novel. In her case, there are reasons: she was a mother of four (which she saw as her main role in life); she had to work at a variety of jobs, many of them menial; she was dedicated to political activism. Still, there were times when she was blessed with opportunities that other writers would give their eye teeth for, yet she never got the words down on paper.
The first chapter of Yonnondio was begun when Olsen was nineteen. By some propitious series of events it arrived on the desk of the editor of the Partisan Review, and it was published under the title of “The Iron Throat.” The story was met with acclaim in New York’s literary and political circles. It was described as a work of a genius. Four publishing houses made efforts to locate Tillie Lerner. She eventually signed a contract with Random House; they offered her a stipend to live on in return for completing a chapter every month. In the next two years she failed to meet the conditions of her contract and it was terminated. She continued to work on the novel intermittently, then abandoned it altogether.
Olsen’s next opportunity came in 1953, when she was forty-one. With all her children in school, she enrolled in a creative writing class at San Francisco State University. She wrote a story — “I Stand Here Ironing” — that led to fellowships, grants and endowments, and in 1962 Tell Me a Riddle was published; it consists of four stories (of which “Ironing” is one). Another story, “Requa,” appeared in 1971, and that would be it. With financial security and the time to write, no more new fiction would come from Tillie Olsen.
The completion of Yonnondio was a process of reworking old material. Forty years after she had begun the book the author was staying at the MacDowell Writers’ Colony. She brought with her the yellowed, tattered pages of the manuscript that her husband had come across in a drawer. In the five months she spent at MacDowell she entered (as she described it) into a partnership with her younger self; the first chapters offered almost no problems, but the rest was a process of struggling with versions, revisions, drafts and scrawled notes. She states that she did not write any new material, nor rewrite what was there; she simply brought to fruition what that younger self had done. Since the book was unfinished, it was published in an unfinished state.
Reading about this laborious rejuvenation provides a possible answer as to why Tillie Olsen produced so little. It’s a grueling task to write a novel, though for some it comes easier than for others. I think for Olsen it came very hard; not helping matters was that all her work is complex and innovative, and that may have constituted a barrier. Much of Yonnondio is told through the eyes of Mazie, and since she’s a dreamy, impressionable child (her form of escape), the prose in her sections is a dreamy, impressionistic collage of images and feelings. Other parts of the novel are gritty and realistic as the pavement.
I also think that the novel was intended to be much longer — another daunting prospect. The young Tillie Olsen could not meet the demands of what she attempted. But if Yonnondio had appeared in 1935, when the inhuman conditions she depicts were at their height, it could well have had an impact. In 1972, when the book was finally published, those conditions were largely ameliorated. Did she fail in her self-appointed task of giving a voice to her people?
In an essay entitled To Have and Have Not I go further into the Tillie Olsen story (and that of her polar opposite, John P. Marquand).
I can’t give interesting biographical material about Max Steele — I’ve searched, and just a few scraps are available. But he matters because his one novel takes on a subject that has never, in my experience, been done so well. In Debbie (originally published as The Goblins Must Go Barefoot) he enters the mind of a woman with the mental development of a child. Debbie can’t read or tell time, and her ability to learn is rudimentary. As is true with children, she’s extremely self-centered and responds to people and events with an intense emotionality. Steele shows how complex those labeled as “simple” really are. Nor are they happy, carefree. Think of how vivid childhood fears are.
The novel is also about the Merrills, who take Debbie into their home to work as a maid; soon she’s considered to be one of the family. As filtered through Debbie’s perceptions, we follow them during the difficult decades of the thirties and forties. Debbie’s thoughts and feelings focus most strongly on Mrs. Merrill and the youngest child, a boy who reminds her of the one that had been taken from her by the state. Though there are good times, lives are not easy, nor do things turn out happily for anyone.
The completeness of Steele’s achievement is striking; in his twenties he had all the tools of a professional writer. But with that was insight, and it’s this insight that may provide the reason why his one novel was written. How was the author — an obviously very intelligent man — able to enter the mind of Debbie? And why would he care to take on such a task? Because it seemed interesting? A challenge? No — I believe he knew a Debbie. Knew her intimately. There’s some sort of a connection that motivated him; perhaps Max Steele was the Merrill boy Debbie cared for so deeply. The time line works; Steele was born in 1922, so when the Depression hit he would have been a teenager. This scenario would also account for how precisely he captures Mrs. Merrill.
I’m engaging in pure speculation. But if what I’ve posited (or some variation of it) is true, it would explain why, in a life that lasted eighty-three years, Steele wrote no more novels. Like Leonard Gardner, he had given life to a set of people, and in doing so had brought the one subject that moved him to completion. He would write two collections of stories and some incidental work, but it seems that most of his energies were focused on his job: he was the director of the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He could well have been one of those professors who are dedicated to their work.
Debbie won the Harper Prize in 1950, and it was praised by critics and other authors. Notable was Katherine Anne Porter, who declared it “A beautiful book.”
Before Ship of Fools came out in 1962 Katherine Anne Porter was a well-known literary figure, but it was based entirely on her short stories. She augmented her position by getting into as many spotlights as she could (her striking appearance didn’t hurt). This is not meant as criticism. She had a hard life — an itinerant childhood marked by poverty, sporadic and limited education — so she was used to scrabbling to get what she wanted. Since the income she received from her stories was not adequate, this scrabbling involved getting grants, fellowships, and stints at various universities, both as lecturer and teacher of creative writing.
Beginning in the early 1940s she began talking about the novel she was working on. As the years rolled by (and became decades) the only evidence that it existed were seven scenes that were published in magazines. It amounted to a kind of tease; the literary world kept wondering, When will Katherine Anne Porter’s novel come out (if ever)?
When it did — all five hundred pages of it — it was a sensation. It topped the best seller list for the year and film rights were purchased for a record sum. K. A. P. was finally financially secure. At this point — she was seventy-two — she retired from writing fiction. Her publisher wanted more, but got only a few odds and ends.
Besides that one blockbuster, in her long life (she died at age ninety), she wrote very little. She was a late bloomer; her first collection came out when she was forty. Only two more slim volumes of stories followed. Why the lack of productivity? There was that scrabbling, which took up time and energy. There was a messy life, including four failed marriages and numerous affairs. She was a bit of a gadabout, living in scores of temporary homes (including stays in half a dozen foreign countries). Besides all these distractions, Porter was not a glib writer; her work is honed. She was a perfectionist, and this included the effort to make that which was perfect seem natural, to flow pleasurably for the reader. She felt the need to make a point about life, and to embed the point in the characters and the plot. Every one of these elements make the process of writing difficult. And in the face of a difficult task she succumbed to procrastination.
That’s why a novel takes over two decades to get done. One wonders how, over such a long period of time, she could retain a coherence to Ship of Fools. To do so was mainly a feat of intelligence. But Porter was aided by the fact that the book has no plot whose elements have to mesh. Forty-five characters of seven different nationalities are on a ship traveling from Veracruz, Mexico to Bremerhaven, Germany. They exist mostly in separate spheres, so she could work on them separately.After initial rave reviews, some noted critics weighed in with the fault-finding, which miffed and hurt Porter. I think they weren’t letting the novel be what it was meant to be — they were imposing their own expectations on it or were grinding personal axes. I both enjoyed and respected what Porter accomplished. She depicted people on the voyage of life, trying to reach a place of security and happiness — and failing to find it. Aren’t we all on that ship?