Monday, May 5, 2014

A Matter of Taste

Even though your career as a writer, editor, and teacher was fashioned on the lathe of chance, you did not come by your own preferences in reading material by happenstance.  To the contrary, you spent many hours in libraries, used book stores, and that near magical all-night newsstand in Hollywood, frustration mounting as you skimmed one title after another before you were at last able to take something home.

If you got the material home, chances of you finishing it were high, although finishing did not of necessity mean you'd appreciate it.  The "material" involved genres of great interest to you, as well as your attempts to make up for things you'd wished to have studied while at the University--but did not.  

Your genres of interest were science fiction, hardboiled/noir mystery, general literature, nineteenth century American literature, and twentieth century American, English, and some French literature.  Much of your frustrations in finding things you considered suitable came from your belief that you could not plot, at least not in the sense you wished, which would have allowed you to write more mysteries.

Add to this idiosyncratic approach your need as a beginning editor to read great truckloads of submissions, many from previously unpublished authors, but as well, many from authors with some street cred.  Such reading was a necessary aspect of moving along the editorial track.

If becoming an editor was the equivalent of Accident Number One, then becoming a book reviewer for metropolitan dailies became Accident Number Two.  In the early stages of your reviewing, you had no say in what was assigned to you.  The Los Angeles Times, in fact, took the position that if you asked for a particular book, you either wanted to do a hatchet job or pay off a debt to a writer you admired.

To keep reviewing for the Times, you took what they assigned.  In one case, Christopher Isherwood suggested you as an appropriate reviewer for one of his titles (and you indeed were), bringing upon you the observation, "We had no idea you were gay."  You weren't but you knew Isherwood through your mutual connection with the Vedanta Society.

Accident Number Three was becoming a teacher, which meant among many other things that you had to read manuscripts all the way through, then offer constructive suggestions for enhancing the work.  This also meant you got to read some things you might not otherwise have seen.

While it is true you have written books and essays in which you have attempted to define such things as story, concept, plot, theme, and the like, there is equal truth to support your statement that you may still be unable to describe the standards to which you subscribe and those you adjure where your personal reading tastes are concerned.

This condition was a pigeon returned home to roost earlier this afternoon, when you took some time to begin reading the submissions of a student fiction/essay/poetry contest of which you are one of the judges.  One of the pieces, a six- or seven-page short story, written by an anonymous student, was so much the sort of appealing material that your personal evaluation was a 9 on a one-to-ten scale, while the next two things were scant 5s.

Best you get to work trying to write your reasons for finding this work so compelling, satisfying, illuminating.  For certain, you know this much:  Reading the story ratifies the accident that got you into teaching in the first place, the accident that brought you to College of Creative Studies, UCSB, in the second place.  

There is without doubt a huge generational gap between you and the writer of this lovely story.  You are impressed with the writer's sense of Reality and how she--the writer must surely be a young woman--compresses it without explaining the compression or in any way apologizing for the holes within the tissue connecting the character's inner narrative.  You must find a way to articulate this so that the result will add itself to the hard drive you call your taste for literature, its writing and its reading.

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