“New American fiction” is, to my mind, immediately and unhappily equivalent to new American short fiction. And yet I think the American short story is a dead form, unnaturally perpetuated, as Lukács once wrote of the chivalric romance, “by purely formal means, after the transcendental conditions for its existence have already been condemned by the historico-philosophical dialectic.” Having exhausted the conditions for its existence, the short story continues to be propagated in America by a purely formal apparatus: by the big magazines, which, if they print fiction at all, sandwich one short story per issue between features and reviews; and by workshop-based creative writing programs and their attendant literary journals. Today’s short stories all seem to bear an invisible check mark, the ghastly imprimatur of the fiction factory; the very sentences are animated by some kind of vegetable consciousness: “I worked for Kristin,” they seem to say, or “Jeff thought I was fucking hilarious.” Meanwhile, the ghosts of deleted paragraphs rattle their chains from the margins.
In the name of science, I recently read from cover to cover the Best American Short Stories anthologies of 2004 and 2005. Many of these stories seemed to have been pared down to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns. An indiscriminate premium has been placed on the particular, the tactile, the “crisp,” and the “tart”—as if literary worth should be calibrated by resemblance to an apple (or, in the lingo of hyperspecificity, a McIntosh). Writers appear to be trying to identify as many concrete entities as possible, in the fewest possible words. The result is celebrated as “lean,” “tight,” “well-honed” prose.
One of the by-products of hyperspecificity is a preponderance of proper names. For maximum specificity and minimum word count, names can’t be beat. Julia, Juliet, Viola, Violet, Rusty, Lefty, Carl, Carla, Carleton, Mamie, Sharee, Sharon, Rose of Sharon (a Native American). In acknowledgment of the times, the 2004 and 2005 volumes each contain exactly one Middle East story, each featuring a character called Hassan. I found these names annoying, universally so. I was no less annoyed by John Briggs or John Hillman than by Sybil Mildred Clemm Legrand Pascal, who invites the reader to call her Miss Sibby. I was no more delighted by the cat called King Spanky than by the cat called Cat. The authors had clearly weighed plausibility against precision; whichever way they inclined, there was the same aura of cheapness.
Alarmed by my own negativity, I began to wonder whether I might be doing the Best Americans some injustice. For a point of comparison, I reread a few stories by Chekhov, who is still the ostensible role model for American “short-fiction practitioners.” (Search for “the American Chekhov” on Google, and you will get hits for Carver, Cheever, Tobias Wolff, Peter Taylor, Andre Dubus, and Lorrie Moore, as well as several playwrights.) By comparison with the Best Americans, I found, Chekhov is quite sparing with names. In “Lady with Lapdog,” Gurov’s wife gets a few lines of dialogue, but no name. Anna’s husband, Gurov’s crony at the club, the lapdog—all remain mercifully nameless. Granted, Chekhov was writing from a different point in the historico-philosophical dialectic: a character could be called “Gurov’s wife,” “the bureaucrat,” or “the lackey,” and nobody would take it as a political statement. The Best Americans are more democratic. Every last clerk, child, and goat has a name.
Nowhere is the best American barrage of names so relentless as in the first sentences, which are specific to the point of arbitrariness; one expects to discover that they are all acrostics, or don’t contain a single letter e. They all begin in medias res. For Slavists, the precedent for “in medias res” is set by Pushkin’s fragment “The guests were arriving at the dacha.” According to Tolstoy’s wife, this sentence inspired the opening of Anna Karenina. Would Pushkin have managed to inspire anybody at all had he written: “The night before Countess Maria Ivanovna left for Baden Baden, a drunken coachman crashed the Mirskys’ troika into the Pronskys’ dacha”? He would not.
Pushkin knew that it is neither necessary nor desirable for the first sentence of a literary work to answer the “five w’s and one h.” Many of the Best Americans assume this perverse burden. The result is not just in medias res, but in-your-face in medias res, a maze of names, subordinate clauses, and minor collisions: “The morning after her granddaughter’s frantic phone call, Lorraine skipped her usual coffee session at the Limestone Diner and drove out to the accident scene instead”; “Graves had been sick for three days when, on the long, straight highway between Mazar and Kunduz, a dark blue truck coming toward them shed its rear wheel in a spray of orange-yellow sparks.” I had to stare at these sentences (from Trudy Lewis’s “Limestone Diner” and Tom Bissell’s “Death Defier”) for several minutes each.
A first line like “Lorraine skipped her usual coffee session at the Limestone Diner” is supposed to create the illusion that the reader already knows Lorraine, knows about her usual coffee, and, thus, cares why Lorraine has violated her routine. It’s like a confidence man who rushes up and claps you on the shoulder, trying to make you think you already know him.
Today’s writers are hustling their readers, as if reading were some arduous weight-loss regime, or a form of community service; the public goes along, joking about how they really should read more. Oprah uses identical rhetoric to advocate reading and fitness; Martha Nussbaum touts literature as an exercise regime for compassion. Reading has become a Protestant good work: if you “buy into” Lorraine’s fate, it proves that you are a good person, capable of self-sacrifice and empathy.
Another popular technique for waylaying the reader is the use of specificity as a shortcut to nostalgia—as if all a writer has to do is mention Little League or someone called Bucky McGee, and our shared American past will do the rest of the work. Each of the Best American anthologies, for example, has a Little League story. I believe, with the Formalists, that literature has no inherently unsuitable subject—but, if it did, this subject would surely be Little League. Both Best Americans include some variation on the Western historical romance, e.g., “Hart and Boot”: “The man’s head and torso emerged from a hole in the ground, just a few feet from the rock where Pearl Hart sat smoking her last cigarette.” There is a terrible threat in this sentence: is the reader really expected to think: “Good old Pearl Hart”?
The best of the Best Americans are still the old masters—Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, John Updike—writers who comply with the purpose of the short-story form: namely, telling a short story. This sounds trivial, but isn’t. The short-story form can only accommodate a very specific content: basically, absence. Missing persons, missed opportunities, very brief encounters, occuring in the margins of “Life Itself”: when the content is minimalist, then it makes sense to follow the short-fiction dictates: condense, delete, omit.
Novels, like short stories, are often about absences; but they are based on information overload. A short story says, “I looked for x, and didn’t find it,” or, “I was not looking anymore, and then I found x.” A novel says, “I looked for x, and found a, b, c, g, q, r, and w.” The novel consists of all the irrelevant garbage, the effort to redeem that garbage, to integrate it into Life Itself, to redraw the boundaries of Life Itself. The novel is a fundamentally ironic form; hence its power of self-regeneration. The short story is a fundamentally unironic form, and for this reason I think it is doomed.
When the available literary forms no longer match the available real-life content, the novel can reabsorb the mismatch and use it as material. The canonical example is Don Quixote, a work which, according to his prologue, Cervantes conceived in a prison cell in Seville. Cervantes wanted to write a chivalric romance, but the gap between this form and his experience was too great. Then he broke through the formal “prison”: he made the gap the subject of a book.
Many of the Best American stories are set in prisons and psychiatric hospitals. They are trying to break out, but I don’t think they will. One of the most interesting contributions, Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals,” is about a family who moves into a new house that, very gradually, turns out to be “haunted.” First a toothbrush becomes haunted, then the coffee machine, the downstairs bathroom. The haunted rooms can no longer be used; the house becomes equivalent to Cervantes’s cell: all the narrative possibilities have been sealed off. The family has less and less space in which to live. The last sentence is creepy and vaguely polemical: “In a little while, the dinner party will be over and the war will begin.” Indeed, let the war begin.
Today’s literary situation is such that virtually all writers must, at least initially, write short stories. Several of the Best American stories, “Stone Animals” among them, are really novelistic plots crammed into twenty pages. The short story is trying to expand into a catchall genre. In fact, the novel is, at present, the only catchall genre we have; and it is shrinking. Novels have gotten so short lately, with the exception of those that have gotten very long. Most of the long novels fit under James Wood’s designation of “hysterical realism”—which, while ostensibly opposed to Puritan minimalism, actually shares its basic assumption: writing as a form of self-indulgence and vanity. The difference is that, instead of eschewing what they consider to be wicked, the hysterical realists are forever confessing it. The recursions of David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers—“I confess that I, reprehensibly, want to be loved; this very confession is another reprehensible ploy to make you love me”—are a dreary Catholic riposte to a dreary Protestant attack. It would be equally productive for every writer to start every book with an apology for cutting down trees which could have been put to better use building houses for the homeless; followed by a second apology for the paper consumed by the first apology.
Here is the crux of the problem, the single greatest obstacle to American literature today: guilt. Guilt leads to the idea that all writing is self-indulgence. Writers, feeling guilty for not doing real work, that mysterious activity—where is it? On Wall Street, at Sloane-Kettering, in Sudan?—turn in shame to the notion of writing as “craft.” (If art is aristocratic, decadent, egotistical, self-indulgent, then craft is useful, humble, ascetic, anorexic—a form of whittling.) “Craft” solicits from them constipated “vignettes”—as if to say: “Well, yes, it’s bad, but at least there isn’t too much of it.” As if writing well consisted of overcoming human weakness and bad habits. As if writers became writers by omitting needless words.
American novelists are ashamed to find their own lives interesting; all the rooms in the house have become haunted, the available subjects have been blocked off. What remains to be written about? (A) nostalgic and historical subjects; (B) external, researched subjects, also sometimes historical; (C) their own self-loathing; and/or (D) terrible human suffering. For years, Lorrie Moore has only written about cancer. In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers implies that anyone who does not find his story compelling is unsympathetic to cancer victims; he describes in gory detail how he plans to eviscerate such people, how he plans to be eviscerated by them in turn. For writers who aren’t into cancer, there is the Holocaust, and of course the items can be recombined: cancer and the Holocaust, cancer and American nostalgia, the Holocaust and American nostalgia.
For the last combination, you can’t do better than Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, with its memorable opening sentence:
In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.
All the elements are there: the nicknames, the clauses, the five w’s, the physical imprisonment, the nostalgia. (As if a fictional character could have a “greatest creation” by the first sentence—as if he were already entitled to be “holding forth” to “fans.”) Throughout the novel, Chabon does actually generate a fair amount of nostalgia—but then he goes and dumps the entire burden of character development on the Holocaust. Joe Kavalier is a master magician, an escape artist, a writer of fabulous comic books, a charismatic and fundamentally mysterious person—until, that is, Chabon explains to us that the reason Kavalier became an escape artist was to escape from Hitler. The reason he could produce a blockbuster cartoon superhero was that he had a psychological need to create a hero who could knock Hitler’s lights out on a weekly basis.
W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz has a nearly identical premise, minus the American nostalgia. It, too, features an authorial stand-in, à la Sam Clay, who finds in some other person a source of narrative. Austerlitz is, like Kavalier, a human enigma who disappears for years on end, leaving trails of clues; in the end, the “solution” is nothing other than the Final Solution. Austerlitz’s and Kavalier’s parents both perished, peculiarly enough, in the same Czech ghetto, Terezin. Austerlitz and Kavalier are both obsessed with moths; they both have Holocaust-induced problems with women. (Austerlitz’s one love affair, with a woman called Marie, fizzles out during a trip to Marienbad, where he is oppressed by an inexplicable terror; later we understand that it’s because he is actually Jewish, and his parents were killed in the Holocaust, and once they went on vacation to Marienbad.)
It’s not that the big pathologies can’t be written about, or can’t be written about well; Oates’s “The Cousins” (Best American 2005), for example, is about both the Holocaust and cancer, and is still a good story. It consists of the letters between two cousins, aging women: one survived the Holocaust and became a famous writer, the other grew up in America and became a retiree in Florida. They were supposed to meet as children, but never did. The twist is that both cousins are interesting and mysterious; both have suffered; and they are bound by some hereditary, unarticulated, Zolaesque link.
Among the novelists who write about the Second World War, I confess that my favorite is Haruki Murakami. Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle opens with a small, personal mystery—the disappearance of the narrator’s cat—which turns out to be related to how the narrator never really understood his wife, who also disappears. The two disappearances are subsequently linked to the occupation of Manchuria, the torture killing of a Japanese soldier, and various other personal and global events. The narrator is moved by all the big historical themes that pass through the novel, but he suffers more immediately from the loss of his cat—as in Brueghel’s picture of the farmer ploughing his field while Icarus drowns. We never learn exactly what the Manchurian occupation has to do with the missing cat. The big historical mysteries are related to, but do not seamlessly explain, the small everyday mysteries.
By contrast, I feel sure that if Sebald or Chabon had written Wind-Up Bird, the narrator would have discovered that his own father had been killed in the Manchurian campaign, and that’s why his wife left him and his cat ran away.
Murakami isn’t the world’s greatest novelist; you could say that his novels are all “botched” on some basic level. The turns in the plot are often achieved unsatisfyingly, by dreams, or by a character deciding to sit in the bottom of a well; the narrators receive an inordinate amount of oral sex from bizarrely dressed middle-aged women. But botchedness also gives Murakami’s novels a quixotic dynamism. Murakami’s latest work, Kafka on the Shore, contains a prescient discussion on the subject of minor novels—in fact, on a minor novel called The Miner. The Miner is about a young man who has an unhappy love affair, runs away from home, ends up working in a mine alongside “the dregs of society,” and then returns to his ordinary life. “Nothing in the novel shows he learned anything from these experiences, that his life changed, that he thought deeply now about the meaning of life or started questioning society,” Murakami’s narrator explains: it is completely unclear why the author decided to write The Miner—which makes it particularly valuable to the narrator, by virtue of its very openness.
Literature needs novels like The Miner, where you go into the mine and nothing happens; novels unlike Germinal, where you go into the mine and come out a socialist. Perhaps modern American literature has kept the worst parts of Zola. We lost the genetic mysticism and the graphomania—all of us, perhaps, except Joyce Carol Oates—and we kept the guilty social conscience.
Dear American writers, break out of the jail! Sell the haunted house, convert it to tourist villas. Puncture “the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn New York.” Write long novels, pointless novels. Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things. Dear young writers, write with dignity, not in guilt. How you write is how you will be read.
In March, 1959, Ernest Hemingway’s publisher Charles Scribner, Jr. suggested putting together a student’s edition of Hemingway short stories. He listed the twelve stories which were most in demand for anthologies, but thought that the collection could include Hemingway’s favorites, and that Hemingway could write a preface for classroom use. Hemingway responded favorably. He would write the preface in the form of a lecture on the art of the short story.
Hemingway worked on the preface at la Consula, the home of Bill and Annie Davis in Malaga. He was in Spam that summer to follow the mano a mano competition between the brother-in-law bullfighters, Dominguin and Ordóñez Hemingway traveled with his friend, Antonio Ordóñez, and mote about this rivalry in “The Dangerous Summer, ” a three-part article which appeared in Life.
The first draft of the preface was written in May, and Hemingway completed the piece during the respite after Ordóñez was gored on May 30th. His wife. Mary, typed the draft, and, as she wrote in her book How It Was, she did not entirely approve of it. She wrote her husband a note suggesting rewrites and cuts to remove some of what she felt was its boastful, smug, and malicious tone. But Hemingway made only minor changes.
Hemingway sent the introduction to Charles Scribner and proposed changing the book to a collection for the general public. Scribner agreed to the change. However, he diplomatically suggested not printing the preface as it stood, but rather using only the relevant comments as introductory remarks to the individual stories. Scribner felt that the preface, written as a lecture for college students, would not be accepted by a reading audience which might well “misinterpret it as condescension. ” [Scribner to E.H. June 24, 1959-] The idea of the book was dropped.
Hemingway wrote the preface as if it were an extemporaneous oral presentation before a class on the methods of short story writing. It is similar to a transcript of an informal talk. Judging It against literary standards, or using it to assess Hemingway ’s literary capabilities would elevate it beyond this level, and would be inappropriate. Both Hemingway’s wife and his publisher were against its publication, and in the end Hemingway agreed. U appears here because of its content. Hemingway relates the circumstances under which he wrote the short stories; he gives opinion on other writers, critics, and on his own works; he expresses views on the art of the short story.
The essay is published unedited except for some spelling corrections. A holograph manuscript, two type scripts and an addendum, written for other possible selections for the book are in the Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Library.
Gertrude Stein who was sometimes very wise said to me on one of her wise days, “Remember, Hemingway, that remarks are not literature” The following remarks are not intended to be nor do they pretend to be literature. They are meant to be instructive, irritating and informative. No writer should be asked to write solemnly about what he has written. Truthfully yes. Solemnly, no. Should we begin in the form of a lecture designed to counteract the many lectures you will have heard on the art of the short story?
Many people have a compulsion to write. There is no law against it and doing it makes them happy while they do it and presumably relieves them. Given editors who will remove the worst of their emissions, supply them with spelling and syntax and help them shape their thoughts and their beliefs, some compulsory writers attain a temporary fame. But when shit or merde—a word which teacher will explain—is cut out of a book, the odor of it always remains perceptible to anyone with sufficient olfactory sensibility.
The compulsory writer would be advised not to attempt the short story. Should he make the attempt, he might well suffer the fate of the compulsive architect, which is as lonely an end as that of the compulsive bassoon player. Let us not waste our time considering the sad and lonely ends of these unfortunate creatures, gentlemen. Let us continue the exercise.
Are there any questions? Have you mastered the art of the short story? Have I been helpful? Or have I not made myself clear? I hope so.
Gentlemen, I will be frank with you. The masters of the short story come to no good end. You query this? You cite me Maugham? Longevity, gentlemen, is not an end. It is a prolongation. I cannot say fie upon it, since I have never fie-ed on anything yet. Shuck if off, Jack. Don’t fie on it.
Should we abandon rhetoric and realize at the same time that what IS the most authentic hipster talk of today is the twenty-three skidoo of tomorrow? We should? What intelligent young people you are and what a privilege it is to be with you. Do I hear a request for authentic ballroom bananas? I do? Gentlemen, we have them for you in bunches.
Actually, as writers put it when they do not know how to begin a sentence, there is very little to say about writing shon stories unless you are a professional explainer. If you can do it, you don’t have to explain it. If you can not do it, no explanation will ever help.
A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of any story is how very good the stuff is that you, not your editors, omit. A story in this book called “Big Two-Hearted River” is about a boy coming home beat to the wide from a war. Beat to the wide was an earlier and possibly more severe form of beat, since those who had it were unable to comment on this condition and could not suffer that it be mentioned in their presence. So the war, all mention of the war, anything about the war, is omitted. The river was the Fox River, by Seney, Michigan, not the Big Two-Hearted. The change of name was made purposely, not from ignorance nor carelessness but because Big Two-Hearted River is poetry, and because there were many Indians in the story, just as the war was in the story, and none of the Indians nor the war appeared. As you see, it is very simple and easy to explain.
In a story called “A Sea Change.” everything is left out. I had seen the couple in the Bar Basque in St.-Jean-de-Luz and I knew the story too too well, which is the squared root of well, and use any well you like except mine. So I left the story out. But it is all there. It is not visible but it is there.
It is very hard to talk about your work since it implies arrogance or pride. I have tried to get rid of arrogance and replace it with humility and I do all right at that sometimes, but without pride I would not wish to continue to live nor to write and I publish nothing of which I am not proud. You can take that any way you like. Jack. I might not take it myself. But maybe we’re built different.
Another story is “Fifty Grand.” This story originally started like this:
“‘How did you handle Benny so easy. Jack?’ Soldier asked him.“ ‘Benny’s an awful smart boxer,‘Jack said.’All the time he’s in there, he’s thinking. All the time he’s thinking, I was hitting him.’ ”
I told this story to Scott Fitzgerald in Paris before I wrote “Fifty Grand” trying to explain to him how a truly great boxer like Jack Britton functioned. I wrote the story opening with that incident and when it was finished I was happy about it and showed it to Scott. He said he liked the story very much and spoke about it in so fulsome a manner that I was embarrassed. Then he said, “There is only one thing wrong with it, Ernest, and I tell you this as your friend. You have to cut out that old chestnut about Britton and Leonard.”
At that time my humility was in such ascendance that I thought he must have heard the remark before or that Britton must have said it to someone else. It was not until I had published the story, from which I had removed that lovely revelation of the metaphysics of boxing that Fitzgerald in the way his mind was functioning that year so that he called an historic statement an “old chestnut” because he had heard it once and only once from a friend, that I realized how dangerous that attractive virtue, humility, can be. So do not be too humble, gentlemen. Be humble after but not during the action. They will ail con you, gentlemen. But sometimes it is not intentional. Sometimes they simply do not know. This is the saddest state of writers and the one you will most frequently encounter. If there are no questions, let us press on.
My loyal and devoted friend Fitzgerald, who was truly more interested in my own career at this point than in his own, sent me to Scribner’s with the story. It had already been turned down by Ray Long of Cosmopolitan Magazine because it had no love interest. That was okay with me since I eliminated any love interest and there were, purposely, no women in it except for two broads. Enter two broads as in Shakespeare, and they go out of the story. This is unlike what you will hear from your Instructors, that if a broad comes into a story in the first paragraph, she must reappear later to justify her original presence. This is untrue, gentlemen. You may dispense with her, just as in life. It is also untrue that if a gun hangs on the wall when you open up the story, it must be fired by page fourteen. The chances are, gentlemen, that if it hangs upon the wail, it will not even shoot. If there are no questions, shall we press on.? Yes, the unfireable gun may be a symbol. That is true. But with a good enough writer, the chances are some jerk just hung it there to look at. Gentlemen, you can’t be sure. Maybe he is queer for guns, or maybe an interior decorator put it there. Or both.
So with pressure by Max Perkins on the editor. Scribner’s Magazine agreed to publish the story and pay me two hundred and fifty dollars, if I would cut it to a length where it would not have to be continued into the back of the book. They call magazines books. There is significance in this but we will not go into it. They are not books, even if they put them in stiff covers. You have to watch this, gentlemen. Anyway, I explained without heat nor hope, seeing the built-in stupidity of the editor of the magazine and his intransigence, that I had already cut the story myself and that the only way it could be shortened by five hundred words and make sense was to amputate the first five hundred. I had often done that myself with stories and it improved them. It would not have improved this story bur I thought that was their ass not mine. I would put it back together in a book. They read differently in a book anyway. You will learn about this.
No. gentlemen, they would not cut the first five hundred words. They gave it instead to a very intelligent young assistant editor who assured me he could cut it with no difficulty. That was just what he did on his first attempt, and any place he took words out, the story no longer made sense. It had been cut for keeps when I wrote it, and afterwards at Scott’s request I’d even cut out the metaphysics which, ordinarily, I leave in. So they quit on it finally and eventually. I understand, Edward Weeks got Ellery Sedgwick to publish it in the Atlantic Monthly. Then everyone wanted me to write fight stories and I did not write any more fight stories because I tried to write only one story on anything, if I got what I was after, because Life is very short if you like it and I knew that even then. There are other things to write about and other people who write very good fight stories. I recommend to you “The Professional” by W. C. Heinz.
Yes, the confidently cutting young editor became a big man on Reader’s Digest. Or didn’t he? I’ll have to check that. So you see, gentlemen, you never know and what you win in Boston you lose in Chicago. That’s symbolism, gentlemen, and you can run a saliva test on it. That is how we now detect symbolism in our group and so far it gives fairly satisfactory results. Not complete, mind you. But we are getting in to see our way through. Incidently, within a short time Scribner’s Magazine was running a contest for long short stories that broke back into the back of the book, and paying many times two hundred and fifty dollars to the winners.
Now since I have answered your perceptive questions, let us take up another story.
This story is called “The Light of the World.” I could have called it “Behold I Stand at the Door and Knock” or some other stained-glass window title, but I did not think of it and actually ’ ‘The Light of the Would’’ is better. It is about many things and you would be ill-advised to think it is a simple tale. It is really, no matter what you hear, a love letter to a whore named Alice who at the time of the story would have dressed out at around two hundred and ten pounds. Maybe more. And the point of it is that nobody, and that goes for you, Jack, knows how we were then from how we are now. This is worse on women than on us, until you look into the mirror yourself some day instead of looking at women all the time, and in writing the story I was trying to do something about it. But there are very few basic things you can do anything about. So I do what the French call constater. Look that up. That is what you have to learn to do, and you ought to learn French anyway if you are going to understand short stories, and there is nothing rougher than to do it all the way. It is hardest to do about women and you must not worry when they say there are no such women as those you wrote about. That only means your women aren’t like their women. You ever see any of their women, Jack? I have a couple of times and you would be appalled and I know you don’t appall easy.
What I learned constructive about women, not just ethics like never blame them if they pox you because somebody poxed them and lots of times they don’t even know they have It—that’s in the first reader for squares—is. no matter how they get, always think of them the way they were on the best day they ever had in their lives. That’s about all you can do about It and that is what I was trying for in the story.
Now there is another story called ’ ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Jack, ] get a bang even yet from just writing the titles. That’s why you write, no matter what they tell you. I’m g!ad to be with somebody I know now and those feecking students have gone. They haven’t? Okay. Glad to have them with us. It is in you that our hope is. That’s the stuff to feed the troops. Students, at ease.
This is a simple story in a way, because the woman who I knew very well in real life but then invented out of to make the woman for this story, is a bitch for the full course and doesn’t change. You’ll probably never meet the type because you haven’t got the money. I haven’t either but I get around Now this woman doesn’t change. She has been better, but she will never be any better anymore. I invented her complete with handles from the worst bitch I knew (then) and when I first knew her she’d been lovely. Not my dish, not my pigeon not my cup of tea, but lovely for what she was and I was her all of the above which is whatever you make of it. This is as close as I can put it and keep it clean. This information is what you call the background of a story. You throw it all away and invent from what you know. I should have said that sooner That’s all there is to writing. That, a perfect ear-call it selective absolute pitch, the devotion to your work and respect for It that a priest of God has for his, and then have the guts of a burglar, no conscience except to writing, and you’re in gentlemen. It’s easy. Anybody can write if he is cut out for ix and applies himself. Never give it a thought. Just have those few requisites. I mean the way you have to write now to handle the way now is now. There was a time when it was nicer, much nicer and all that has been well written by nicer people. They are all dead and so are their times, but they handled them very well. Those times are over and writing like that won’t help you now.
But to return to this story. The woman called Margot Macomber is no good to anybody now except for trouble. You can bang her but that’s about all. The man is a nice jerk. I knew him very well in real life, so invent him too from everything I know. So he is just how he really was, only, he is invented. The White Hunter is my best friend and he does not care what I write as long as it is readable, so I don’t invent him at all. I just disguise him for family and business reasons, and to keep him out of trouble with the Game Department. He is the furthest thing from a square since they invented the circle, so I just have to take care of him with an adequate disguise and he is as proud as though we both wrote it, which actually you always do in anything if you go back far enough. So it is a secret between us. That’s all there is to that story except maybe the lion when he is hit and I am thinking inside of him really, not faked. I can think inside of a lion, really. It’s hard to believe and it is perfectly okay with me if you don’t believe it. Perfectly. Plenty of people have used it since, though, and one boy used it quite well, making only one mistake. Making any mistake kills you. This mistake killed him and quite soon everything he wrote was a mistake. You have to watch yourself. Jack, every minute, and the more talented you are the more you have to watch these mistakes because you will be in faster company. A writer who is not going all the way up can make all the mistakes he wants. None of it matters. He doesn’t matter. The people who like him don’t matter either. They could drop dead. It wouldn’t make any difference. It’s too bad. As soon as you read one page by anyone you can tell whether it matters or not. This is sad and you hate to do it. I don’t want to be the one that tells them. So don’t make any mistakes. You see how easy it is? Just go right in there and be a writer.
That about handles that story. Any questions? No, I don’t know whether she shot him on purpose any more than you do. I could find out if I asked myself because I invented it and I could go right on inventing. But you have to know where to stop. That is what makes a short story. Makes it short at least. The only hint I could give you is that it is my belief that the incidence of husbands shot accidentally by wives who are bitches and really work at it is very low. Should we continue?
If you are interested in how you get the idea for a story, this is how it was with “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” They have you ticketed and always try to make it that you are someone who can only write about their self. I am using in this lecture the spoken language, which varies. It is one of the ways to write, so you might as well follow it and maybe you will learn something. Anyone who can write can write spoken, pedantic, inexorably dull, or pure English prose, just as slot machines can be set for straight, percentage, give-away or stealing. No one who can write spoken ever starves except at the start. The others you can eat irregularly on. But any good writer can do them all. This is spoken, approved for over fourteen I hope. Thank you.
Anyway we came home from Africa, which is a place you stay until the money runs out or you get smacked, one year and at quarantine I said to the ship news reporters when somebody asked me what my projects were that I was going to work and when I had some more money go back to Africa. The different wars killed off that project and it took nineteen years to get back. Well it was in the papers and a really nice and really fine and really rich woman invited me to tea and we had a few drinks as well and she had read in the papers about this project, and why should I have to wait to go back for any lack of money? She and my wife and I could go to Africa any time and money was only something to be used intelligently for the best enjoyment of good people and so forth. It was a sincere and fine and good offer and I liked her very much and I turned down the offer.
So I get down to Key West and I start to think what would happen to a character like me whose defects I know, if I had accepted that offer. So I start to invent and I make myself a guy who would do what I invent. I know about the dying part because I had been through all that. Not just once. I got it early, in the middle and later. So I invent how someone I know who cannot sue me—that is me—would turn out, and put into one short story things you would use in, say, four novels if you were careful and not a spender. I throw everything I had been saving into the story and spend it all. I really throw it away, if you know what I mean. I am not gambling with it. Or maybe I am. Who knows? Real gamblers don’t gamble. At least you think they don’t gamble. They gamble, jack, don’t worry. So I make up the man and the woman as well as I can and I put all the true stuff in and with all the load, the most load any short story ever carried, it still takes off and it flies. This makes me very happy. So I thought that and the Macomber story are as good short stories as I can write for a while, so I lose interest and take up other forms of writing.
Any questions? The leopard? He is part of the metaphysics. I did not hire out to explain that nor a lot of other things. I know, but I am under no obligation to tell you. Put it down to omerta´. Look that word up. I dislike explainers, apologists, stoolies, pimps. No writer should be any one of those for his own work. This is just a little background. Jack, that won’t do either of us any harm. You see the point, don’t you? If not it is too bad.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explain for, apologize for or pimp or tout for some other writer. I have done it and the best luck I had was doing it for Faulkner. When they didn’t know him in Europe, I told them all how he was the best we had and so forth and I over-humbled with him plenty and built him up about as high as he could go because he never had a break then and he was good then. So now whenever he has a few shots, he’ll tell students what’s wrong with me or tell Japanese or anybody they send him to, to build up our local product. I get tired of this but I figure what the hell he’s had a few shots and maybe he even believes it. So you asked me just now what I think about him, as everybody does and I always stall, so I say you know how good he is. Right. You ought to. What is wrong is he cons himself sometimes pretty bad. That may just be the sauce. But for quite a while when he hits the sauce toward the end of a book, it shows bad. He gets tired and he goes on and on, and that sauce writing is really hard on who has to read it. I mean if they care about writing. I thought maybe it would help if I read it using the sauce myself, but it wasn’t any help. Maybe it would have helped if I was fourteen. But I was only fourteen one year and then I would have been too busy. So that’s what I think about Faulkner. You ask that I sum it up from the standpoint of a professional. Very good writer. Cons himself now. Too much sauce. But he wrote a really fine story called “The Bear” and I would be glad to put it in this book for your pleasure and delight, if I had written it. But you can’t write them all, Jack.
It would be simpler and more fun to talk about other writers and what is good and what is wrong with them, as I saw when you asked me about Faulkner. He’s easy to handle because he talks so much for a supposed silent man. Never talk. Jack, if you are a writer, unless you have the guy write it down and have you go over it. Otherwise, they get it wrong. That’s what you think until they play a tape back at you. Then you know how silly it sounds. You’re a writer aren’t you? Okay, shut up and write. What was that question?