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THE MAKING OF A WRITER
Some Very Good Masters
By Richard Yates
The New York Times Book Review, April 19, 1981
IT must have been the movies of the 1930's more than any other influence
that got me into the habit of thinking like a writer. I wasn't a bookish child;
reading was such hard work for me that I avoided it whenever possible. But
I wasn't exactly the rough-and-ready type either, and so the movies filled
a double need: They gave me an awful lot of cheap story material and a good
place to hide.
When I was about 14, I started submitting movie-haunted stories to my English
teachers, as if to prove there was something I could do, but it wasn't until
three or four years later that reading, both fiction and poetry, began to
sweep the movies into a dark and vaguely shameful corner of my mind, where
they have remained ever since. I almost never go to a movie now, and have
been known to explain loftily, if not quite at the top of my lungs, that this
is because movies are for children.
At 20, fresh out of the Army and surfeited with Thomas Wolfe, I embarked
on a long binge of Ernest Hemingway that entailed embarrassingly frequent
attempts to talk and act like characters in the early Hemingway books. And
I was hooked on T.S. Eliot at the same time, which made for an uncomfortable
But F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" turned out to be
the most nourishing novel I read, in much the same way that my discovery of
John Keats some years earlier made most other English lyric poets seem insubstantial.
Like certain of Keats's poems, Fitzgerald's novel is a short piece of work
that gains range as it gathers momentum, until the end of it leaves you with
a stunning illumination of the world. And the best part of this for an apprentice
writer is that the novel can be seen not only as a miracle of talent but as
a triumph of technique, suggesting at least a hope that you might be able
to figure out how it's done.
You can figure out the important part of it almost at once: Every line of
dialogue in "Gatsby" serves to reveal more about the speaker than
the speaker might care to have revealed. The author never permits his use
of dialogue to become merely "realistic," with people exchanging
flat, information-laden sentences, but contrives time and again to catch all
his characters, however subtly, in the very act of giving themselves away.
An especially pure concentration of that skill occurs in the talk at the awful little party in Myrtle Wilson's apartment - the party that provides Nick Carraway with a well-earned observation that has always struck me as an eloquent statement of every storyteller's quandary and delight:
"Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed
their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets,
and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously
enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life."
I had never understood what Eliot meant by the curious phrase "objective
correlative" until the scene in "Gatsby" where the almost comically
sinister Meyer Wolfshiem, who has just been introduced, displays his cuff
links and explains that they are "the finest specimens of human molars."
Get it? Got it. That's what Eliot meant.
Or the heap of custom-made shirts into which Daisy Buchanan weeps "stormily"
during her first visit to Jay Gatsby's house. ("They're such beautiful
shirts˙It makes me sad because I've never seen such - such beautiful shirts
Or the homely entries in Gatsby's boyhood "Schedule" and "Resolves,"
which his father carefully reads aloud to Nick, as if for Nick's own use and
profit, after Gatsby is dead.
"The Great Gatsby," along with most of Fitzgerald's other work,
was my formal introduction to the craft.
In 1951, when I was 25, the Veteran's Administration bailed me out of gainful
employment with a disability pension for a rapidly healing case of TB, and
so for the next two and a half years I lived in Europe with nothing to do
but write short stories and try to make each one better than the last. I learned
a lot. Being allowed to write full-time was very instructive in itself, and
I also learned how rich the American language can be when most of it must
be dredged up from memory.
Three of those stories were sold to magazines before I came home, and there
were five more sales over the next few years. But suddenly I was 29, earning
my living as a freelance public-relations writer - an activity I can recommend
to no one - and it was increasingly clear that I had better write a novel
was when "Madame Bovary" took command. I had read it before but
hadn't studied it the way I'd studied "Gatsby" and other books;
now it seemed ideally suited to serve as a guide, if not a model, for the
novel that was taking shape in my mind. I wanted that kind of balance and
quiet resonance on every page, that kind of foreboding mixed with comedy,
that kind of inexorable destiny in the heart of a lonely, romantic girl. And
all of it, of course, would have to be done with an F. Scott Fitzgerald kind
of freshness and grace.
Like many other readers, I have always felt that the first 70 pages of "Madame
Bovary" aren't as good as they could have been, but from the moment Charles
and Emma are invited to the society dance, Flaubert lets everything start
And talk about "objective correlatives"!
- When Charles finds a green silk cigar case in the dust of a road newly
trampled by heroic-looking horsemen, and when Emma later hides it away from
him for her own use as a source of voluptuous daydreams.
Another thing I have always liked about both "Gatsby" and "Bovary"
is that there are no villains in either one. The force of evil is felt in
these novels but is never personified - neither novelist is willing to let
us off that easily. Tom and Daisy Buchanan might have been blamed for Jay
Gatsby's death, but Fitzgerald prevents us from seeing it that way by having
Nick say, in his own final judgment, that they were simply "careless
people." Charles Bovary might have every right to hold Rodolphe responsible
for Emma's eventual suicide, but when he accidentally meets the man afterward
he says, "I don't blame you˙Fate is to blame."
Here are some of the other writers without whose work I might never have put together a halfway decent book of my own: Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Conrad, Joyce, E.M. Forster, Katherine Mansfield, Sinclair Lewis, Ring Lardner, Dylan Thomas, J.D. Salinger, James Joyce.
It would be easy to extend this list to twice its length by bringing it
up to the present day, but I have come to distrust any such list as sounding
like the membership roster of a private club, or like the breathless final
results of some popularity contest.
Time is everything. I am 55 now, and my first grandchild is expected in June. It has been many years since I was a young man, let alone an apprentice writer. But the eager, fearful, self-hectoring spirit of the beginner is slow to fade. With my 8th book just begun - and with deep regret for the desolate wastes of time that have kept it from being my 10th or 12th - I feel I haven't really started yet. And I suppose this rather ludicrous condition will persist, for better or worse, until my time runs out.