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Friday, August 21, 2015

Small, Deeply Satisfying Portions

Some books are heavy and formal, veritable seven-course meals. Impossible to rush through, they demand long stretches of attention. This is not a criticism: such books ask a lot of a reader, but they give a lot in return.

Others are teasing little tasting menus, light bites good with a single bottle of wine. Pleasurable and relaxing, they’re easy and fun, and you get through them quickly. And pretty soon you're hungry again!

Then there are slim, surprising volumes with gem-like lines that stop you in your tracks. Whether you read a book like this in a day or two or savor it in tiny, disciplined sessions over a longer period of time, the reading makes a deep impression.

The novel, for a long time, 
has been over-furnished.

With this simple sentence Willa Cather begins her essay “The Novel Démeublé.” A few pages later she stopped me in my tracks again:
The novelist must learn to write, and then he must unlearn it; just as the modern painter learns to draw, and then learns when utterly to disregard his accomplishment, when to subordinate it to a higher and true effect.
Learn to write – and then unlearn. “How wonderful it would be,” Cather goes on, “if we could throw all the furniture out of the window....”

She rails not against the telling detail but the meaningless piling up of detail. Later, writing of the work of Stephen Crane, she applauds his Wounds in the Rain and Other Impressions of War, sketches from Cuba, noting that Crane
... didn’t follow the movement of troops there much more literally than he had in The Red Badge of Courage. He knew that the movement of troops was the officers’ business, not his. He was in Cuba to write about soldiers and soldiering....
Cather admonished writers not to let writing get in the way of their stories. Too much “furniture,” too many “realistic” details, too much stage-managing all detract from fiction as art.

Learn – and then unlearn. A diamond of advice.

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