This Week’s Hat Trick

Two books for the writer are worth mentioning this week. The first, “Mystery and Manners” by Flannery O’Connor, is probably the best of the pair. The book, edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, contains essays from and articles about the renowned Georgia author. It’s amazing that she died so wise at such an early age. A lot of the book is drawn from her responses to young writers’ questions. Invariably her wit in these replies cut as it informs. She has little use for the literary poseur, for instance, advising acerbically that these should direct their energies into more lucrative activities. One essay, on the grotesque in fiction, is a seminal rationale of Southern writing, and should be included in all writing courses.
The other book, “Doubletakes” by T.C. Boyle, serves as both entertainment and education, but from a wholly different viewpoint than that of O’Connor. Boyle edited here a collection presenting pairs of short stories from some of the most capable short fiction writers of the past century. From Raymond Carver to Boyle to Joyce Carol Oates to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the stories demonstrate the power of two or three thousand words in conveying the most incisive views of twentieth century life and culture. Perhaps the most demonstrative for the writer is the pair by Carver, the first a brief story that is expanded in the second to provide new twists and details. This pair particularly demonstrates that fiction is at its basis not formulaic, that it is an organic entity that would be written differently on differing days.
On the home front, a short novel nears completion. It’s been an incredibly hard one to write, and I didn’t understand why until near the end of the third edit. Of all the fiction I’ve written, this one is most nearly biographical, and that seems to be the root of the problem. When one writes autobiographically, it tends to be catharsis. There are things buried in the psyche that should probably stay there (or locked in the vaults of family history), and all sorts of problems ensue in trying to write such purgatives. It’s a good story, I think, and deserving of my attention over these past months, but I don’t think I’ll try to puke my past onto the page again.

Features

This blog will be posted a little off my usual schedule due to something soft within my computer that managed to become corrupted. In the meanwhile, I received a celebratory issue of a magazine from one of the most unusual literary niches: writing on baseball. I had the good fortune to have an essay accepted by The Elysian Fields Quarterly’s editor, Tom Goldstein a couple of years ago. That turned into a re-print in yet another baseball publication, rendering testimony to the excellence of Tom’s mag more than me, I think.
This issue is EFQ’s fiftieth, featuring a paean to Stan Musial as well as remembrances of Don Larsen’s perfecto in the 1956 World Series and another on Roger Maris. There’s even one by Ralph Nader on George Steinbrenner.
Tom Goldstein works hard on this quarterly – support him.
And the latest issue of Poets & Writers has a feature on Master of Fine Arts programs around the country. I doubt there are many who enter MFA programs without at least a meager wish to become a writer of some sort. I happen to be conflicted regarding such programs; I don’t think they’ll make you a writer, but I’m one and will likely chew on the Breadloaf MFA next summer. My interest (and this is a bit confessional) is a bit on the credentials side, as I hope to parlay those courses into a focus elsewhere on literature. That may or may not happen. But what I will expect to gain from this finer submergence in the arts is a more rounded appreciation of them, especially writing. This is what these programs can guarantee, I suspect, more nearly than a writing career – a more intimate appreciation of poetry read on winter nights, of a literate novel on the subway, or – that increasingly rare thing – of a well-written sports section by-line over breakfast.
Everyone who pokes his or her nose into cyberspace knows about Google – the cyber place that became a noun that became a verb. Google is rapidly expanding its hold on pixels and bytes, but one aspect of Google’s service that seems underappreciated is its cataloging of academic papers. In my MLA work, I’ve had the opportunity to make use of this resource. But a forewarning to those chomping at the bit to flush this blog and go Googling: a good many of these academic papers – valuable though they may be – aren’t available without joining a sub-service catalogued by Google. I haven’t yet ponied up – the articles and papers I’ve needed have been available for the printing. Here’s hoping that Google’s keepers can become rich without charging for their services, and here’s also hoping they can eventually leverage a without-charge look at all such papers. Otherwise, skinflints like me will simply spend more time driving to the library.