Friday, November 26, 2010
The Editor, 1908-2000
“Perhaps a body of work isn't necessary for a short story writer. If you do one story that survives in an anthology, that's enough.”
It was Dad's step-father, John O'Hara, who set up the meeting with the legendary William Maxwell. For 40 years Bill Maxwell edited fiction writing at The New Yorker. He made other writers (Nabokov, O'Hara, Salinger etc.) better at the expense, perhaps, of his own fame. John Updike said Maxwell's writing voice was "one of the wisest and kindest in American fiction".
Dad had already written a few short stories but none of them were right for The New Yorker. ( Nor were they right for Gent or Dude who sent him nothing but rejection slips.)
Maxwell said Dad had talent. He asked him what had happened in the past that really turned him around. It couldn't be anything in the last six months. But it must be something that made him so angry, so sad , so happy, so embarrassed or humiliated.
Dad said getting kicked out of school in Virginia for cheating.
And Maxwell said "Write it."
Dad wrote 17 typewritten pages. About 5,000 words.
Maxwell said "Not even God could have written that story in so few pages. Do it again, and this time put down everything you can remember about what happened".
And Dad did.
The next draft was 52 pages, about 16,000 words. The New Yorker cut maybe 500 words and bought it. "So Much Unfairness of Things" was, at that time, one of the longest short stories to ever appear in The New Yorker. In effect what Maxwell taught Dad was to write fat.
On his desk, Maxwell kept a framed quote from William Butler Yeats. Dad would frame the very same quote above his writing desk:
"Only that which does not teach, which does not cry out, which does not condescend, which does not explain, is irresistible."
Dad though the part about condescending was important.
As he told a writing class at St. Paul's School, where my step brother Derek went, "Too often the young writer adopts a sneering tone toward his characters. He patronizes them, he is condescending.He writes about the 'typical' prep school kid, the LL Bean costume, the Patagonia jacket, etc. Cut it out! Instead of impressing the reader with how perceptive you are, you make him loathe you on the spot."
The New Yorker link