A New Chapter


Michael May

The Observer has long been a champion of our more stout and enduring literary brethren, and this books issue comes at a particularly perilous time for written work. The bound volume is in danger of being replaced by a digital screen (a trend that Steven Kellman delves into here in his take on The Late American Novel). You can now put a movie in your pocket and take it on the plane. Meanwhile, newspapers and magazines are scaling back their coverage of books and authors, and most publications long ago gave up on running fiction, assuming that their audience wants only the facts and a reassuring spin.

So it’s a perfect time for the Observer to double down on literature. In this books issue, we’re moving from writing about fiction to publishing it. You’ll find the haunting internal monologue, “You Are Right Here,” by the Austin-based writer Philipp Meyer, author of the acclaimed novel American Rust. We’ve brought on a fiction editor, David Duhr, who is organizing our inaugural Observer Short Story Prize. The best stories we receive by May 1 will be sent to our judge, Larry McMurtry, and we will publish the winner in the Summer Books issue. We hope the contest will unearth hidden literary talents in the Lone Star State and beyond.

McMurtry, our guest judge, is well-known for his sweeping Texas novels like Lonesome Dove and Terms of Endearment (Observer columnist Ruth Pennebaker pays tribute to the latter in her upcoming column). McMurtry also wrote one of the most memorable bits of literary criticism to grace these pages, in 1981.  Writers hoping to sense what McMurtry might be looking for would do well to revisit the essay, “Ever a Bridegroom,” where he takes stock of the postwar literary output of Texas writers. He chastises them for being provincial, lazy and nostalgic—“half-assed, to put it bluntly.” He takes aim at the prevalence of the cowboy myth in Texas novels and argues that the drama is occurring in Texas cities, which “are dripping with experience, but instead of sopping up the drippings and converting them into literature our writers mainly seem to be devoting themselves to an ever more self-conscious countrification.”

These words may seem surprising from the author of Lonesome Dove and Leaving Cheyenne. In fact, he’s particularly scornful of critics who favor those books above his more urban works. Which is to say, if you want to impress Mr. McMurtry with a cowboy tale, it better be damned good. Despite his frustration with Texas writers, McMurtry’s essay displays a deep devotion to the works of fellow Texans, whose successes and failures he details in ways loving, brutal and honest. His essay is best read as a tough-love kick in the ass.

If we published such a harsh essay today, we would surely be accused of kicking writers when they’re down. Our current approach is to shake the trees and hope what we gather is worth savoring. In that spirit, let’s take a moment to celebrate books. Literally. Next month, on April 2 in Austin, we are holding the 2nd annual Texas Observer Writer’s Festival, featuring longtime Observer favorites like Pennebaker, Oscar Casares and Carrie Fountain. We look forward to seeing you there.