Friday, August 7, 2009

Hard Gemlike Flames and Loose Baggy Monsters

Jay McInerney says in the preface to his recent collection of stories How it Ended, “Like most novelists I cut my teeth writing short stories,” as if writing short stories were a painful childhood prerequisite to the really adult task of writing novels. You would think that a man who studied short stories under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff, two masters of the form, would have a bit more respect for the short story than to refer to them as “warm-up exercises.”

To give him credit, McInerney says he has always been “more than a little daunted by the short story.” He rightfully acknowledges: “Whereas even a medium-sized novel—let alone the kind Henry James described as loose baggy monsters—can survive any number of false turns, boring characters and off-key sentences, the story is far less forgiving. A good one requires perfect pitch and a precise sense of form; it has to burn with a hard, gemlike flame.”

The "hard gemlike flame" phrase is from Walter Pater’s Renaissance. I reprint both the Pater and the James quote in context below, for they are, I think, worth considering.

Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, — for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?

To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist's hands, or the face of one's friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.

--Walter Pater, The Renaissance

A picture without composition slights its most precious chance for beauty, and is, moreover, not composed at all unless the painter knows how that principle of health and safety, working as an absolutely premeditated art, has prevailed. There may in its absence be life, incontestably, as The Newcomes has life, as Les Trois Mousquetaires, as Tolstoi's Peace and War, have it; but what do such large, loose, baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean? We have heard it maintained, we well remember, that such things are "superior to art"; but we understand least of all what that may mean, and we look in vain for the artist, the divine explanatory genius, who will come to our aid and tell us. There is life and life, and as waste is only life sacrificed and thereby prevented from "counting," I delight in a deep-breathing economy and an organic form.

--Henry James, Preface to The Tragic Muse

Serendipitously, on my morning walks with my aging dog Shannon (The walks take longer now than they used to), I have been listening to Tobias Wolff’s memoir-like novel Old School about a boy who attends a boarding school and who aspires to be a writer. It’s a very fine, compact little novel about the seductive nature of literature and reader worship of the author. The school has periodic competitions in which boys submit poems and stories, which are then judged by a famous writer, who visits the school and has a private audience with the boy who wrote the winning piece. At one point, Robert Frost is the invited guest. After giving a poetry reading, Frost responds to a question from one of the teachers about whether a rigidly formal arrangement of language like Frost’s poetry is adequate to express the modern consciousness created by industrialization and war. “Should form give to more spontaneous modes of expression, even at the cost of a certain disorder?” the teacher asks. Frost responds by telling about writing a poem for a friend of his who died in the Great War. He then challenges the teacher:

Would you honor your own friend by putting words down any how, just as they come to you, with no thought for the sound they make, the meaning of their sound, the sound of their meaning? Would that give a true account of the loss? I am thinking of Achilles’ grief, that famous terrible grief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Maybe it only really exists in form. Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed toe cry. Sincere maybe for what that’s worth, but no depth or carry, no echo. You may have a grievance, but you do not have grief. And grievances are for petitions, not poetry.”

I do not know if Frost ever really said this or if Tobias Wolff invented it. I don’t really care. What I do care about is the truth of the assertion that in art, “Form is everything.” This is truer for the hard gemlike short story than it is for the loose baggy novel.

The highly formal nature of the short story has always been criticized by those critics and novelists who have argued that literature has a responsibility to be socially aware and involved. The short story was attacked by realistic writers in the nineteenth century, such as William Dean Howells, for being false to reality. James T. Farrell criticized the form in the 1930s for its failure to be a vehicle for revolutionary ideology. Maxwell Geismar lashed out against short story writers such as Salinger, Roth, Malamud, and Powers in 1964 for the narrow range of their vision and their stress on the intricate craftsmanship of the well-made story. In 1971, Malcolm Cowley criticized short story writers for having nothing to write about except their own effort in finding it difficult to write about anything. And in 1992, John Aldridge scolded short story writers for being too much technique and too little significance. All these complaints boil down to the same thing--that the short story is too much a matter of form and too little a matter of what social critics define as "real life."

But as Jose Ortega y Gasset says, "The material never saves a work of art, the gold it is made of does not hallow a statue. A work of art lives on its form, not on its material; the essential grace it emanates springs from its structure [which] forms the properly artistic part of the work." This seems so obvious it is difficult to see how anyone could deny it. The problem, of course, arises when such a statement leads the critic to ignore the human content of the work. The related problem is how to attend to the human content of the work without lapsing into the gratuitous oversimplification that the artwork is merely an information medium for the replication of everyday life or the rhetoric of ideology.

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