Letters & Essays

Letter to an Editor

William Styron


The preface which you all wanted me to write, and which I wanted to write, and finally wrote, came back to me from Paris today so marvelously changed and re-worded that it seemed hardly mine. Actually, you know, it shouldn’t be mine. Prefaces are usually communal enterprises and they have a stern dull quality of group effort about them—of Manifesto, Proclamation of Aims, of “Where We Stand”—of editors huddled together in the smoke-laden, red-eyed hours of early morning, pruning and balancing syntax, juggling terms and, because each editor is an individual with different ideas, often compromising away all those careless personal words that make an individualistic statement exciting, or at least interesting. Prefaces, I’ll admit, are a bore and consequently, more often than not, go unread. The one I sent you, so balanced and well-mannered and so dull—I could hardly read it myself when I finished it—when it came back to me with your emendations and corrections I couldn’t read it at all. This, I realize, is the fault of neither or none of us; it’s inevitable that what Truth I mumble to you at Lipp’s over a beer, or that Ideal we are perfectly agreed upon at the casual hour of 2 A.M. becomes powerfully open to criticism as soon as it’s cast in a printed form which, like a piece of sculpture, allows us to walk all around that Truth or Ideal and examine it front, side, and behind, and for minutes on end. Everyone starts hacking off an arm, a leg, an ear—and you end up with a lump. At any rate, I’d like to go over briefly a few of the things you questioned; we’ll still no doubt disagree, but that’s probably for the better. There are magazines, you know, where a questioning word amounts to dishonesty, and disagreement means defection.

First, I said, “Literarily speaking, we live in what has been described as the Age of Criticism. Full of articles on Kafka and James, on Melville, or whatever writer is in momentary ascendancy; laden with terms like architectonic, Zeitgeist, and dichotomous, the literary magazines seem today on the verge of doing away with literature, not with any philistine bludgeon but by smothering it under the weight of learned chatter.” (Perfect beginning for a preface, you may note; regard the arch rhythms, the way it fairly looks down the nose at the reader.)

All right, then I said, “There is little wonder” (always a nice oblique phrase to use in a preface) “that, faced with Oedipus and Myth in Charlotte Brontë, with meter in Pope and darkness in Dante, we put aside our current quarterly with its two short poems, its one intellectualized short story, in deference to Life, which brings us at least ‘The Old Man and the Sea.’” This, of course, as you remember, was only by way of getting to the first brave part of the Manifesto: that THE PARIS REVIEW would strive to give predominant space to the fiction and poetry of both established and new writers, rather than to people who use words like Zeitgeist. Now in rebuttal, one of you has written that it is not always editorial policy that brings such a disproportion of critical manuscripts across the editors’ desks, pointing out that “in our schools and colleges all the emphasis is on analysis and organization of ideas, not creation.” The result is that we have critics, not creators, and you go on to suggest that, since this is the natural state of things, we should not be too haughty in stating our intention of having more fiction and poetry in THE PARIS REVIEW.

To this I can only say: d’accord. Let’s by all means leave out the lordly tone and merely say: dear reader, THE PARIS REVIEW hopes to emphasize creative work—fiction and poetry—not to the exclusion of criticism, but with the aim in mind of merely removing criticism from the dominating place it holds in most literary magazines and putting it pretty much where it belongs, i.e., somewhere near the back of the book. O.K.? But as for Zeitgeist, which you accuse me of denouncing unnecessarily, I still don’t like it, perhaps because, complying with the traditional explanation of intolerance, I am ignorant of what it means. I hope one of you will help me out.

Among the other points I tried to make was one which involved THE PARIS REVIEW having no axe to grind. In this we’re pretty much in agreement, I believe, although one of you mentioned the fact that in the first number of The Exile there were “powerful blasts” by Pound, among others, which added considerably to the interest of the magazine. True, perhaps. But is it because we’re sissies that we plan to beat no drum for anything; is it only because we’re wan imitations of our predecessors—those who came out bravely for anything they felt deeply enough was worth coming out bravely for? I don’t think so. I think that if we have no axes to grind, no drums to beat, it’s because it seems to us—for the moment, at least—that the axes have all been ground, the drumheads burst with beating. This attitude does not necessarily make us—as some of the Older Boys have called us—the Silent Generation (the fact of THE PARIS REVIEW belies that), or the Scared Generation, either, content to lie around in one palsied, unprotesting mass. It’s not so much a matter of protest now, but of waiting; perhaps, if we have to be categorized at all, we might be called the Waiting Generation—people who feel and write and observe, and wait and wait and wait. And go on writing. I think THE PARIS REVIEW should welcome these people into its pages—the good writers and good poets, the non-drumbeaters and non-axe-grinders. So long as they’re good.

Finally, and along these lines, I was taken pretty much to task by one of you for making the perhaps too general statement that there are signs in the air that this generation can and will produce literature equal to that of any in the past. Well, I suppose that is another Ringing Assertion, but it’s a writer’s statement, almost necessarily, and not a critic’s. A critic nowadays will set up straw-men, saying that Mailer had Ahab in mind when he created Sergeant Croft, that Jim Jones thought of Hamlet when he came up with his bedeviled Private Prewitt, stating further, however, that neither of these young men have created figures worthy of Melville or Shakespeare; they do this, or they leap to the opposite pole and cry out that no one writing today even tries to create figures of the tragic stature of Lear. For a writer, God forbid either course. I still maintain that the times get precisely the literature that they deserve, and that if the writing of this period is gloomy the gloom is not so much inherent in the literature as in the times. The writer’s duty is to keep on writing, creating memorable Pvt. Prewitts and Sgt. Crofts, and to hell with Ahab. Perhaps the critics are right: this generation may not produce literature equal to that of any past generation—who cares? The writer will be dead before anyone can judge him—but he must go on writing, reflecting disorder, defeat, despair, should that be all he sees at the moment, but ever searching for the elusive love, joy, and hope—qualities which, as in the act of life itself, are best when they have to be struggled for, and are not commonly come by with much ease, either by a critic’s formula or by a critic’s yearning. If he does not think one way or another, that he can create literature worthy of himself and of his place, at this particular moment in history, in his society, then he’d better pawn his Underwood, or become a critic.

Ever faithfully yours,

—Bill Styron

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