A short story which is not handled with necessary concentration and wit is like a play which does not engage its audience; a story does not exist unless it hits the mark with terrific impact. It is a constant projection of meanings at an audience, and it is a performance minutely made up of the only possible language, as a poem is.
In laying out for readers what it is about Salinger’s stories that makes them exciting, Kazin is also reminding writers of their task:
A short story does not offer room enough for the development of character; it can present only character itself—by gesture.
From the broad claim he goes on to note how remarkably well Salinger fulfills the task, catching each small, telling gesture that gives us, at a momentary glance, the character he is letting us observe. And yet, in the end he finds Salinger’s characters too sensitive, the presentation of them too “cute,” the fiction writer’s sympathy too one-sided. Salinger’s beloved, tortured characters, Kazin says, are in love with the idea of themselves, and when their author sets them up as martyrs, the deeper, exploratory possibilities of fiction are excluded.
“I wrote as a bird sings. I’d sit down and write. Without thinking of how to write or about what. My things wrote themselves. I could write at any time I liked. To write a sketch, a story, a skit cost me no labor. I, like a young calf or a colt let out into the freedom of a green and radiant pasture, leaped, cavorted, kicked up my heels....”
And here I come to another complaint, the increasing slovenliness, carelessness, and plain cowardice of style in fiction today.
I complain of the dimness, the shadowiness, the flatness, the paltriness, in so many reputable novelists. ... I thought of George Santayana’s complaint that contemporary poets often give the reader the mere suggestion of a poem and expect him to finish the poem for them.
Time no longer courses in a great and widening stream, a stream upon which the narrative consciousness floats, passing fixed landmarks in orderly progression, and growing in wisdom. Instead time is a flattened [my emphasis added] landscape, a land of unlinked lakes seen by air.
...[M]ay a work of art borrow meaning by being itself meaningless? May it claim thereby to have criticized society? Or to have recreated our experience? May a work claim for itself whole hunks of other people’s thoughts on the flimsy grounds that the work itself, being so fragmented, typifies our experience...?
If the writer’s honest intention is to recreate a world he finds meaningless, must his work then be meaningless?
A writer may make his aesthetic surfaces very, very good and even appealing, in the hope that those surface excellences will impart to the work enough positive value, as it were, to overwhelm its negativity.
He may fool himself into shirking the difficult, heartbreaking task of structuring a work of art on the grounds that art is imitation (all of a sudden) and a slapdash fiction imitates a seriously troubled world.
The “flatness” of what Dillard calls modernist fiction, therefore, is not a problem for her, as she sees it, but the “slovenliness” of which Kazin complained definitely is. There is a wide gulf between “art and mere glibness,” and similar surfaces do not always indicate the quality of different works. Narrative unity may be lacking, but without integrity, without artistic coherence, there is only smoke, no fire.
Far from being like a receptacle in which you, the artist, drop your ideas, and far from being like a lump of clay which you pummel until it fits your notion of an ashtray, the art object is more like an enthusiastic and ill-trained Labrador retriever which yanks you into traffic. – Annie Dillard
Actually, if there were more intimate experience of art and less self-conscious use of art, we might see that none of us can fully explain the effect of art, or correct it when it is unsatisfactory, or keep it up as an ecstatic experience all the time. If we in this country had an honest sense of the limits of art, we would have a more grateful sense of its power. – Alfred Kazin
What shall it be? Do art’s complex and balanced relationships among all parts, its purpose, significance, and harmony, exist in nature? Is nature whole, like a completed thought? Is history purposeful? Is the universe of matter significant? I am sorry; I do not know. – Annie Dillard