ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


Richard Ford on Raymond Carver, The New Yorker, October 5, 1998) 
by Melissa Byles. 

Life is a gooeyness whose bearings on literature have been the occasion for perennial pondering. Writing about a story by Carver, Ford offers some of his own:

"Life was this way yes, we already knew that. But this life, these otherwise unnoticeable people's suitability for literary expression seemed new. One also felt that a consequence of the story was seemingly to intensify life, even dignify it, and to locate in it shadowed corners and niches that needed revealing so that we readers could practice life better ourselves. And yet the story itself, in its spare, self-conscious intensity, was such a made thing, not like life at all; it was a piece of nearly abstract artistic construction calculated to produce almost giddy pleasure."

Life, in Ford's view, is something that is or flows in easily recognizable ways. About art, he makes, I believe, the following well-worn but not necessarily well-taken points: art can have an insignificant subject matter (think of old shoes in Van Gogh paintings); art makes life more worthy, and may even a surprisingly unmodern point teach us morals, a conduct; yet art is not like life, in that art is a calculated construction, while life involves less calculation than chance. Ford clarifies this somewhat further on:

"And in plain enough ways, when we told those stories to each other, in 1979, they meant something albeit something simple: that life goes this way or life goes that way; that chance is always involved, and that living is usually just dealing with consequences. In one way or other, of course, fiction is often about just that: sorting through consequences the past impending on the present and setting into sometimes astonishing motion the future."

I read this again, and I have to agree: it is simple. Inordinately, idiotically simple. What makes it interesting is that Ford can write well, and but this may be a prejudice of mine simpletons cannot do that. He'll file a period until it rings right, he pleasantly describes clothes and locales, turns out folksy dialogue; he plays well the American idiom; he's got style: not one that's unmistakably his, by no means "his voice," rather something like an institutional sound, where paragraphs are given a cool finish by means of fillers "of all things," "for some reason," "needless to say" and often end with hot, coupled negations: "No more. No way," or, "Not me. Not ever." Ford does not, like some great writers of the past, shy away from the intellectual or refuse to deal with big ideas; on the contrary, he gladly takes on the essences of, respectively, life, life's stages, death, art, human passions, talent, the anxiety of literary influence, what have you, and turns them into babble, into mush into hopeless, solipsistic simplicity.


I saw the movie The Big Lebowski, by the brothers Coen. Great acting. The main characters (played by Jeff Bridges and John Goodman) are a middle-age L.A. hippy, "the Dude," who blathers and drinks white russians that leave white foam on his beard, and his friend Walter, a choleric Vietnam veteran who mostly screams his blather. Reading Ford on Carver reminds me of "the Dude" and of his friend Walter, one big difference being that the movie is funny, and the other that "the Dude"'s and Walter's only ambition in this world is to win their bowling league. Ford's authorial intention in his piece on Carver was, I bet, for readers to feel that he is, and his friend was, just regular "dudes" you'd meet randomly at a bowling alley, that they are just as "the Dude" would put it average fucking men. They're writers, to be sure, ambitious writers who take their profession awfully seriously ("serious writers," Ford writes, "almost never do [talk about talent], because they know, if they know anything, that talent is simply a Step 1 requirement, and many possess it who never amount to anything…"), but with all that, blessedly unsophisticated minds.

Early on in Richard Ford's account of his friendship with Raymond Carver, we are told that "I, improbably enough, lived in Princeton." It is natural to ask why Princeton was a more improbable place for him to live than some other town of similar size, and the reason must be (I can find no other) that Princeton, with its high income and high educational levels, has a comparatively low dudes-per-thousand ratio. Toward the end of this "Personal History," Carver and Ford are walking along Provincetown beach; Carver tells Ford that his daughter is in trouble out in the West Coast; a biker is the root of her trouble, and Carver declares he'd like to have him killed. Ford, "thinking what a friend could do for a friend in unwieldy circumstances," says he's ready to go to the West Coast and kill the rascal himself. Provided and here's the finishing touch that Carver buys him the ticket, for "I don't have any money, of course." This story, the longest drawn in the piece, seems straight out of The Big Lebowski, but Ford, improbably enough, does not feel called to call it "improbable."

Traditionally, facing an unsophisticated fiction soul, like Charles Bovary, or Updike's Rabbit, or, pushing this to the limit, like the imbecile gardener in Jerzy Kosinski's Being There, the reader understands that the author is making the character speak or think according to the character's lights, but that the author himself is, very likely, a lot smarter. "Smarter" is not the right word, though; "more spiritual" would be better but too pregnant and confusing; let's use the neutral "more complex." This Richard Ford won't have. Perhaps he feels it is elitist, or patronizing; in any case, his rejection of authorial superiority seems to have both an ethical and an esthetic value. In his novel Independence Day, winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize, the narrator is a New Jersey realtor whose voice is hardly distinguishable from Ford's about Carver; as far as I can judge, this realtor has the speech, categories and habits of the realty business down pat (the novel has been professionally researched), but he reads Emerson, and turns it into mush. With Ford, there is no difference of level between the author's and the character's mind. Naturally, he must have sensed an uncomfortable implausibility in a realtor who reads Emerson, so the character is made into a writer of sorts: he writes the company's newsletter, and in the vague past time of a previous novel, he used to be a sports journalist. The leveling out of all differences between writer and character is clearly made easier when the latter is a writer too; perhaps this is why American fiction abounds in such characters, a fact often noted by foreign readers.

Yet, I was puzzled by the humble rejection of authorial supremacy and by the relentless will-to-dudeness. There seemed to me to be something medieval, pre-modern about it, and that in a writer who is so obviously attuned to modern professional standards. While I was puzzling, I happened by chance on a review by Paul Quinn of The Granta Book of the American Long Story, Richard Ford, editor (Times Literary Supplement, October 2, 1998.) Quinn calls Ford's introduction "an ingeniously disingenuous performance," after noting some egregious instances in it of what I call babble, or mush. I could not agree with Quinn completely, however: calling Ford's performances disingenuous is ungenerous, and besides, it provided a too easy way out of my puzzle. Then it occurred to me that the nature of Ford's performances should not be puzzling, that this is precisely how truly professional writing ought to be.

To explain myself, let us consider Proust as the antipode of Ford: Proust had no problem with authorial superiority, and no one ever thinks of calling him "a dude." Early in his career, let's say before 1913, his colleagues, André Gide for instance, dismissed him as a dilettante, an amateur, the opposite of a professional. One of the editors of Of(f)course, Robert W. Greene, made the following interesting observation (in his book Just Words, Penn State University, 1993, chapter 3): the gift of the gab and the ethical gifts are usually incompatible in Proust's characters. Particularly so with respect to professional ethics; for example, the irresponsible physician who causes the death of Marcel's grandmother is a glib, literary, sophisticated man, while Cottard, who only utters commonplaces, is a great clinician. This is not a merely fictive fact: we mistrust the physician, the engineer, even the lawyer, who is too well versed in "the amenities" literature, poetry, the arts for we ask, Where could he find the time to stay poised along the narrow cutting edge of his profession? We know that professionalism means single-mindedness, a sharp and constant focus on just one aspect of the world as opposed to a wide lens, a busy devotion to one code, one set of rules, and no interest in what, if anything, might silently be waiting beyond the codes and rules: this is how we want our professionals to be, but until recently, it was not what we wanted from novelists. If we relish Proust's books, it is for the very opposite qualities, because we enjoy the long-meandering, leisurely narrative voice, always after complexity, always eschewing the "needless to say." And we don't hold it against the narrator that he is more spiritual, or more complex, than the other characters, that he is the exception to Greene's rule whereby moral and rhetorical competence are inversely related, that he is above all that; for we understand it must be so for transcendence the unity of a life through a work of art to appear and shine in the last part.

Such transcendence as there is in Proust's novel, and indeed any transcendence in this world, transgresses the professional ethic. More precisely, it violates two of the founding principles of professionalism, namely: (1) All work with symbols, to be creditable, must be done within some profession, and (2) All professions have equal standing, there is no "super-profession" which stands above, or may legislate for, others. Writing, then, is a profession, and if you, as a novelist, introduce certain characters, a physician, a movie star, a realtor, that is, other professionals, even though you might argue that they are your creatures and you can deal with them as you want, setting yourself at a superior level or exhibiting superior knowledge would suggest that your profession, writing, is above theirs, a repulsively un-professional idea, even un-democratic. For this reason, a narrative voice like Proust's, which ventures into many realms, always subtly and after complexity, is to be shunned.

Richard Ford does so, consistently and without fault. Holding, as he tells us in the piece I am reviewing, an M.F.A. from U.C. Irvine, he is an excellent example of our professional writer, by which I mean the writer for our time, when writing has been perfectly professionalized. You'll never catch him deep into psychology; that, like so many others, is a separate professional sphere, which he doesn't avoid, but treats as a dude would, by babbling, or by bowling. This dude's profession is writing, and he cares exclusively about "his craft," as it is called at creative writing programs, where Ford's style is highly regarded.

That solves the puzzle about Richard Ford's writing persona, at least to my own provisional satisfaction. What Ford has to say about Carver's editors, and what others reported on that subject in a previous issue of The New Yorker, is not within my interest or purview. But I wouldn't want to leave the impression that I am against professionalism and professional writing. Nothing could be more removed from the truth, so I'll finish by adding a little independently-wagging, upbeat coda, by looking at the evils of the century almost past. I do like well-crafted things, I do, and when I grumble that craft or technique is not enough, I know it is my problem, a morbid, effete nostalgia, perhaps, for a transcendence or an omnitude long gone. To be fair to myself, it is not only my problem; here's a quote from Czeslaw Milosz (New York Review of Books, November 19, 1998), who quotes from a novel, Lot's Escape, by Aleksander Wat: "He [Lot, the central character in Wat's novel] was endowed with an innate admiration for everything well executed, well written, of a proper caliber and he felt even greater fear when he realized that no one was, any longer, concerned with "what," only with "how," that we have become indifferent to content and react, not even to form, but to technique, to technical efficiency itself."

Yet, let's be fair as well to technicians and the writing profession. Look at the state of the world when there were two exceptions to our second principle, that there cannot be a super-profession lording it above the others. Those two exceptions used to be philosophy and literature, and the exercise of their special privileges was called mandarinism. At present philosophy, much to our relief, is thoroughly professionalized, but it wasn't always so: for Plato, Kant and Hegel, philosophy was supreme judge, and so, for more than a century, we lived under its grip, suffering its wars. Alexandre Kojève, virtuoso of French flippancy and Russian extravagance, nevertheless had a point when he said that Stalingrad was a battle between the Hegelian Left and the Hegelian Right. Now consider literature, starting with the Romantics, who viewed themselves as prophets or magi, listen to Shelley's "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind" legislators! elected by whom? Shudder at Baudelaire, who called the killing of all Jews a great idea, look at crazy Pound and bigoted Eliot; read, if you can bear it, the odes to Stalin composed by Eluard, by Neruda and by so many bards; and finally consider the telling fact that, since the end of the communist tyranny, sales of poetry books have plummeted in Russia, where poetry used to be almost as essential as vodka.

Thank God, then, for the professional closing of those two festering loopholes, philosophy and literature. Thank God, too, for the professional peer-review system, for the end of ideologies and the demise of mandarinism. Even though in your heart it may feel like a desert, let us enjoy this peace without hierarchies, and in this pleasant, beneficent abundance of well-crafted products, let us consume and be entertained, just like any other dude.

Melissa Byles is a contributing editor. Please write to her in care of Offcourse

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