Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Line Drawn in the Sand


From time to time, you have reason to recall one of your absolute favorite short stories, John Sayles brilliant “At the Anarchist’s Convention.”

You place that story on a shelf by itself, above such contenders as D. H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner,” Graham Greene’s “The Basement Room,” Bobbie Ann Mason’s “Shiloh,” and Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss.”  Guilt for holding the Sayles story in such esteem over some F. Scott Fitzgerald epics (“Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” and the Pat Hobby stories) or those from John Cheever, Lorrie Moore, or, yes, even Deborah Eisenberg.  Nor will you apologize to a certain Mr. Twain and his “The Grandfather’s Ram” story.

Although you are not an anarchist, your heart goes out to the old lefties of Sayles’ portrait.  You appreciate taking stands; you appreciate those who have taken stands.  There is something glorious about a life in which there were and are stands to take—even ones that were, in retrospect, foolish.

You have drawn a line in the sand which has resulted in severing your relationship with an organization you cared about since you were inducted into it in 1980, an organization headed until the early years of this century by one of your oldest and dearest friends.

For most of your association with the Santa Barbara Writers’ conference, you were convinced of its certain value to most who wished with sincerity to enhance their personal writing ability.  You’ve made many lasting friendships, learned much, suffered relatively little, at times enjoyed yourself immensely.

For some years, you treasured the opportunity to hang out with two individuals, whom you’ll call Bob and Charles.  Both were cartoonists, men whose work you knew and loved.  In a way, you’d grown up on Bob’s creation, Batman.  Charles came a bit later, influencing you at a time when, for all practical purposes, you were completely formed and needed rather than a catch-up education, an ongoing process of curiosity and focus on the small-but-tangible verities of existence.

Charles drew a strip featuring pre-pubescent kids, the occasional beagle, the occasional bird.  Bob and Charles were good to hang out with, to discuss short stories, influences such as those of Anton Chekhov, but also John Cheever, Irwin Shaw, and Flannery O’Connor.  Bob and Charles represented to you a high degree of the benefits of being involved with a writers’ conference

For all practical purposes, you lunched with the owner of the conference at least twice most weeks, shared secrets, dreams, and projects in the works.  You read and critiqued each other’s work.

The line drawn in the sand was put in place when the new owner of the conference prevailed upon you to write a review speaking not only to his most recent novel but as well to its context with his two previous ones.  This began the process, trains, metaphorically leaving the round house, setting off on the same track.

As a courtesy, you tried to suggest your conviction that you and the owner had differing visions of the place of style and usage in fiction, articulating what you thought to be the visions you each had of what a novel has, what is required of it.

As you see the subsequent events, the owner was so certain you would be led by your reading to share his views, he urged you to settle straightaway into the reading and review processes.  Prior to these transactions, the owner had received a scant few reviews of such negativity as to be downright insulting to the owner.  With resolve, you read.  Your reading led you to the conclusion that the negative reviews were mild.

The new owner, you believe, has produced a work in serious need of editorial support, a view you shared with the owner but did not include in the review.

You did say in the review words to the effect that the style and voice of the novel set forth with such propellant force that it left character and story behind.

When the owner read the review, his first response was to admire the narrative thrust and evaluation until the final two paragraphs where, after you congratulated him for his extensive effort, you spoke to what you believed were metaphorical albatrosses weighing it down, occasioning these two final paragraphs.

You’ve used the concept of metaphor with deliberation because in rapid succession the owner performed in a manner reminiscent of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.  He wondered how you could have done such a thing to him.  When you reminded him that you, suspecting this outcome, had not thought to review the work in the first place, the metaphor repeated itself.  Mt. Vesuvius erupted again, reminding you of all he’d done for you.  Over the course of the years you’ve known him, you can think of three or four times he had a few pizzas delivered to the final session of your late-night fiction workshop, gestures you thought were kind tokens, but there had been no other incidents of serious, much less ideological bonding.

You saw the line in the sand as a metaphor of your own, the need for you to submit your resignation.  And now the phone rings and your email box fills with messages from others—not the owner himself—asking, imploring you to reconsider for the good of the conference.

A poor novel is still a poor novel.

Writer’s conferences are venues wherein many flawed manuscripts may be diagnosed, but a writers’ conference under the guidance is a poor novelist remains suspect.

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