09 July 2013

Tether's End

by Terence Faherty

In a review of J.K. Rowling's recent book, The Casual Vacancy, I came across the following haunting quote by Flannery O'Connor, the Southern novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

Flannery O'Connor
"The writer can chose what he writes about, but not what he can bring to life."

The book reviewer (whose name I forgot to note when I was recording the O'Connor quote in my journal) was making the point that Rowling had breathed life into a series of books about an improbable boy wizard but had fallen short with a realistic novel about a contemporary English town.  I have no idea whether this was a valid criticism of The Casual Vacancy, but it got me thinking about some favorite mystery writers and about writing in general.

The first writer who came to mind was the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wanted badly to be Sir Walter Scott, creator of Ivanhoe.  Doyle chose to spend a great deal of his time not writing about Sherlock Holmes--even famously killing him off and one point--or any other detective and he certainly wrote many successful non-mystery tales.  But Holmes and Watson remained the characters Doyle truly brought to life, along with their fogbound, gas-lit world.

Another example is Dorothy L. Sayers.  She drew herself back from the brink of failure and poverty by creating a fantastically wealthy sleuth who never failed, Lord Peter Wimsey.  She wrote a series of increasingly literary novels about Wimsey before finally breaking out of the Wimsey chrysalis--as she saw it--to write religious plays and translate Dante's Inferno.   But neither of these efforts cast the long shadow of Lord Peter, as improbable a character as Harry Potter and yet just as lively.

Then there are other favorites of mine like Margery Allingham, who lent me a title for these musings, and Raymond Chandler.  They established successful realms in crime fiction and never strayed far from them.  Were they less adventurous than Doyle and Sayers, more certain of the value of their work, or more conscious of that invisible tether of which O'Connor hinted?

Naturally, I also thought of my own writing, of the years I spent writing in the voice of Owen Keane, my failed seminarian and mystery addict, and the years I spent trying to find other voices.  Also about my faithfulness to mystery writing in general.  Does that fidelity reflect a conscious choice or an unseen tether?  And if it's a tether, who's holding the other end?

I find something else O'Connor said about writing more hopeful:  "The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet.  His job is to find that location."

The implication, unstated, is that every successful fiction writer will find a different crossroads, due to the variables of time and space.  The hope, also unstated, is that the writer will recognize that crossroads when he or she finds it, like an Allingham or a Chandler.  The historical record suggests that this isn't always the case, but also that it might not matter, that a Doyle or a Sayers might be writing for the ages whether or not he or she suspects it.

Good luck finding your own crossroads.  When you do, write your heart out.     

4 comments:

Robert Lopresti said...

Good piece. Another example is my old favr, Rex Stout. Whenever he stepped away from Wolfe and Archie it was like a different man was writing. He said Wolfe was born, not made, and that made all the difference.

Don Marquis lamented that he might only be remmbered for creating a cockroach and a cat, bit Archy and Mehitabel are unorgettable.

Sir Arthur Sullivan wanted to be rememembered for his "serious" mudic, not nonsense likt THE MIKADO. I could go on....

Eve Fisher said...

I don't think anybody gets to choose what they get remembered for - and it often isn't what we want to be remembered for. Sigh. But sometimes it is - Patrick O'Brien for his Aubrey and Maturin; E. F. Benson for the incomparable Mapp and Lucia; Shelby Foote for his Civil War Trilogy. The magic happens, something lives, and is remembered. Bottled lightning. Would that we could all catch it.

John Floyd said...

Well said, Terry. Things that all of us, as writers, need to remember.

Anonymous said...

It makes me think about the thing you hear so often these days, that it takes both the artist's or writer's piece of work and the viewer or reader's response to create the thing that's the actual "Art". I have a hard time wrapping my mind around that idea, but you point out here that this is really the case. The same author who penned a work that lit people's imaginations can write a piece that's dead as a doornail -- and the difference lies somewhere in that interaction between the creator and the reader. Serious food for thought.