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Willa Cather on Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art

Willa Cather on Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art - Willa Cather, Stephen Tennant Spotted on a friend's coffee table: I like WIlla Cather, I like writing, and it's short. This isn't a coherent volume at all, just some scattered introductions and reviews, but Cather's aesthetics are so different from those predominating today that a few hours of visiting with them is bracing, salutary.Perhaps the easiest summary here of that difference is in the Foreword by one Stephen Tennant (itself dating to 1949): "A great writer should always have an anonymous quality, something remote like a pregnant silence—which is silent, and yet contains all sound, all time, all things." Cather finds that greatness in Sarah Orne Jewett, Katherine Mansfield, and Stephen Crane, and emphatically not in Defoe's Roxana. She seems to have gotten the memo about the worth of negative reviews.The Roxana essay (written as an introduction to a Knopf reissue!) damns the book as petty, mercantile, and heartless, making no allowance for that being Defoe's intent. In that essay and in "The Novel Démeublé" (it's another sign of this book's antiquity that French words and passages are not translated for the reader), Cather spares nothing in condemning the then-hot (she wrote most of these pieces in the '20s) novel of bottomless description and endless domestic detail. I wonder how Franzen might respond to her points; but I also wonder where Perec's Les Choses fits into her scheme. That novel's insistent foregrounding of material items and commercial transactions seems, thanks to Cather, to have been anticipated by Defoe's novel, and while neither one would hold any position on her axis of literary value, I can now see a possible progression of experiments in coopting non-literary language for literary purposes.There's not much here that will directly help the writer with his or her own projects, but it's a quick and refreshing reminder that the way we read and write doesn't have to have changed with times and technology. Some classics are classics for good reason.