All the News That Fits
“Literature is news that stays news.” The modernist defense of poetry coined by Ezra Pound might also stand for the Observer’s bi-annual books issues, in which we briefly set aside deadline-driven political journalism, expand the Books and the Culture section, and encourage writers to take longer and deeper looks at the cultural context of Texas life and letters. The work on these special issues (one at mid-summer, the other at the turn of the year) begins months in advance, with book assignments which look promising, but we never entirely know what the writers will come up with. Half the excitement is watching the pieces accumulate, change through the editing process, and begin to reverberate among each other – some sparking interconnections we had hoped for, others we didn’t recognize in advance.
So it is exhilarating to open the issue with essays by Don Graham and Michael Erard on the newly-published memoirs of two of Texas’ most important and accomplished writers, Larry McMurtry and Horton Foote. The books provide perspective on the history, styles, and habits of mind of the novelist and the playwright. Juxtaposed here, they also provide unique personal recollections of particular Texas times and places, and ways of life that are no more – conjuring up completely distinct meanings of “Life in Texas.”
Two of the essays – Robert Bonazzi on Leticia Garza-Falcón and Lyman Grant on Dave Oliphant’s Prickly Pear Press – evoke the range of the Texas literary tradition, spotlighting particular aspects of that tradition all too often neglected in discussions of Southwestern literature. Garza-Falcón’s reconstructive criticism of borderlands writing, as described in Bonazzi’s essay, is a powerful counterpoint to a mainstream Anglo-Texas perspective that sometimes finds an uncritical home in the university – and even in these pages, particularly in the Observer’s early years. We are also delighted to have Grant’s critical overview of Oliphant and his press, now in its twenty-sixth year: Oliphant has given a publishing home to a body of poetry that would likely have fallen by the wayside if not for his extraordinary dedication.
Oliphant’s accomplishments recall another minor motif in this issue. He and Dave Hickey, the subject of Dick Holland’s richly eclectic retrospective, each passed through the doors and pages of Riata, a University of Texas literary journal that marked the beginnings of several Texas writers. Hickey and Oliphant moved on to very different work, but they remain tied to their Texas roots, and the polyglot material that appears in their writing owes much to the permanent sense of inchoate possibility in Texas. And Rick DeMarinis, until recently a distinguished teacher of creative writing at the University of Texas at El Paso, is the subject of an insightful review by Tom Grimes, who directs the creative writing program at Southwest Texas State. The tradition maintains and renews itself.
Naomi Shihab Nye, our esteemed and inexhaustible poetry editor, contributes not only her selections for the poetry page (this issue expanded), but offers as well her quirkily original discovery for a final word: a book on urban gardening across the country, in which the ideas of fresh vegetables and revitalized communities sit down together for a meal.
Perhaps the most surprising reverberation in the issue is an internal one: James Sledd’s cheeky juxtaposition of James Veninga on the Humanities with Andrew Morton’s biography of Monica Lewinsky. It might not seem that the choice should work, but Sledd pulls it off, for a sardonic commentary on the absurdities of contemporary politics set against what used to be called the intelligentsia. (Sledd’s argument is comically set off by Harrison Saunders’ illustration – with our apologies to Botticelli.)
As our readers might suspect, we haven’t abandoned here the Observer’s ongoing journalistic preoccupations: Karen Olsson looks at the life and legend of the extraordinary Texan humanitarian, Fred Cuny; David Dow considers the reform-resistant structures of American criminal justice; and Andrew Wheat skeptically examines the permanent corporate government. These essays look beyond the limits of breaking news stories, for deeper narratives that will definitely be with us for a very long time.
And for news that will truly stay news, consider the fictional centerpiece of this Summer Books Issue, Dagoberto Gilb’s “A Painting in Santa Fe.” Gilb, a native of El Paso who now lives in Austin, is one of the most distinguished young fiction writers in the country, and on rare occasions has honored the Observer with his stories. “Santa Fe” is special not only in its quality, but works exceptionally well for this particular collection of essays, in that it also provides a quiet but acute commentary on the notions of art, freedom, and human possibility that so often flow through these pages – even when we seem to be talking about something else. (Notice as well the woodcut illustration by the young Mexican artist, Artemio Rodriguez.) We are proud to be able to share “A Painting in Santa Fe,” in creative company with the other pieces from the group of Texas writers we set before our readers here.
For old friends and new readers, please enjoy this collection of some of the best in Texas writing, as it comes together in the summer of 1999. – M.K.
This issue was partially funded through a grant from the Austin Writers’ League, in cooperation with the Texas Commission on the Arts.