Archive for January, 2014

Surprisingly Stegner

Posted: January 16, 2014 by Jollymore in On Books

On Teaching and Writing Fiction, Wallace Stegner


How a book comes to hand fascinates me. In 1965 when my brother returned from the University for winter break, he poured forth stories of his hazing at the hands of the Deeks (Delta Kappa Epsilon), tales of the personalities of his new ‘brothers,’ and the list of books he had been reading. I looked forward to his vacations to augment my reading list. Prior years he had preview the books I was to read following him through high school at a two year distance.

Stegner’s posthumous publication – edited and prefaced by his daughter-in-law Lynn Stegner – fell off my writer-daughter’s shelf. She let it go reluctantly, loath to part with a friend, I think. Her reticence helped. Sometimes, when someone gives you a book, for instance, maybe as a gift or perhaps as ‘the best thing he has read,’ the urge to read grows less. It becomes more burdensome to read it. It is recommended, but not something you yourself have chosen. Stegner’s book – along with Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story which caught my eye there as well – came off Amy’s shelf with a dusting of that onerity that comes with a gift, but came also with the goad of her hesitation to let it out of her sight. I had better read it (them) not just drag it (them) to Honolulu and back. Coming hard out from her library, too, signaled that she had read it and profited by it. Prying the book out of her hands was like staying up late to get a recommendation from my college-boy brother.

Stegner is helpful.  A student and a teacher of writing for a life time, 25 years teaching writing at Stanford, how could he be otherwise. I take what is useful for me and leave the rest, but I find a great deal that is useful here.

To start he develops two major points:

First, there is a direct relationship between life (as differentiated from ‘lies’) and literature.

Next, there is a direct relationship between truth in fiction and the moral make-up of the author (or his moral intention at least)

The first heartens me. It tells me that I do not have to invent monsters from the lagoon or whip-smart iconoclasts stalking the urban alleys of the future in order to write ‘modern’ fiction. Contemporary may be the better word, as 2014 is nearly a century past ‘modernismo’ and for me ‘modern’ connotes 1966 far more than does the current calendar page. I’m not going to argue the case. Stegner does that job too well. He reminds us to write what we know, to use imagination in the service of life.

The second, truth and moral constitution, worries me a bit. Wallace Stegner appears solidly adept at moral life: exudes humility as well as control; regards his fellow writers, and all people, with compassion and care; and protects his own righteousness from deleterious invasion by wayward spirits – the anger of his father, for example. I worry about living up to that standard. That Stegner finds probity necessary to effective fiction might also worry a Keroac or a Salinger. Kiese Laymon would have something to say on the topic as well. Some may say Stegner’s position is that of a fair-haired boy (was it good fortune or parentage?) extolling his example of a well-lived life. Certainly, not everyone can qualify.  Would his ad for a writer say ‘Cynics need not apply’?

Never mind. Stegner is steadily generous with tips, quips, and slips of and on writing.  The forms – essay, question and answer, and analysis  (of his story ‘Goin’ to Town’) – allow Stegner to advise from a variety of angles.  It is also short, and though dense easily read (and reread).

A caveat to children of the 80’s and beyond, Stegner’s formative years were early 20th century. The writers he most points to suffered through the Great War and WWII. That is not a reason to cast him off as old fashioned (moral good is still in fashion), but may require more careful consideration and application of his thought to current ideas of writing. For instance, he spends (some might say ‘wastes’) time admonishing any writer who might lapse into profanity arguing that the shock value soon wears thin and distracts, though he does approve of using those select five or eight words when the situation calls for it. (Nadine Gordimer’s use of ‘fuck’ in My Son’s Story would be on his ‘yes’ list, though I doubt Stegner ever published that word.)

Stegner differentiates both between literature and commercial fiction, and between great fiction and fiction that is true but not great. If his integrity gives a young (or aged) writer pause, relief comes as he encourages literary pursuit whether ‘greatness’ be achieved or not. ‘Just be yourself’ might sound all right to Stegner if amended by ‘but write truth.’

Despite that he taught writing and studied writing in the workshop setting, Stegner’s observes that writing is a private act. In the age of tweets and blogs, in the world of writing-as-a-business attendant with retreats, MFAs, and clubs, Stegner’s insistence that the writer is ‘a man with a sending set but no receiver, broadcasting messages into space . . . .’ surprises and refreshes too. He warns us not to write to a particular audience.  The audience ‘can’t be safely imagined or predicted,’ he says. My god, it sounds like heresy in the age of sequels, trilogies, and series. Doesn’t the man know this is a business?  It is hard to believe, but he says (quite seriously, I think), ‘if they could [be predicted] there would be a great deal more pressure by publishers upon authors to satisfy the definable wants of these definable readers.’

Whether the test is audience, foul language, intention, or moral standing of the writer, this little book has something fine to say to any who would write.

For teachers the questions raised are obvious. That Stegner was involved in American fiction moving from a journalistic base (which it still enjoys) to an academic base provides a rare look at that movement and a not-too-apologetic expose of the reasons it works in America, if nowhere else. Again, those coming from outside this new tradition (or coming from neither the older or new) might find pause in Stegner’s defense. Still, he gives enough heart to any writer who ‘has anything to say.’

Lastly, Stegner is a great teacher by example. He teaches as he writes. His prose is a fine study in style. Seven points in his short chapter on technique – start with action, continue action, ‘say goodnight’ cleanly – are one’s to post on the wall. His analysis of “Goin’ to Town” is a look at a writer speaking honestly about the source of his writing.

Cold Mountain

Posted: January 8, 2014 by Jollymore in On Books

This is more an appreciation than review, but know that Cold Mountain is a book to read particularly if you liked Shelby Foote’s The Civil War, Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, and the densest of Faulkner’s work, perhaps Absolom! Absolom!  or The Sound and the Fury. Charles Fraiser’s book won the National Book Award in 1997 and fits nicely into and lengthen the stream of Southern literature.  So, it is tough, enjoyable, instructive, and profound. Like those things in a book, you’ll like Cold Mountain.


I came to Cold Mountain indirectly, through my own writing. From a New York agent’s list, I chose Fraiser’s book as something most like what I had written: Listener in the Snow, a story of a man and a woman finding themselves amongst, first, a dangerous hurly-burly of nature, then, surrounded by human cataclysm. In Cold Mountain the natural forces conspire to feed and to starve the characters; the people of the book by turns work to save and to kill. I’ll say that past the similarities (when it gets down to story and style), I grew green very quickly reading Fraiser’s prose. That is not to say that Listener does not have its charms. After all, one book wins that prize in any one year and only when published.


Wallace Stegner tells us “By inexorable necessity, all art simplifies.” The Cold Mountain story is as simple as it is universal: Boy meets girl, then war intervenes. Think about how many novels, American and European, correspond to this story line. The war is The War Between the States, a war so terrible (I never tired telling my students) that no one wrote fiction on it for nearly fifty years and then only sparingly, say, until Faulkner. The shock waves of that war strike our public and political shores yet.

It is an historical novel. It is a love story. It is bound to the creed of survival and practicality. The novel breaks the monolith of the Old South into inglorious pieces of individual struggle, survival, and demise. The characters soon rue vicissitudes of ripping war but retain when among the ununiformed a civility, tenderness, and faith that shames the viciousness applied all around them. Amid the volley, they have hope. It is the hope of the little man, to prosper modestly, or failing that to survivie.

Fraiser’s style is dense, patient, and careful. Once or twice I wished he’d gallop or stride, but I can’t say I ever found him plodding. He tells the story in rich detail: he describes Inman’s wound, how it pains him, what he thinks about it, how he received it, what he fears from it; not at one point only but even as it heals, as the story runs along. Inman’s wound is symbolism multiplied. And though that and other symbols, Cold Mountain itself, Ada’s lap desk, Stobrod’s fiddle, reverberate throughout even in the thoughts and examinations of the characters, they do not protrude, hernia-like, but function more like roots to cleave soil to steep mountainsides.

As much as symbols point deep do Cold Mountain’s images color the leafy canopy of the tale. The images are unconfined to the visual. We touch the wounds, heat of fire, nip of frost, and greasy timbers of smoke houses. Fraiser leads us by the nose to battlefield decay, to smoke of oak, chestnut and hickory, and to slept-in, lived-in clothes of weeks that after washing reek of  lye. Hearing means thriving or surviving between throaty slurs of doves and beating hooves of murderers on the trail. We do not see Inman or Ada exhausted, but feel it inside ourselves. These are the power and reach of Fraiser’s images.

The deep knowledge of the natural world, both animal and herbal, Inman and Ruby, in particular, rely on glues together this book. Inman enters one grocery store and not to good effect. Otherwise, he eats what he finds or earns from the woods or from a farmer’s generosity or in trade. Ruby remains intent of bringing Black Cove, Ada’s inheritance, to full-budding fruition. She distains what she cannot glean herself. Between those two (with Ada, under Ruby’s tutelage, not far behind) and the smattering of other characters whose husbandry sustains (the goat-woman herbalist, the widowed pig farmer, and ghost-Cherokee sent away on the Trail of Tears), the theme of know-how, sustenance, and renewal is built. The variety and ingenuity of practical skills from knife making, to corn growing, to pig slaughtering, to meat smoking, to fiddle carving, to healing with herbs is (to quote Time from the book’s cover) “astonishing.”  Woodlore, farming, and herbal arts would have been enough for most of the characters had guns, war, and murder not taken over.

Fraiser’s civil war is not the glory of Faulkner’s galloping minister. Neither battles nor home guard action are chivalrous. We see battles through Inman’s eyes as wholesale slaughter, mowing down of field of men, mostly Federals. The grip of the war far from the battlefield, too, brutalizes the countryside. By 1864, the time of the novel, most in the hills will privately confess to be done with the war, only to be waiting for its end which cannot come too soon. This is not the grand sweep of honorable war. The story of Inman and Ada portrays the harsh effects of conflict upon lives already hard.

Most notable is Fraiser’s portrayal of men and women. The father-daughter theme plays out surprisingly through Ruby-Stobrod and Ada-Monroe pairings. It becomes yet another exploration of the natural shift of things versus the civil path. But even more intriguing is Fraiser’s placement of man beside woman. As they near each other, Inman and Ada become more of each other: Inman waxes toward the expected gentleness of a woman, Ada wanes from the fairer role in gentility toward self-sufficiency, even boldness. When they meet, they are like an old couple after a lifetime together, looking alike, working as one. They are Adam and Eve before Lucifer’s whispering.

Remarkable, too, is the language of the book. Fraiser conveys the sound of speech in this 1864, South Carolina locale. Using formal word order in both narration and dialogue, the speech throughout appears antique, plain.  A narrative example: “She knew she could not expect help under any circumstances, nor did she much want to live past the point where she could fend for herself, though she calculated that date still to be writ on a fairly distant calendar.” I submit “circumstances,” “fend,” and “writ” as well as the substantive “calendar” rather than the abstract “time” ground the narration in the day. The dialogue varies from downhome country to straightforward but plain American speech: Esco  (Ada’s neighbor) says “- Them’s the liberators . . . and our own bunch is as bad or worse.” Inman and a young widow converse:  “- Have you got any help here? he said. / – Not a lick. / – How do you make it? / I take a push plow and do what I can to lay me out a little patch of corn. . . .”  It is believable (always), unaffected and quaint. Fraiser elects Nadine Gordimer dash to mark speech and keeps attribution simple. I learned “galax” and “taliped” and passed (sometimes more than twice) on very common sounding but unfamiliar words that might be heard in the Carolinas.

An issue I have with Fraiser I can discuss only peripherally. Everything he does prepares the reader for the end, but when it comes he (the reader) is tossed into the story along with Ada, Inman, Ruby and the rest: none of us want this. It’s as if Charles Fraiser says, “Everything points to it, but you all keep hoping, don’t you.” It has taken a while, and I’m nearly over it.