Thursday, June 19, 2008

Malcolm Cowley on Storytelling

First off, I'd like to thank the W6 commenters and readers who came by NYU the other night to hear my reading and talk--the event was a lot of fun, and my co-presenters, Gish Jen and Ryan McIlvain, were smart, funny, and insightful. It was great to attach some faces to the blogger handles, and I hope I get to see you all again.

One of you--the commenter known as alicia--had taken the time to photocopy something for me, a Malcolm Cowley essay that appears to have originally been published in the seventies. Cowley was a Lost Generation writer as well known for his editing (Kerouac, Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson) as his poems and fiction; the essay in question (she only gave me the beginning) was anthologized in a book called And I Worked At The Writer's Trade.

The first paragraph is quite a surprise, and I'm going to present here in full:

There is no doubt whatever that storytelling has lost the privileged place it used to occupy in the literary world and much of the attention it used to receive from critics as well as readers. In the 1960s there was hardly a book reviewer who had not announced that the novel was dead. If the novel survived, it was in altered forms and with a different audience. Shorter fiction had almost disappeared from the more popular magazines. Somehow the idea had gotten around that storytelling was a primitive skill, a little easy, a little to be despised; that a book or a long poem that told a story was not quite "serious," did not "speak to the age"; and that plot, which is the story element, was a rather shameful concession to the audience.

Well! That all sounds familiar, doesn't it? Cowley goes on to indulge in a bit of darn-you-kids cantankerousness before praising various types of experimental fiction, while pointing out the ways in which the best of them do indeed manage, however unconventionally, to tell some kind of story.

We don't go in much on this blog for doomsaying or condemnations of the publishing industry, which was always imperfect and unprofitable, and will forever be in danger of extinction. I think the reason for our restraint on this subject is our abiding belief that 1) telling a story is an inalienable human compulsion and will always exist in one form or another; and 2) the ways in which a story can be told, from the simple and direct to the complex and oblique, are basically infinite, and infinitely interesting. I suspect I'm a little more confident than Rhian that the novel, or something like it, will endure--she can weigh in in the comments. But since we started doing this, I have felt, very strongly, that people who hold public funerals for written fiction are doing so more to justify their own despair than to identify any actual cultural problem. It's true, as Rhian has said before, that literary fiction lacks the cultural cachet it once enjoyed; but fiction's moment in the sun was brief, and was perhaps never meant to last. The novel is a subtle, insidious art form, and those of us who ply it, by and large, don't expect to be thanked for it.

Nevertheless, it's been nearly fifty years that the novel's been on its deathbed, and perhaps it's time to admit that it isn't going to die. Maybe it got so few hospice visitors that it figured it might as well live?

Alicia, thanks for the essay!

23 comments:

Randy L said...

It was a pleasure to meet you. You gave great writing advice.
I shared the following quote with RE in response to her last entry. I thought it clearly fit your conversation about outlines and writing.... "Follow the accident and fear the fixed plan."
If you are still in the city, you must see the documentary on Harlan Ellison "Dreams with Sharp Teeth."

jrlennon said...

Randy, who said that? I like it.

Randy L said...

It would appear to be that guy "anonymous" who might be related to "occupant." Unfortunately it seems to be floating out there as a stock quote at this point. Glad you like it. I thought it went nicely with some of the insights from Tuesday night.
Oh, hope you have a chance to watch my DVD on my website

rmellis said...

Hey, I never said I thought the novel would disappear. I maybe said I would hate it if it did. I'm pretty convinced that stories will last forever, and that even if people are getting their texts shined directly onto their retinas, they'll still be interested in long stories in some form. And as for my generation, we're pretty attached to books. Many of us, anyway.

Alicia Beale said...

Hey I'm glad the essay interested you.

Alicia Beale said...

By the way, I am editing an anthology of New Jersey stories, poems, and memoir. Would you be interested in coming on board? My co-editor and I have an official letter that I could send you if you would be interested in contributing.

jrlennon said...

Sure, send me the details! jrobertlennon at gmail.

rmellis said...

JR, you should write a memoir-essay about your murderer dentist. I think that story's very NJ.

Max said...

Hey, Alicia, can I get an official letter too?
Darn, I bet JRL gets his work accepted, and mine is rejected.

rmellis said...

Yeah, John gets all this special treatment because he grew up in Philipsburg, New Jersey! Well, la-di-da!

max said...

Please don't act dumb, Rhian.
In the now-immortal words of Warren Adler: "If a literary magazine rejects a cold submission, the chances are that the editors are making their choices from coteries of sycophants and favorites that are part of their backslapping clique."
Strange, JRL didn't respond when Warren posted that comment (which I believe is the truth; Warren is talking contacts, which both Alicia and JRL are in the process of making, before our eyes).
JRL would have jumped down my throat if I wrote the same thing (examples on request).
And now JRL and Warren are blowing kisses at each other. If they were in the same room, they'd be slappping each other's backs.
But that's how modern lit fic works, so like it or lump it.

jrlennon said...

I already did write about the murderin' dentist, remember? That thing for A Well Known Magazine that got rejected...

Anyway, I can do something Jersier than that. ;-)

rmellis said...

OK, Max, you're right. John doesn't deserve to be published, he sucks, and anyone who does publish him is only doing so because... because... oh yeah, because they were in an MFA class together. It must be that!

Your bitterness could tan leather, buddy.

rmellis said...

I don't know why I'm bothering, since we've been through this so many times before, but I feel the need to emphasize: no, Max, you're not entirely wrong. Yes, nepotism exists in publishing, and yes, terrible shit gets published, and yes, it certainly was wonderful in the old days when any good-hearted soul could pound out a story a week for the slicks and make a living.

There, feel better?

Now what? Now we move forward. We write as best we can. What else can we do? Splash our bile around? It doesn't help you or anyone.

Alicia said...

hey the only clique i belong to is new jersey. i asked jr, because he's nice, writes well and once i had a really good time in philipsburg.

jrlennon said...

Ha!, that's one more time than I did! Now the shore, that's another matter...one of these days I'll write a shore story.

James (Mr. 5 Red Pandas) said...

Yes, Dreams With Sharp Teeth is excelent (my one minor complaint is that some of it looks like video, not film, and I found some of the computer graphics - yes, there is CGI in a documentary - distracting). The movie rightly emphasizes Ellison as a performer as much as a writer, with some terrific scenes of him reading (and acting out) his stories to the camera.

The reading was terrific. I'm sorry I wasn't more talkative when we were introduced, but Ms. 5 Red Pandas had your attention, and I was busy reading the Stephen King interview in the Paris Review book (sorry, I coulnd't help myself...).

max said...

In my reviews of the stories in the 2008 collection, I gave JRL's story a thumbs up. It was good.
You know who was one bitter dude? That Martin Luther King. Always whining about civil rights. Civil rights, civil rights, civil rights. Take a pill, man.
Course, I'm not comparing myself to MLK, or the cause he was fighting for, but I'm just making a point about criticism being discounted as whining from bitter, bitter dudes.
I don't write nor do I submit anymore, haven't for 5 years, and I'm OK with that. I had moderate success, but then the doors seemed to close even more tightly.
Anyway, I'm more of a reader than a writer. I was in a discussion group (I'm not anymore) that constantly used the Best American anthologies. Lot of bad, bad stuff, and I noticed the prevalence of MFAs.
So there's the evolution of this exchange. In which everything has been said, and the two sides are still firmly entrenched. What I need to do is delete your site from my Favorites, and leave you in peace.

rmellis said...

King was very uplifting!

Max said...

2005 collection, I meant.
Haven't read another since.

jrlennon said...

You don't need to leave, Max. You just have to occasionally be interested in something besides what a preening, slick-ass poser everybody is.

Indeed, you don't even have to do that. You may comment all you like, if it pleases you. But I'm not sure that it does.

rmellis said...

I enjoy your visits, Max. They're energizing.

gcmunroe said...

Good to meet you in person, John! Enjoyed the story you read. Your description of the father's study reminded me of a work by the French painter and sculptor, Charles Matton. Gionale Nuovo - a weblog I can't recommend enough - has a great little entry on his miniatures. If nothing else, check out the final picture in the set. Really neat stuff.