"All Trees Are Oak Trees.…": Introductions to Literature

On to my second category: visiting writers' obiter dicta to which I readily nod assent and which I find myself often quoting, but not without some amplification or qualification. I like Dylan Thomas's (sober) assertion, for example, that "all trees are oak trees, except pine trees": It serves to remind early-apprentice writers especially that to say "Patsy paused under a tree" or "Just then Fred's car zipped by" is almost always less effective than specifying what sort of tree and automobile were involved—specificity being one component of sensory texture, and sensory texture being usually a literary plus (but not invariably, I remind them: Don't forget Beckett). Whence one goes on to suggest—they having in revision paused Patsy under a Norway maple and zipped Fred into a milk-white Camaro—that it were well if those specifications turned out to be not only specific, but relevant. Why a Norway maple instead of a weeping birch? Why a milk-white Camaro (Mary Robison) instead of a gamboge Cadillac (Frederick Barthelme) or a "high, rat-colored car" (Flannery O'Connor, the mother of automotive specificity in American literature)?

Into this same middle category go the contradictory recommendations of Joseph Heller and E.L. Doctorow regarding dramaturgical advance planning. Heller declared to our seminar that he always wrote his novels' closing chapters first: How would he know how to get there, he asked rhetorically, if he didn't know where he was going? Mind you, he went on, these first-draft last chapters were proposals, not binding contracts; by the time he re-reached them, small or large changes might well be in order. But he could no more begin a novel without knowing how he meant to end it than he could launch into a joke without knowing its punch line. Doctorow, on the contrary (not in my seminar, but in one of his at Sarah Lawrence College decades ago, whence one of his students later came to us and retold the tale when I retold Heller's), is alleged to have said that a novelist "needn't see beyond [his] headlights"—which I take to mean that knowing the direction of the next plot turn is navigational data enough; that bridges farther down the road may be crossed when one arrives at them. All very well, perhaps, I warned my seminarians, for a veteran professional like Doctorow with doubtless well-established work habits and seasoned intuitions, but dangerous advice indeed for apprentice novelists, a fair number of whom I've seen write themselves into all but inextricable culs-de-sac. Something between Doctorow's improvisatory insouciance and Heller's to-me-unimaginably-detailed advance planning is probably soundest for most of us yarnspinners: The aforecriticized John Gardner—by all reports a first-rate coach despite his wrongheadedness, by my lights, in certain areas—wisely observes (in his treatise On Becoming a Novelist) that most novels culminate in some sort of all-hands-on-deck Big Scene, and that it were well for the author to have at least some advance notion of that scene's lineaments. Something may be said for putting off the crossing of bridges until one reaches them, but it helps to know ahead of time that there's a bridge or two to be crossed, and whether it looks to be a footbridge or the Golden Gate.

I've saved for last that first category of authorial obiter dicta: observations about writing made by visiting authors that I find myself quoting without need of comment. With a sigh I recall a reluctant, taciturn, and very weary-looking John Dos Passos in Johns Hopkins's Gilman Hall back in the early 1950s (he lived nearby then, a widower saddened further by the indignation of many liberals at what they saw as his turncoat right-wingery during the McCarthy era) warning us starry-eyed aspirants that writing was "a bad job." More cheering was Norman Mailer's reply when I reported to him, two decades later, Dos Passos's gloomy remark: "Granted, the pay's not so hot—but you can't beat the hours." Mailer, by the way, preferred not to be introduced at all when he visited us at Buffalo just after publishing Why Are We in Vietnam? At his request, he and I sparred or shadowboxed or something for a few seconds in the lobby of the auditorium—my first and only experience of that alarming exercise—and then he sprang to the podium and introduced himself.

I like to repeat, too, Joyce Oates's caution (back at Hopkins again) about literary regionalism: A strong sense of place, she granted, may be valuable indeed to a writer; on the other hand, she warned, it can be all too easy to become the Sweet Singer of Saskatchewan, for example, with an audience that may not extend beyond that doubtless songworthy place. Larry McMurtry more or less seconded this proposition by good-humoredly complaining that he'd so often been called by critics a "good minor regional novelist" that he'd had a T-shirt made up for himself with that damningly qualified praise. McMurtry also told us—this was decades ago—that the reason he got along well back in his Hollywood scriptwriting days was that he didn't give a damn whether his screenplays were finally produced or not, as long as he got paid; the main purpose of screenplays anyhow, he declared, is to give the producer some idea of how many locations are involved, for budget and logistical purposes. Stanley Elkin, too, after a stint in LaLa-Land, waxed eloquent on the inferior status of words in film as opposed to prose fiction: We writer types, he said, are in the habit of thinking that stories are told with lines like Proust's "For a long time we went to bed early," or Joyce's "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan…" Movies, on the other hand, said Elkin, tell stories this way—and he launched into hilarious extended wordless sound effects: cars screeching to a halt, doors slamming, footsteps approaching, other obscure but portentous noises.… Not easy for a wordsmith to adjust to.

Then there's William H. Gass's memorable response to a student who asked him whether a writer's first concern ought to be the reader's pleasure or the author's. Neither, Gass replied: To put the reader's pleasure first is pandering; to put the author's pleasure first is self-indulgence. A writer's first concern, he declared, ought to be for the verbal artifact that's trying, with the writer's collaboration, to get itself said. The author as midwife: I like that.

I like, too, the exchange I had some decades past with the poet John Ashbery, whom I was delivering to his Baltimore reading-cum-Q&A and who to my surprise appeared just a tad anxious about the latter. "What sort of questions do you think they're going to ask me, Jack?" he wondered, to which I replied, "Oh, probably the usual, John—like, "Do you write with a pen or a typewriter?" That sort of thing." Much cheered, he said, "Oh, I hope they ask that one! I like that one!" Alas, no one must have done so, or I'd surely be repeating Ashbery's response.

As I enjoy repeating the so-prolific John Updike's response to my student who asked him…I don't recall exactly what; perhaps whether he had ever abandoned a project-in-the-works, for Updike's reply was to the effect that now and then he would set aside a fiction-in-progress because he didn't recognize its author as (quoting Updike) "nimble old me." Nimble, yes: That's him, for sure, a self-assessment as modest as it is exact. Likewise James Michener's response to the student who asked him what he regarded as his major strength and his most serious weakness as a novelist. The former, Michener replied unhesitatingly, was information: Whether writing about Iberia, Texas, Poland, or Outer Space, he prided himself on doing his homework. And his major weakness? "Human psychology," confessed our visitor with a smile and a shrug. "Don't know the first thing about it."

And that sort of authorial self-recognition informs—most touchingly, by my lights—the final item in this little anthology of en passants. In the only conversation I ever had with Robert Frost, who visited us at Penn State on a wintry spring day some 40 years ago, the old poet invited us to ask him anything we cared to: He was too deaf to hear our questions anyhow, he said, but he would answer something. I don't recall what my question was, but I remember clearly Frost's reply: that every spring for as long as he could remember, he would notice that the oak trees up his way still had a few forlorn brown leaves hanging on from the previous autumn. The sight of those weather-beaten remnants, he declared, never failed to suggest to him the tatters of a blown-out sail on a ship limping into harbor after storms, and his professional intuition never failed to tell him that there was in that simile not merely a poem, but a Robert Frost poem—a Robert Frost poem that, alas, the poet of that name had yet to figure out. Nor did he ever, to my knowledge, although there is passing mention of oak leaves in several of his verses.

As might be expected, one supposes—given that all trees are oak trees (except pine trees).

John Barth is the author of numerous works of fiction, including The Sot-Weed Factor, Lost in the Funhouse, the National Book Award–winner Chimera, and The Book of Ten Nights and a Night, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin in April. He is professor emeritus in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.