Frank T. Wydra
It’s one of those spongy July days where you get as much water as air in every breath. The bar of the Gonquin is at least out of the sun, and overhead blades mix the breathable soup. We are relatively cool and the iced drinks ease the pain of breathing.
Though Mary usually acts the doyenne, directing ideas, today the talk meanders like a mountain stream, moving in a different direction each time it hits a hard place. Emboldened by her lack of direction, I clear my throat and say, “After at our last session, a friend of mine, Donella, who makes a practice of lurking in the gallery, cozied up to me and asked, ‘What makes a novel timeless? One that get’s read over the years?’ I, of course, had my thoughts, but she said she wanted to hear yours.”
Donella, always a grandstander, waves to me from a middle row of the gallery and blows a kiss.
Mary, with a wave to Donella, says, “An interesting question, and one with no easy answer, for works of all persuasions have become timeless.”
Bram harrumphs, saying, “Interesting, yes, but not difficult to answer. Timeless books have contemporary significance, themes that transcend the ages. Take Dickens’s Oliver Twist, a commentary on the evils of child labor. The book was published almost two centuries ago and has never been out of print.”
Edgar, eyes shaded by lids at half mast, says, “Unfortunately dear Bram, your example belies your premise. Child labor might be a contemporary issue in the third world, but in advanced economies, particularly in English speaking countries where Dickens is most likely to be read, it is no longer of significance. Dickens is read, because he is a delightful storyteller, one whose prose is infinitely readable, a joy to the brain, and a delight to the ear. There is a nuance to his work that upon each reading reveals new meaning. That, I think is the key to a timeless book, or, at least, one of them.”
“One of them?” asks Al, the Gonquin’s owner, who has been delivering fresh glasses of iced potion.
“One of them,” Edgar repeats, cementing the period to the sentence. “In my mind there are a number of things that dispose a book to longevity, not the least being beautiful, evocative writing. Some writers have a gift. Of the contemporary crop, take, for example, Styron, McMurtry, Conroy, Roth, or Harper Lee. All are extraordinary stylists. All are poets. Regardless of their message, which in each case is substantial, these writers play with words and evoke images that linger in the mind.”
“Yes, yes,” Mary is orgasmic. Al raises his eyebrows. She does not notice, saying, “The truly gifted are indeed artists. So many who write are craftsmen—or is it craftspeople—sturdy scribes who are competent but whose prose does not create a sweet summertime song. Do not mistake me; they are the spine of the writing craft: informative, entertaining, enjoyable, but they do not lift us to another sphere. They are for the moment. But the artists,” her eyes momentarily close as she feigns a swoon, “they create word pictures that let us fly on seraphic wings. And in any generation there are so few of them that they are often shrouded by lesser, more popular voices.” Puzzle lines distort her face. “Unfortunately that shroud sometimes blinds both critics and public to artists.” She sighs. “If only there were standards. But there is no criterion for great art. You only recognize it after it is done. So, trying to use some notion of art as the measure for timelessness is the devil’s playground. It leaves us chasing our tail.”
Papa taps the bowl of his Bacchus-carved-Meerschaum on the table. “You are all mistaken. It is neither the art of the writer nor the theme of his work that predicts a book’s longevity.” Having garnered our attention, he sits, sips his daiquiri, reams the Meerschaum, then says, “It is the academics who determine whether, after its initial blush, a book shall be reprinted or take the A-Train to oblivion.” There is a satisfied look on his face as he waits for rebuttal.
“Nonsense,” Bram says. “I’ll grant that academics have some sway, since they can manufacture sales by dictating titles to be read by their sophomores, but you overstate their influence.
Papa leans into the discussion and aims the stem of his pipe at Bram. “Do I now? Well, consider how their influence is magnified by the papers they write, the elbows they rub, and the conventions they frequent. How many would have read Salinger’s Catcher were it not an assigned book? How many would have slogged through Ulysses were not credit offered? How many would have searched out Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Ellison’s Invisible Man, or Orwell’s Farm had they not been on some reading list? No, my friend, it is not literary merit that determines, it is the politics of the herd. If a Hemingway course is taught at Illinois, it must be offered at Michigan.” Papa sits back, as if the day is won.
Edgar ‘s devil eyes glow, and it is evident from his smirk that he has fodder for the fire. “Well, then, “he challenges, “how do you explain the continuing success of the books Bram cited. Surely there is not some university cabal dictating that McMurtry be taught. Academics do not even like the man.”
Papa dismisses the question with a wave of his pipe. “He has won prizes and has had his work hawked in film. Earmarks such as those always attract flies.” A smile. “Academic flies.”
Mary says, “No, Ernest, I think you are mistaken. “ Her use of his given name is portentous. Will he be sliced or diced?
“Academics are followers not trailblazers. They read the critics, watch the Times list, take cues from the popular media, and collectively cull the catalog. But, it is the people who read who dictate the timelessness of a work. People read a work and then whisper its name to another. How else do you explain the continuing success of Chandler who in his prime was no more than a pulp writer of clever mysteries? Herbert’s Dune is such an engrossing tale, so relevant to our time that it would be reprinted even if there were no academy. Stevenson’s Treasure Island has delighted generations as father has passed it to daughter. The same, I think, will be true of the Potter books. They are works that can be read and reread without becoming tiresome. In part, I think that is because of what Edgar calls infinite readability, the discovery of nuances that shade meaning. And, in part, it is due to artistry of the writer, the ability to create unique and indelible word pictures.
As I sit and listen, I cannot but smile, for they are all correct in their view. Universal themes, relevant commentary on the human condition, eloquent prose, popular appeal, academic dictate all contribute to the literary melting pot. The landscape of fiction is so grand that no single excuse will answer Donella’s query. I sneak a peek at the gallery and she is there, absorbing the banter, drawing her own conclusions. This, in the end, is what every writer posits readers must do.
Friday, July 13, 2007