So I have a bunch of these on my bookshelf:
You might notice the W volume is missing. That’s because after we’d decorated the Christmas tree but before the new washing machine was delivered, I pulled it off the shelf to see what it had to say about writing. Here’s what I found:
Because writing seems so easy, everyone thinks he can do it. Anyone who can speak is apt to assume that he can also write, regardless of whether he is equipped with literary skills. In no other area does the professional worker face such widespread competition from amateurs and semi-professionals.
Goodness! That reads a bit snooty, doesn’t it? But these encyclopedias were published in 1962, and if you think the “he” is sexist, you should see what they have to say about washing machines and how much easier they made a woman’s work.
1962 doesn’t seem all that long ago to me, but the math says otherwise. The math says that’s over 50 years, which is kind of a pretty long time ago. There was no blogging back then. No Tumblr, no Twitter, no Facebook. Just typewriters. And sexist language about writing and clothes washing. And you may have noticed a slight difference in the way people thought about writing, in the above. Take this for example, in the below:
The requisites for success in writing are an above-average mental capacity for observing and comprehending life and experience, a talent for using words in meaningful ways, and an irresistible urge to put those words on paper.
I can’t see the folks at Blogging 101 starting off the semester on a note like that, asking everyone to bring their above average mental capacity for observing and comprehending. At least not seriously.
I’m not sure why I pulled the W volume off the shelf to read about writing, but I was intrigued. It reminded me of another book I recently read and wrote about called Writing Fiction, which coincidentally, was also published in 1962. That book had this to say:
It may be that in spite of interest and industry you are not cut out to be a writer who earns a name and a wage by writing fiction. It would be folly to go on year after year sacrificing to a talent too small to pay back the investment…”
Mercy! However, a moment later, we’re offered a caveat. The author takes writing seriously, and thinks it’s a worthwhile pursuit, both noble and difficult, even for those who aren’t getting paid. He says that if after struggling to master your craft, to write things people will pay to read, you fail, then you have this to console you:
…But if common sense tells you this is the case, you need not believe for one minute that all the effort and the hope you have thus far poured into the task of writing have been wasted. Whatever you have gained of insight into life and the creative process will be a permanent possession. And nothing obliges you to stop writing just because you decided not to make a career of it. You have a craft that is far more than a hobby. You have a means of self-education that is far more than a do-it-yourself program for self-improvement. To the extent that you have learned to control the art of fiction you have earned the right to consider yourself a professional. You have within your power the means to enrich and humanize all the vicissitudes that life can bring you. Cherish it, and extend it.”
That should make us all feel a bit better, shouldn’t it?
Am I serious?
I think so.
What’s interesting to me about these quotes is how the art, or craft, or act of writing, however we term it, was made out to be a much bigger thing in 1962 than it is today. Its importance, the importance of doing it well, the difficulty of doing it well — these things are assumed, and spoken of not just openly, but pretty bluntly. To the point where today we would consider the attitude off-putting, if not elitist. Maybe similar to the sexism of washing machines being so great for women. This task is for you. Others will do this. I hold you unworthy of this one, but not this one.
I pulled the N volume to see what it said about the novel, to see if I might be allowed to write one by these guys from ’62. Here’s the first paragraph:
A novel is a long prose story that is largely imaginary…
Well, I knew that. But it goes on:
…Its chief purpose is to entertain, but its underlying aim is to help readers to understand life…
Well, then. That’s quite a task put to the novel writer. I’m not sure that message has gone out to some of the popular ones of our time. (I won’t mention any names.) Certainly a few ebook writers missed it. Nothing against those ebook writers, or those who read them.
…The novel mirrors the history of mankind. W. M. Thackeray’s Henry Esmond teaches us facts in English history; John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath tells of the plight of United States dustbowl farmers during the depression. [And] the novel may do more than mirror history: it may even influence it. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin gave great impetus to the movement to free the slaves. Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby told such a pathetic story of the treatment of children in an English school that it led to a movement to reform education.
Okay, now comes the kicker…
The novel can not only teach people and help to shape society, but also it can make the reader a more understanding person, more tolerant and more sympathetic towards suffering.
The LGBT community is perking up at this. So are the Liberation Theologians. And anyone else who considers themselves oppressed in some way. But I’m afraid these white guys are talking about other white guys:
Reading a great novel like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov or Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is an emotional experience that can serve to broaden the humanity of the reader. Like a great play such as William Shakespeare’s King Lear, a great novel enriches the human spirit.
As it happens, the last novel I read was The Grapes of Wrath. And I would say that it did enrich my spirit. I learned more from it about the history of the dustbowl and the Great Depression, and what it must have been like to be an “Okie” driven from your land by corporate farming, than I did from any history class.
And it was damn good writing, too. You don’t much see writing that good anymore.
It seems the call is – maybe was, back in the day – to be the absolute best writers we can be. To move others with words, to educate, to entertain. To not just say something, but to say something of value, and say it well.
And today, the call might be to make the reader a more understanding person, more tolerant and more sympathetic towards suffering.
Or maybe it’s just to sell an ebook that might be good, might be crappy. Who cares so long as it sells.
So let me ask, when was the last time you read a novel that broadened your humanity or enriched your spirit? Does writing require an above-average mental capacity for observing and comprehending life and experience? Have we lost a reverence for the craft of writing over the last fifty years, or is that an elitist, white, heterosexual, male washing-machines-are-for-women mindset?
How are the ebooks selling?
In closing, here are some thoughts on the Washing Machine, courtesy of 1962. (I apologize on behalf of all white men writing for World Book that year.)