Sunday, May 10, 2015

Willa Cather on the Art of Fiction

One of my favorite literary authors is Willa Cather. I like her more than anything else for her sensitivity to the land as a living, vital force shaping the destinies of her characters rather than a mere backdrop for action. She's also a person I admire as having found her own way through life. After a youth marked by a certain amount of what must have seemed eccentric behavior to her fellow townsmen (conducting scientific experiments, adopting men's clothing and a masculine nickname, etc.), she set out to become a physician and subsequently became a writer, yet retained a deep respect for and understanding of the milieu that had produced her, whereas a lesser person would merely have shaken the dust from her feet.

A few years ago I made a detour whilst traveling through Nebraska to visit Red Cloud, her hometown and the setting of many of her novels. As I've mentioned before, there's nothing quite like visiting the place that most influenced an artist you admire.

On the Divide, near Red Cloud, Nebraska.
We took the tour of her childhood home and visited all the salient landmarks, including the drug store (where she performed dissections), the opera house (where she performed in plays), and so forth, guided by the kindly old ladies at the visitors' center. Being great admirers of Death Comes for the Archbishop (which happens to be set in the Santa Fe area), we made the mistake of mentioning it to said ladies, only to have it hastily brushed aside, despite their glowing praise of works set in the Red Cloud area. Amusing.

On right edge of the window you can see the drug store.
Anyway, what brought this post on is my discovery of the following short essay, offered for your inspiration (emphasis mine):

On the Art of Fiction 

One is sometimes asked about the "obstacles" that confront young writers who are trying to do good work. I should say the greatest obstacles that writers today have to get over, are the dazzling journalistic successes of twenty years ago, stories that surprised and delighted by their sharp photographic detail and that were really nothing more than lively pieces of reporting. The whole aim of that school of writing was novelty—never a very important thing in art. They gave us, altogether, poor standards—taught us to multiply our ideas instead of to condense them. They tried to make a story out of every theme that occurred to them and to get returns on every situation that suggested itself. They got returns, of a kind. But their work, when one looks back on it, now that the novelty upon which they counted so much is gone, is journalistic and thin. The especial merit of a good reportorial story is that it shall be intensely interesting and pertinent today and shall have lost its point by tomorrow. 
Art, it seems to me, should simplify. That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole—so that all that one has suppressed and cut away is there to the reader’s consciousness as much as if it were in type on the page. Millet had done hundreds of sketches of peasants sowing grain, some of them very complicated and interesting, but when he came to paint the spirit of them all into one picture, "The Sower," the composition is so simple that it seems inevitable. All the discarded sketches that went before made the picture what it finally became, and the process was all the time one of simplifying, of sacrificing many conceptions good in themselves for one that was better and more universal. 
Any first rate novel or story must have in it the strength of a dozen fairly good stories that have been sacrificed to it. A good workman can't be a cheap workman; he can't be stingy about wasting material, and he cannot compromise. Writing ought either to be the manufacture of stories for which there is a market demand—a business as safe and commendable as making soap or breakfast foods—or it should be an art, which is always a search for something for which there is no market demand, something new and untried, where the values are intrinsic and have nothing to do with standardized values. The courage to go on without compromise does not come to a writer all at once—nor, for that matter, does the ability. Both are phases of natural development. In the beginning the artist, like his public, is wedded to old forms, old ideals, and his vision is blurred by the memory of old delights he would like to recapture.
Courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

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