Slow Learner

This is what happens when I get interested in reading a book that I can’t get my hands on immediately: I go to the library and check out the next best thing.  I decided I wanted to read Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (the middle book in his “accidental trilogy“) after dismissing Cake, burning through 14 Stories*, and starting on The History of Love.  It’s what I wanted to do last night, and I wanted to do it right away.  But the local bookstore didn’t have a copy, and the one at the Hopkins library was checked out.  So there it was, Pynchon’s short story collection Slow Learner.

I wasn’t going to take it home, but then I read the first couple of pages of the introduction.  I initially thought the intro would be written by some editor or academic discussing Pynchon’s writing style or symbols.  Instead it turns out it’s Pynchon himself visibly embarrassed about how he wrote when he first started out (from which these five stories are collected from).

As nearly as I can remember, these stories were written between 1958 and 1964.  Four of them I wrote when I was in college–the fifth, “The Secret Integration” (1964), is more of a journeyman than any apprentice effort.  You may already know what a blow to the ego it can be to have to read over anything you wrote 20 years ago, even cancelled checks.

The entire introduction, 20 pages, is this: Pynchon pointing out his flaws in his early writing.  The second page has this passage, the passage that made me not put the book back on the shelf.  In reference to “The Small Rain”:

Apparently I felt I had to put on a whole extra overlay of rain images and reference to “The Waste Land” and A Farewell to Arms.  I was operating on the motto “Make it literary,” a piece of bad advice I made up all by myself and then took.

The whole thing is like this.  I read through most of it thinking, “Yeah, that’s pretty bad.  Glad I wouldn’t write like that.”  And then this particular passage, nine pages in, inverted my haughty tsk-tsking.

Disagreeable as I find “Low-lands” now, it’s nothing compared to my bleakness of heart when I have to look at “Entropy.”  The story is a fine example of a procedural error beginning writers are always being cautioned against.  It is simply wrong to begin with a theme, symbol or other abstract unifying agent, and then try to force characters and events to conform to it.  By contrast, the characters in “Low-lands,” though problematic in other ways, were at least where I began from, bringing the theoretical stuff in later, just to give the project a look of educated class.  Otherwise it would only have been about a number of unpleasant people failing to resolve difficulties in their lives, and who needs that?  Hence, adventitious lectures about tale-telling and geometry.

Which is exactly what I’ve been planning to do (start with themes and then work inward) for my first work.  Ugh.  So that’s not going to work.

I haven’t finished the introduction yet.  I had to put it down halfway through to give Inherent Vice the movie another viewing for our podcast recording tonight.  But so far the whole thing seems like solid advice for “apprentice” writers.  Like myself.  And Canelli.  Especially Canelli.

* Which was actually 13 short stories, the first of which was called “14 Stories”.

2 Comments

  1. Luigus

    Especially Canelli…what the…

    Am I somehow more apprentice than you? Let’s remember that I have a working draft of an entire novel…not a great draft by any means, but a draft. So…there’s that.

    Did I win this?

    Reply
  2. dasfuller (Post author)

    True, you do have an entire novel already. But I *remember* the Challenger Disaster. You’re, what, not even 30 yet! *cough*

    Reply

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