Friday, May 3, 2013

What Willa Cather Thinks about Facebook, Nebraska as Setting, and Writing Novels

I went to the Nebraska City Public Library yesterday (the original building was built in 1896 and has been beautifully updated while maintaining the historical senseto keep the historic feeling intact). While they didn’t have the book I was looking for, in a room full of books, I found books I didn’t know I was looking for (always part of the joy of any library), including On Writing by Willa Cather, published in 1949. Being in Nebraska at the moment, and loving Willa Cather’s work (My Antonia is firmly on my favorite books bookshelf), of course I have to share a few tidbits:

This is from an essay called “My First Novels [There Were Two]”:

My first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, was very like what painters call a studio picture.  It was the result of meeting some interesting people in London.  Like most young writers, I though a book should be made out of “interesting material,” and at that time I found the new more exciting than the familiar….
            O Pioneers! interested me tremendously, because it had to do with a kind of country I loved, because it was about old neighbours, once very dear, whom I had almost forgotten in the hurry and excitement of growing up and finding out what the world was like and trying to get on in it. But I did not in the least expect that other people would see anything in a slow-moving story, without “action,” without “humour,” without a “hero”; a story concerned entirely with heavy farming people, with cornfields and pasture lands and pig yards,--set in Nebraska, of all places! As everyone knows, Nebraska is definitely déclassé as a literary background; its very name throws the delicately atuned critic into a clammy shiver of embarrassment.  Kansas is almost as unpromising.  Colorado, on the contrary, is considered quite possible.  Wyoming really has some class, of its own kind, like well-cut riding breeches.  But a New York critic voiced a very general opinion when he said: “I simply don’t care a damn what happens in Nebraska, no matter who writes about it.”….
As for what Willa Cather might say about Facebook, I think I can extrapolate from this piece titled “The Novel Demeuble”: 

“One does not wish the egg one eats for breakfast, or the morning paper, to be made the stuff of immortality.”
Okay, a bit more context!  She goes on to write:

            Every writer who is an artist knows that his “power of observation,” and his “power of description,” form but a low part of his equipment.  He must have both, to be sure; but he knows that the most trivial of writers often have a very good observation.  [Here comes a quotation from Merimee on Gogol that is probably brilliant and amazing, but it’s in French so I have no idea.]
            There is a popular superstition that “realism” asserts itself in the cataloguing of a great number of material objects, in explaining mechanical processes, the methods of operating manufactories and trades, and in minutely and unsparingly describing physical sensations. But is not realism, more than it is anything else, an attitude of mind on the part of the writer toward his material, a vague indication of the sympathy and candour with which he accepts, rather than chooses, his theme? Is the story of a banker who is unfaithful to his wife and who ruins himself by speculation in trying to gratify the caprices of his mistresses, at all reinforced by a masterly exposition of banking, our whole system of credits, the methods of the Stock Exchange? Of course if the story is thin, these things do reinforce it in a sense,--any amount of red meat thrown into the scale to make the beam dip. But are the banking system and the Stock Exchange worth being written about at all?  Have such things any proper place in imaginative art?
            [She argues against her own point, citing Balzac, and then comes to Tolstoy:]  …Tolstoy was almost as great a lover of material things as Balzac, almost as much interested in the way dishes were cooked, and people were dressed, and houses were furnished.  But there is this determining difference: the clothes, the dishes, the haunting interiors of those old Moscow houses, are always so much a part of the emotions of the people that they are perfectly synthesized; they seem to exist, not so much in the author’s mind, as in the emotional penumbra of the characters themselves. When it is fused like this, literalness ceases to be literalness—it is merely part of the experience.
            If a novel is a form of imaginative art, it cannot be at the same time a vivid and brilliant form of journalism.  Out of the teeming, gleaming stream of the present it must select the eternal material of art…. [She cites The Scarlet Letter as a quick example of a book that doesn’t discuss Puritan dress and interiors and yet:] As I remember it, in the twilight melancholy of that book, in its consistent mood, one can scarcely see the actual surroundings of the people; one feels them, rather, in the dark.
            Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there—that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear by not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself….
            The elder Dumas enunciated a great principle when he said that to make a drama, a man needed one passion, and four walls.”
Onward, to spend my day contemplating the four walls of my current story-in-progress....


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.