Thursday, January 14, 2010

Literary Life

Larry McMurtry, Literary Life: A Second Memoir (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009). 175 pp. $24.00.

The present volume, the middle layer of a triple-decker memoir, “is mainly about how the books came to me,” Larry McMurtry says. A self-described “midlist author,” McMurtry is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning cattle-drive saga Lonesome Dove (1985), although he has written better novels and worse—thirty in all. “Little of my work in fiction is pedestrian,” he ventures, trying to account for “the literary establishment’s long disinterest” in his work, “but, on the other hand, none of it is really great.” A contemporary of Philip Roth, John Updike, Thomas Pynchon, and Joyce Carol Oates, he is neither a literary celebrity nor an advanced novelist with a cult following. Why then does he suppose that very many readers, most of whom have read only a few of his books—I myself have read only ten—will be particularly interested in how the books came to him?

He himself does not really care about his novels once they are written:

I had expected to be thrilled when I received my first copy of my first book [Horseman, Pass By, 1961], but when I opened the package and held the first copy in my hand, I found that I just felt sort of flat. . . . I learned then and have relearned many times since, that the best part of a writer’s life is actually doing it, making up characters, filling the blank page, creating scenes that readers in distant places might connect to. The thrill lies in the rush of sentences,not in talking about them afterwards. Literary Life is not about the genesis of “midlist” fiction, then. What really diverts McMurtry is gossip.

Thus he confides that his friendship with Ken Kesey, formed when they were both Wallace Stegner Fellows in creative writing at Stanford in 1960, soured after Lonesome Dove captured the Pulitzer Prize. The last time that John Updike sent a letter, he chided McMurtry on the price of a “nice copy” of E. B. White’s Every Day Is Saturday that McMurtry, who doubles as a rare-book dealer, was asking—even though it was a “very good price.” Willie Morris was so upset with McMurtry’s review of The Last of the Southern Girls that he crossed to the other side of the street every time he passed McMurtry’s bookstore in Washington. Calvin Trillin ate all the sushi, “as is his habit,” at a reading at the 92nd Street Y. Susan Sontag stormed out of a PEN American Center fund-raising gala, because she was seated at a table with people who didn’t know who she was.

Not all the gossip is about writers. For several years Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, used the third floor of McMurtry’s Washington bookstore as a study. Wieseltier kept a framed portrait of the French enthusiast for violence and pornography Georges Bataille on his desk along with “scholarly papers on anesthesia and anesthesiology.” Why McMurtry encouraged the worst habits of the man who once said “Maybe I am so sick of self-importance because I am so given to it” is beyond understanding.

Wieseltier excelled at “the phenomenon of networking, as practiced at the highest level in D.C., Paris, London, and a few other capitals.” Although he claims no talent at getting to know people of any importance, McMurtry includes gossip about other such non-writers as Peter Jennings, the director Peter Bogdanovich and his best girl Cybill Shepherd, former San Antonio mayer Henry Cisneros (who “brusquely insulted” him, though he doesn’t say how), Washington hostesses Barbara Howar and Katharine Graham, and Pamela Harriman, the “greatest horizontale of her era.”

His reason becomes clear when McMurtry reveals that his “idols” include the gossip columnist Taki Theodoracopulos. He has subscribed to the Spectator, he says, while living in three different cities, “just in order to read him.” What does he admire about Taki? “I suppose because he is able to make a lot of rich strangers interesting,” he says. And, sadly, this is typical of the literary comment in his memoir. It is loose, and McMurtry has taken no effort to screw it down tight.

As a great fan of the novelist Janet Lewis, whom I have praised here and here, I was heartened to learn that McMurtry appreciates her too. “Her brilliant novella The Wife of Martin Guerre is one of the finest of American short fiction,” he says without saying more. (What does he mean by “short fiction”? Earlier in the book he had complained that writing programs are founded upon “an obviously mistaken theory, the theory being that it is easier to write something short than to write something long.” And then he goes on to suggest that short stories are a separate species of fiction, unrelated to the novel, although he does not elaborate. Is he assigning Lewis’s Wife to the former rather than the latter? With what consequences? He doesn’t say.)

McMurtry is faithful to his method. Terms of Endearment is his best novel, although he does not say why. After reading one hundred and sixty studies of the novel, he concludes that the best are F. R. Leavis’s Great Tradition, along with Leavis’s wife Queenie’s Fiction and the Reading Public, “adding, for its brilliance, D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature,” which is concerned with the novel only in part. Why are these three the best? He doesn’t say. The “Scroll” edition of On the Road is better than the “tamer, shorter version that Viking tidied up and published in 1957.” Why? It is “a far richer book.” Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety are “both excellent novels, though, personally, I have a slight preference for Crossing to Safety.” Say no more!

What is gained by preserving such comments, which do not even rise to the level of a bored and disengaged interview? Beyond the need to scratch the itch to write, I mean. McMurtry recently announced that Rhino Ranch, published last August, would be his final novel. And I must say that I am not surprised. I once craved his writing so desperately that I attempted the superhuman feat of plowing through the 800-page Lonesome Dove at a single go, the same day it was published, staying up all night to do so. But I stopped reading him the very next year. Texasville (1987) was a steep falling off from his previous books, but it was even worse than that. It was slapdash and superficial, with a significance that was skin-deep. It was a candid record of McMurtry’s self-satisfaction.

After winning the Pulitzer Prize and seeing three of his novels turned into successful and critically acclaimed films (Hud, from his first novel Horseman, Pass By, The Last Picture Show, and Terms of Endearment), perhaps McMurtry had nothing left to prove. Perhaps he had settled for another kind of success after giving up on the literary establishment’s ever showing some interest in his work. Literary Life is mistitled, because it does not recall a literary life but rather the decline into literary indifference of a man who many years ago wrote some pretty decent books.


The Nameless Critic said...

Have you thought of opening a bookstore, David?

Which reminds me -- you missed the whole McMurtry bookstore thing. Over a decade ago McMurtry opened the world's largest used bookstore in Texas. You live in Texas, too. Have you been to that place?

You also miss the personal story of why McMurtry became disillusioned with writing:

Tom B. said...

I think Lonesome Dove was his last work of consequence. After that, he kept repeating himself: more westerns, sequels that revisited characters from earlier, deeper books. Rhino Ranch is a collection of two-page sketches that keep you turning pages but leave you with little to remember afterwards.

Dick Stanley said...

I mostly agree with you, because I have been bored by so many of McMurtry's post-Dove books. But did you not like Leaving Cheyenne?

D. G. Myers said...

I did like Leaving Cheyenne, but not as much as the “middle period” books Moving On, All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers, Terms of Endearment, and Somebody's Darling.