Category Archives: Reynolds Price

Down Living

David Guy‘s “Ardent Spirit, Generous Friend,” is largely a tender remembrance of novelist Reynolds Price, who died last January. But it also sheds some light on the insecurities that can haunt even the most accomplished writer. Guy recalls finishing his first novel, 1980′s Football Dreams, and having Price gently but firmly let him know the disappointment that comes along with getting that first book out:

“Publishing a first novel is a down,” he said.

I don’t know whether I was more surprised by the sentiment or by the ’60s locution. We’d known each other back in the hippie days.

“Really?” I said. The past 10 years of hard work had been for nothing?

“You’ve spent your whole life thinking that if you can finally publish a book, everything will change,” he said. “You’ll suddenly be good looking and everybody will love you, the world will throw itself at your feet. Then you publish the damn thing and nothing happens. You’re the same social misfit and compulsive masturbator you always were.”

And Price was saying that as somebody who had the best first-novel launch a novelist could hope for: 1962′s A Long and Happy Life received plenty of acclaim and was simultaneously published in its entirety in Harper’s, the first (and last?) time the magazine did such a thing for a novel.

Guy’s portrait of his mentor is so fawning it’s a little hard to trust, but if he doesn’t delve too deeply into how the down-ness of novel writing affected Price, Guy willingly exposes what it did to him. Writing a novel, in Guy’s vision, is a kind of compulsive act—something that’s going to wound you in some way or other, but so necessary you can’t resist doing it. And so important you’re willing to assent to requests to talk about it in public: The essay ultimately turns to a panel Guy moderates featuring Price, Anne Tyler, and Eudora Welty that might as well have been called “Four Authors Who’d Rather Be Doing Something Else.” Tyler is prickly, Welty is bemused (“All these people. What do they expect of me?”), Guy is terrified, and Price rolls his eyes when an attendee asks, “Why do you publish?” But Welty answered that question well: “I publish for the same reason I want somebody to be on the other end of the phone when I talk into it.”

Links: Revolutionary Roads

Andrew Alan Stewart Carl: “It’s fine, I think, to write about a white, middle-class male accountant in Charlotte, North Carolina. But the story shouldn’t just be about his difficult marriage. Or rather, it can be about his marriage but it shouldn’t be insularly so, without regard as to how the difficulties in this particular marriage say something about the bigger ideas/struggles/issues of our time. This, I believe, can be addressed with bold strokes or subtly in subtext, but it should be addressed. Otherwise, even if the story is expertly written, it’s not likely to be an examination of anything new, a necessary story.”

Roxane Gay, who prompted Carl’s post, has a thoughtful reply that gets at why deliberately engineering fiction to be “relevant” is problematic, and why writing to satisfy (or undercut) your perceived place in the socioeconomic matrix is too. Richard Price had a story to tell related to this in a 1996 Paris Review interview:

I had a student in one of my classes. He was writing all this stuff about these black guys in the South Bronx who were on angel dust . . . the most amoral thrill-killers. They were evil, evil. But it was all so over-the-top to the point of being silly. He didn’t know what he was talking about. I didn’t know this stuff either, but I knew enough to know that this wasn’t it.

I said to the kid, Why are you writing this? Are you from the Bronx?

He says, No. From New Jersey.

Are you a former angel-dust sniffer? Do you run with a gang?

He says, No. My father’s a fireman out in Toms River.

Oh, so he’s a black fireman in suburban New Jersey? Christ! Why don’t you write about that? I mean, nobody writes about black guys in the suburbs. I said, Why are you writing this other stuff?

He said to me, Well, I figure people are expecting me to write this stuff.

What if they do? First of all, they don’t. Second, even if they did, which is stupid, why should I read you? What do you know that I don’t know?…. [H]e went from this painful chicken scratch of five-page bullshit about angel-dust killers to writing stuff that smacked of authenticity and intimacy.

Adam Levin lists some of works of American fiction that have had the strongest influence on him, including a spot-on defense of Philip Roth‘s Operation Shylock.

Does pursuing a Ph.D. do a crime writer any good?

Mark Kurlansky on returning to his roots as a fiction writer to contribute to Haiti Noir.

A visit to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library:

Benjamin Taylor talks with Dissent about his experience editing Saul Bellow‘s letters. The passage from Henderson the Rain King he cites as an example of Bellow’s greatness is one of my favorites as well—that book has the best ending of his major works. (via)

Confronting Henry James‘ late works.

Victoria Patterson isn’t hearing the argument that an author has to be all over social media to promote his or her work. “I don’t have an optimistic, sunny personality. Why should I pretend to be a social person?

Reynolds Price died yesterday at 77. I’ve read none of his many works (recommendations about where to start are welcome), but I do like this line from his 1991 Paris Review interview: “I think I’m a comic writer always. I hope I am—in the long run anyhow—because I think our existence is comic, finally.”

What’s that? Somebody’s bemoaning the lack of a great Washington novel again?