“A Leaf in the Wind,” was my last fling with writing
fiction. It originated near Anadarko one day when I saw a deer flashing
through the timber, followed closely by three dogs.12
Someone labeled my earliest draft as naturalism. I had heard of naturalism,
but it was only a word: I thought perhaps it had something to do with nature-writing.
Later, when I studied Crane, London, etc., it all came clear. I don’t
subscribe to any particular -ism, nor do I mean to dabble
in any. But I’ve spent half a lifetime observing things outdoors
more than in, and I’m fascinated with psychology—enough to have read some.
However, the story is not meant as a treatise on determinism. It
means to say more about tolerance for others whose circumstances we do
not know. And it is an attempt to render animal experience authentically—which
is no mean trick.
One small detail in the story illustrates
a technique of emphasizing meaning through word-connotation. There
is a small area of grass, an open hill in the timber (a place I know well),
where the fawns are killed by dogs. It is described as “a grassy
knoll” partly because ever since November 1963 in Dallas, “grassy knoll”
means more than just a raised area of grass (103).
In every arena of life, various people’s needs
and expectations conflict, as do their perceptions of situations.
The ER story, “When Brooks Died: A Story You Won’t See on ER,” reveals
and contrasts some of those perceptions and expectations in an area where
they often run amok.
I suppose I should let “Urban Folklore
Inspires a Novel” speak for itself. But I am someone who cares about
literature, someone who has a critical mind, and yet I am generally repulsed
by literary criticism. Why is that?
It seems to be driven by trendy theory: hackneyed
ideas couched in hackneyed “prose.” The feminists, post-colonialists,
and -ism-driven ideologues of every stripe excoriate hegemony—by
imposing moral hegemonies of their own. When I leave the English
department, I hope never again to see the word “gaze,” unless someone is
looking out a window.
Imagery is the basic vehicle of literature—and
it works: the story’s imagery doing implicit rhetorical work, which points
to another reason why literary criticism makes my skin crawl, except in
those rare instances when it’s done well. A good story conveys a
living idea, a concept that’s difficult to encompass in any other form—that’s
why we recognize it as literature. Abstraction translates the physical
life that we know and inhabit into an artificial form. So when you
try to abstract a story, you generally strip the lightning from the sky:
it’s like opening a vein to air: what was blue turns red; it’s something
else altogether now, besides having lost the pressure that makes it work.
You say somebody has to do it, I suppose;
but I don’t know—they said that about slaves and cotton. A good story
comes closest to being life, and anything less than the story itself, does
violence, lessens the thing, is rape of a sort. Joseph Conrad’s Heart
of Darkness, for instance, gives form to something that any other form
cheapens or misunderstands. To explicate it is like explaining the
punchline of a joke, and thus deflating it. If you have to explain
it, you had the wrong audience, and no amount of explaining will do.
E. B. White’s story, “The Second Tree from the Corner,” gets a handle on
this issue. Maybe good storytelling is like pornography—indefinable,
but you know it when you see it.
So why is it that we must take the best stuff
fitted into words and treat it as if we wear white labcoats and carry clipboards?
It seems the height of irony. What if Homer or Twain or Woody Allen
had taken to their stories with the voice (or worse yet, the mindset) of
the Modern Language Association? Where would we be then?
The cold, formal language of scholarly
science results from the notion that ideas stated in such form can be protected
or prevented from such troubling things as bias and personal emotional
involvement. Instead, this strained and convoluted language only
cloaks the inevitable bias and emotion. That humans could do anything
without emotional investment is a leftover fiction from the nineteenth-century
perfection-of-man notion, doubly ironic in a discipline that affects an
enlightened understanding of such stuff.
Literature chronicles the human condition,
which—isn't that a fusion of the heart with a smattering of reason?
If logic (reason) is an imperfect science, surely logic contaminated by
passion—a fair idea of what happens in story?—is an impossible science.
And it seems absurd to imagine that we could apply any sort of theory to
literature and have it hold, the way you can in other disciplines—the
tensile strength of a four-inch steel I-beam will hold it intact until
18,000 lbs. pressure is brought to bear. In terms of people,
it might require 18,000 lbs. pressure to cause panic and injury today,
while two feathers and a drop of water would have the same effect tomorrow,
or across town at Rhonda's Cafe.
12 Three notes:
1. My kids grew up thinking I’m a heartless
brute because I didn’t take in every pitiable canine we passed on the roadside.
They didn’t understand that people abandoned unwanted pets enough to overrun
2. One of my early memories is seeing
ice-bound deer carcasses in a New York lake in late winter: chased by dogs
they would get only so far out on the ice and then break through.
3. I despise the Disney-fication of nature.
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