I just read in the LRB an enjoyable review by James Wolcott of the selected letters of William Styron.
Sometimes, when I read pieces like this, which express strong opinions, I find myself getting carried along. Am I agreeing with what’s being said too easily, am I being too fickle, is there another view I’m ignoring? Or perhaps that doesn’t matter? What’s more to the point is the energy and the colour in the writing. We don’t have to agree/disagree with everything that’s put in front of us, and either way we can still enjoy the force in the writing.
Among various choice details in this review, one note that particularly resonated with me is a comment about a lost literary culture of ‘larger-than-life’ set against ‘the small-time pantomime we have today’.
Knock each other as they may in print, old-pro novelists harbour a crusty collegiality borne of the awareness of the attrition involved in pushing that cannon up the hill, enduring false starts, racking fatigue, spent livers, sunken eyeballs, crises of faith, year-round seasonal affective disorder and carpal tunnel syndrome, only to stagger into publication day and have Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times nail them in the neck with a poison blowdart.
I guess that larger-than-life had its own trappings, and we have to see through the veneer of glamour and celebrity in that literary mondo (I’m sure some of these figures would be frantically checking their Amazon rankings today). We can get too easily nostalgic. But it does bring to mind Norma Desmond: ‘It’s the books that got small!’ Good writing needs personality, and personality is probably helped by having some personalities write it in the first place. I can think of a few at work today, but perhaps not enough (and probably more poets than novelists).
I do remember reading Sophie’s Choice, too, and it being one of those first grown-up books to leave a strong impression on me. Styron does have a rich prose style, and perhaps for too long I carried with me the sense that grown-up writing needed to be so … flamboyant. Which it can, of course – if you can do it. And he could, and he told great stories, and filled them with characters we cared about.
Wolcott’s review is certainly worth a read, and I’m also going to have to remember to pop in on his blog every now and then. And I ought to get those letters, too.