I wrote this short piece for the Edgar Awards Program this year, 2008. The question each of the writers was asked was: "Why do you write this stuff?" Here's my answer:
Why Do I Write This Stuff?
For over fifty years I’ve been in school. As a student, a graduate student, and for the last 35 years as a professor, teaching literature and writing to college students, and to grad students in an MFA program. I have a Masters Degree and Ph.D. in literature which means I spent a few fairly intense years trying to learn how to footnote.
The credentials of a certified snob. I’m not a cop or an ex-cop. I’m not a fishing guide or an ex-fishing guide. I’m not a journalist. And I’m certainly not an ex-trial lawyer. I’ve had no other job (except for the host of colorful summer ones) since I was a paperboy. Books are my business.
Last semester I taught a course in First Novels to a bunch of MFA students who desperately want to write and publish their own. I started with The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which one of my brightest students had the temerity to call “nap inducing.” We also studied To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sun Also Rises, then moved on to more modern fare like The Lovely Bones, Fight Club, and Bright Lights, Big City. We ended the semester by looking at two mystery novels published by two former MFA students. Both of those students, now authors, came to class and shared their experiences, both the creative struggles they went through while writing their first novel, and their subsequent education in the world of publishing. It was quite an amazing arc for fourteen weeks. From Joyce to Gagliano.
After the semester ended, my bright grad student sent me a note to thank me for making her read Joyce. What she’d called “nap inducing” earlier in the semester she now considered “a great gift” I had given her. She also really dug the mystery novels. Which was kind of the point. Great stories, great characters, great writing. High culture, low culture, who the hell cares?
I hadn’t read Portrait of the Artist in many years when I assigned it. I found it a bit “nap inducing” myself, but by the time I finished it, I remembered why I loved it. I first read it when I was fifteen at the urging of a teacher who saw some weird urges in me—let’s call them inchoate creative desires. I probably understood one-tenth of what I read at the time, though I remember being awed by the salaciousness of certain passages. It wasn’t long after that when I read my first Ross MacDonald novel. I liked it even better than Joyce, and understood a lot more of it. Then came Hemingway, Fowles, and Lawrence Durrell and John D. MacDonald and Hammett and Chandler. Oh, and Dickens too then Sylvia Plath and Ann Sexton and on and on.
I was a voracious and indiscriminate reader and felt no compelling reason to draw distinctions between Pearl Buck and Sinclair Lewis or Agatha Christie and Jane Austen.
Maybe if I’d gone to grad school at any other time in American history, I would have been bullied into taking a more snobbish position on literary values. But in the Sixties when I was working my way through academe, the doors of perception were opening. Popular culture was gaining status. Sci-fi suddenly had integrity. More than one important literary critic admitted in print to a sinful predilection for mystery novels. High road, low road, it all seemed so passé. Still does, only more so.
Though the pressure wasn’t as intense as it might have been, I do remember some pretty vicious arguments with fellow doctoral candidates. One guy kept going on about Huck Finn. He claimed Twain had created a culturally complex story with layers of irony and vast symbolic resonance. I argued that any ten year old could read Huck and understand it perfectly well. Over the years, I’ve taught the novel a few times and I now believe we were both right. Twain is as simple as pie, but complicated as hell.
Same with Frost. For years I specialized in Robert Frost. I could scan his poems in my sleep, which means I could tell you where he varied from iambic pentameter and why. He was a masterful writer, one who hid his technique so skillfully that anyone, and I mean anyone, could read his best work and understand it the first time through. Yet those very same poems would reward intense scrutiny and study. I have found little gems of literary virtuosity hidden within the measured cadences of his most transparent and accessible work.
Teachers of literature get off on stuff like that. The little tricks, the pirouettes of language, the mot juste. It’s one of the cool things about teaching lit. You can examine the brushstrokes, the subtleties and nuances of language, the image patterns, the devilish ambiguities, or you can skip that entirely and still have a rewarding time. You can simply frolic with the story and the characters and the pulse of whatever rousing good yarn is before you.
Twenty years ago I wrote Elmore Leonard a fan letter. I’d taught LaBrava in one of my classes and wanted to let him know that not only was it a super enjoyable read, but it “stood up to literary inspection.” My students found, for instance, patterns of black and white imagery running through the novel. Amazingly, he wrote back. He thanked me for my kind words, then went on to say that he didn’t think he’d do very well in my class since he had no idea what an image pattern was. Oh, that Dutch.
Great writers like Leonard or Frost or Twain reward the careful reader as richly as the reader who doesn’t give a damn about any of that fancy crap. The best writers always do that. They have it both ways—one foot on the high road, one in the gutter. It’s pretty simple really. That’s why I write this stuff. I want to learn how to do that.