Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Can Do

In Sunday's LA Times Richard Rayner wrote a perceptive review of Otto Penzler's The Big Book of Pulps. He admires it, as how can you not?

In the course of the review he wrote a line that fascinates me, even though I'm not sure I understand it. Or understand it as he meant it anyway.

"Writers don't really write what they know; they write what they can."

According to my dictionary can means "to be capable of." Over a quarter century of knowing writers of various kinds I've heard a fair number--even a few of the best sellers--talk about the books they wish they'd written. Or could have written. In the case of genre writers this frequently means a literary novel or a genre-bending book that leaves a permanent mark on the field.

I've mentioned before that while I was poundiing them out for men's magazine back in the `60s and `70's, I entered a Scribners short story contest. They were looking for pieces that dealt with alcoholism. Since I'd recently given up drink and drug I didn't have any trouble dealing with the subject. Ultimately twelve stories were selected and they appeared in an anthology.

One of the Scribners editors called me and asked me if I'd thought of expanding the story into a novel. While I'd sold some stories to some very minor literary magazines, and while I'd always wanted to be Fitzgerald or Mailer, I'd never really thought of writing a literary novel before.

With his guidance, I began. I spent six months struggling with one hundred pages or so. At that point I realized that I don't have the talent for writing unplotted stories. I was bored. I gave it up.

I don't feel I've deprived the world of any great novel. I know better. But Rayner's "can" has stayed in my mind for forty-eight hours. "Can" not only in terms of skill but also in terms of acceptance in the marketplace. Are literary careers much different from acting careers? Do a lot of writers live out their years writing only what the market will buy or taking only what comes along? And are some writers trapped by success, writing virtually the same book over and over again because of the money involved, like a stereotyped actor the p[ublic will accept in only one role?

I don't have any answers to these questions. And my questions may be inane or misplaced. But Rayner's "can" really got to me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I write what I can. Little of it is based on what I've experienced. Most of it rises from my imagination, and also how I have processed things I've learned or researched. Some women novelists have argued that a male writer cannot possibly catch what it is to be a woman and create a realistic woman character. I find myself in the opposite school, believing that an author of imagination and sensitivity and a questing mind can indeed capture people utterly different, and depict events beyond anything they have experienced. The better authors write what they can; the lesser ones depend on experience, and are esentially writing memoirs.

Richard Wheeler