The following is an excerpt from the introduction to BASS 2010 (Best American Short Stories), in which Pulitzer Prize winning author, Richard Russo, shares his insights on the purpose of writing.
I found this both ____________ and ___________, and while you likely have no idea what those two blanks are supposed to represent, after reading this you will fully understand.
Much has been omitted here, and he continues on, comparing short stories to a jar full of bees among other things, so if you’d like to read the Introduction in its entirety, pick up a copy of “The Best American Short Stories 2010”. It also has some superb short fiction.Originally Posted by Richard Russo, from the Introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2010
IN THE LATE 1980's, when I was a young assistant professor at Southern Illinois University, Isaac Bashevis Singer visited campus. The English department had a small budget for visiting writers, but only the Honors College had funds sufficient to entice someone of Singer's stature to a place like Carbondale, Illinois, which meant that we had to share him with the entire university.
Mr. Singer was elderly and quite frail, his vision and hearing not what they once were, though his physical diminishments belied a still razor-sharp intelligence and wit. He traveled with his wife, and they were attentively cared for by the university, but for a man in his nineties he was worked pretty hard. In the afternoon, both undergraduate and grad students, as well as faculty from a variety of university disciplines, convened in a large room with an oblong table, at the head of which Mr. Singer had been ensconced. The students were awarded seats at the table, whereas their professors, chafing visibly at the arrangement, were consigned to an outer ring of folding chairs and reminded that the purpose of the session was to allow students to enter a dialogue with the great man, that their questions got priority. Seated at the very farthest remove from her husband was Mrs. Singer.
The first student question was obviously a plant. "Mr. Singer?" said one of the undergraduates. The old man had trouble locating the voice, lost as it was in the ambient noise of the room -- people settling into their chairs, whispering in nervous anticipation -- but finally saw the raised hand. "Mr. Singer? Could you tell us, please, What is the purpose of literature?"
Mr. Singer smiled broadly at the question, as if this were the first time he had ever heard it and was delighted to know the answer. "The purpose of literature," he said clearly, meeting the student's eye, "is to entertain and instruct."
He let his voice fall. Next question.
The undergraduate students looked at the graduate students, who looked at the outer ring of faculty. Clearly, everyone expected more. The question, after all, was the sort likely to generate whole classes of heated, unresolved debate, but here was a Nobel Prize winner who seemed to think that ten words sufficed to put the matter to rest.
"But Mr. Singer," the student persisted. "Shouldn't literature also--"
Singer held up his hand. "To entertain..." he repeated, pausing to allow his wisdom on the subject to sink in, "... and to instruct."
Though he couldn't have been clearer or more adamant, the question proved resilient. Over the next hour several other attempts were made by faculty and students to get their distinguished visitor to elaborate on the other possible uses (political? cultural?) of literature, but each time he demurred. Near the end of the session, an aggrieved voice rang out, "But in your own stories, don't you always..." At the sound of this new voice, Mr. Singer's head, which had begun to droop, snapped up, his eyes darting around the room, anxious to locate the source of this new objection. "You?" he said, squinting at his wife who sat in the farthest reaches of his milky vision, "You! I don't have enough problems?"
To entertain and to instruct. Interestingly, he never reversed the order. Literature, he seemed to suggest, couldn't possibly instruct without first entertaining: nor did he fail to pause dramatically between "entertain" and "instruct", as if he feared his listeners were more likely to forget the first purpose than the second...
I'd been in the lit biz for a good decade and had witnessed firsthand the propensity of my lit colleagues to mine both poetry and prose fiction for its sparkling nuggets of meaning (instruction) while allowing its many delights to run off like so much slurry. The very word "entertain" connotes to such folk a lack of seriousness, as if the ability to engage and delight readers amounted to a mere parlor trick. The desire to please, some would maintain, is akin to pandering...
Back in grad school I'd flirted with such ideas myself, but lately I'd come to suspect that the desire to show people a good time is a generous impulse rooted in humility. The artist acknowledges both the existence and the importance of others. He comes to us bearing a gift he hopes will please us. He starts out making the thing for himself, perhaps, but at some point he realizes he wants to share it, which is why he spends long hours reshaping the thing, lovingly honing its details in the hopes it will please us, that it will be a gift worth the giving and receiving...
Too often writers themselves, like composers terrified of being dismissed as "melody makers," give the impression that "instruction" is the big game worth stalking. Graham Greene, for instance, drew a distinction between his "serious novels" and "entertainments" like The Third Man, leaving readers to wonder if he was blind to what a fine piece of writing the latter is. Though, (Mr. Singer's) point seemed to be that while we might not all agree on what we find "entertaining," we're unlikely to confuse it with what's commonly meant by "instructive." One is a horse and the other's a cart, and in his opinion one belonged in front, the other behind...
That night Singer read to a packed auditorium. Given the paces he'd already been put through, I expected him to be exhausted, but instead he seemed invigorated. Either he'd had a nap or been fed a good meal (I can't imagine where, in Carbondale), or he was just pleased that with the afternoon's rough interrogation behind him, his only remaining task was to disappear into one of his magical tales.
Most nonwriters don't understand how wonderful it is for an author to lose himself (to lose, literally, his self) in a story he's written, or how similar the experience of doing so is to that of a nonwriter who loses himself in a stranger's story: for a time, you, your life, your troubles... none of it matters... Dickens is said to have read himself to death in huge auditoriums, losing himself night after night to Bill Syke's murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist. The best art has always had the power to seduce its creator.
Whoever worked the sound system the night of Mr. Singer's reading was given a delicate task. The faculty member whose job it was to introduce Mr. Singer was young and robust of voice, whereas the writer himself needed a significant boost from the microphone. His hellos were barely audible, but as he thanked the audience for coming to hear him read, the unseen sound engineer in the rear of the auditorium gradually brought up the volume until the small man before the microphone could be heard throughout the cavernous space. Here, like a new plot point introduced into a narrative already under way, the law of unintended consequences kicked in. Because the whole podium was now alive, the mic amplifying not just the speaker’s voice but every other sound. When the toe of his shoe encountered the base of the lectern, a deep explosion resulted, the reverberations of which he had to patiently wait out before continuing, though he seemed innocent of his own causal relationship to the disturbance.
My wife and I were seated near the front of the auditorium, and when Singer set down the thick sheaf of pages on the podium with another resounding boom, we regarded each other with chagrin. Did he mean to read them all? Was it his intention in this manner to exact literary revenge for the afternoon’s What-is-the-purpose-of-literature discussion?
He began to read, and after about twenty seconds – far too soon, it seemed – he finished and turned the first page, and I realized that, yes, of course, he meant to read them all, but there were only three or four sentences on each; the font had been magnified to accommodate the reader’s failing vision. Before he could move on to page two, though, page one had to be dispended with. Apparently the manuscript had been fastened with a large staple, not paper-clipped, and the sheaf was too thick for each page to be easily folded underneath the ones still to be read, so Mr. Singer decided, reasonably enough, simply to detach the finished page, which came free, reluctantly, with a loud pop. But now the poor man had another problem. The lectern was narrow, and there was nowhere to put the detached page. He thought about this for a second and arrived at a workable solution, simply letting go of it.
No doubt he expected the page to drop straight down and come to rest at his feet on the elevated stage. Instead it caught an air current and swooped out into the audience, where those seated in the front rows rose in a wave to field it. There was a ripple of nervous laughter which, blessedly, Mr. Singer appeared not to hear. He was finished with the second page now, and after a brief struggle and with a sound not unlike a cork being extracted from a champagne bottle, it too came free of its staple and wafted out into the audience. I leaned over to Barbara, my wife, and whispered, “Dear God.” There had to be at least fifty pages in the sheaf. This was going to happen fifty more times? I wasn’t sure I could bear it. Mr. Singer himself, though, had the determined look of a man who’d endured worse, and so I resumed my prayer, silently now, “Dear God, let this grand old man make it through his story. Give him his well-earned triumph. Do not make a mockery of him.”
Does God listen to the prayers of agnostic young novelists offered on behalf of elderly Nobel laureates?... After about twenty grueling pages, half of which ended up in the audience, Mr. Singer, finishing another page, gave his now customary page tug, but this time, despite his efforts, there was no pop. The page remained stubbornly affixed. He tugged again… still nothing. (Dear God dear God dear God). On the third try – a mighty yank this time – there was a detonation, and out into the audience fluttered not one page but two, each describing its own terrible arc. The page he needed to continue his story had broken containment, sailed out into the audience without his permission. All, I concluded, with my heart sinking, was lost.
But I was wrong. Only momentarily flustered, the old man reached into his suit jacket and took out another manuscript. “This sometimes happens,” he admitted ruefully. And not just to him, he seemed to imply, but rather to all who soldier on in the face of life’s myriad difficulties, expected (the frailty that comes with age) and unexpected (You! I don’t have enough problems?). Undaunted, he began to read a whole new story, a backup, the thing he’d learned long ago that it’s better to have and not need than to need and not have. He’d come to entertain us, to give us the best he had to offer, and he meant to do just that…
The impression he gave was of a man deeply grateful at such an advanced age to have so many devoted readers in a place he’d never been to before, people whose lives he’d touched by putting pen to paper. He’d never met them and wouldn’t meet them tonight. There were too many of them and there was just one of him, and when he was finished reading this new story, he’d be whisked away, empty of energy and even his magical words. But right now he enjoyed being among us strangers, giving us the gift of his voice. He read the second story in its entirety, calmly and without a glitch, as if his ninety-some years had taught him that he was unlikely to be thwarted twice in the same evening. He’d done all a man could reasonably do to anticipate and stave off disaster… Bathed in sweat and admiration, I felt – what’s the word? – instructed. Note to self: this is how it’s done.
To entertain and instruct…