Answer from McMurtry Your issue of 8 January reached me coday, rudely spilling me out of the warm cocoon of literary sanctity in which I had been nodding away my days. Mr. Steve Barthelme’s impetuous review of Moving On was a delightful and bracing surprise. To my knowledge, nothing of comparable brashness has occurred on the Texas literary scene since a young turk of my acquaintance purposely stepped on Herbert Gambrell’s toe at a cocktail party, eight or so years ago. I’m grateful to Mr. Barthelme for letting me know that I’m not yet sacrosanct, in Texas. At the same time, I hate to waste his irritation. In all likelihood I can irritate him a lot worse than I have already. I’m aware, of course, that it’s a grave breach of taste to reply to hostile critics, but I just can’t resist. I’ve been pining for years for a hostile critic to reply to. English writers reply to them all the time, in the letters columns of The Times Literary Supplement. Why can’t we Texans do something like that? If we could develop a taste for literary controversy we might someday even develop a literature. The literary life in Texas is as polite as Sunday school and about as passionless. Surely a passion for letters ought to engender the same things other passions engender: malice, jealousy, wit, attacks, insult. The English have it. The New Yorkers have it. Now that I’ve finally got me a hostile critic, I mean to make the most of him. Death to Herbert Gambrell’s toe! Mr. Barthelme begins by saying that he has had conversations with people who liked Moving On. If he has had them, and was determined to mention them, I wish he had made at least one clear point about them. All I’m left with is the impression that people who liked the book are dullards whose assumptions about the story quality of fiction are considerably less rigorous than Mr. Barthelme’s own. That may well be so, but it gets his review off to a rather limping start. It looks for a moment like we are about to be offered a critical standard, perhaps even a theory of fiction. Quote: “I assume fiction to be different from simple journalism and essay in one basic way: fiction acts in a way that these other kinds of writing don’t it does something more than describe, other than analyze. What it does do, each writer works out for himself.” COP-OUT, Mr. Barthelme. In the next paragraph he slides out from under the responsibility of telling us how fiction acts by attacking the way it gets taught in our universities. I admire the 22 The Texas Observer Communication metaphor of the fish, but those who devote a whole paragraph to flogging the dead horse of English teaching ought to bite on several bullets before they go on to accuse others of cliche. Nor should one who has strict ideas about the economies of prose justify his whole first column with a sentence like this: “Which is mostly in the area of explaining that my reactions to Moving On are not highly-refined technical objections accessible only to superliterates who read books instead of watching television and drinking beer.” It isn’t true anyway. Many of his objections to Moving On are both highly-refined and technical, and if he tried them on people who like to drink beer and watch television they would either stare at him blankly or tell him to fuck off. He cannot dissociate himself from the superliterates by claiming an interest in rodeo, and a fondness for the Berthoud Pass. If there’s anything I hate it’s good-old-boyism in a literary critic. Them as writes book reviews for The Texas Observer had better learn to accept the brand of Cain. He finds Moving On false, dull, and ugly. Myn litel boke? False, Dull and Ugly? Okay. Lead on. 1.”. . . seldom if ever do we hear these bored and boring people speak in phrases belying anything closer to boredom than pretended ennui.” How much conversational distance is there between boredom and pretended ennui? Don’t articulate people often express their boredom through a kind of acidic cleverness and the pretense of ennui? A fine point perhaps, but interesting. 2.”The image of sophistication in Moving On is one made up primarily of a kind of dead wordsmanship.” If the dialogue is mostly authentic, in what sense is the wordsmanship dead? 3.I agree that the rodeo cowboys are more vivid and probably more believable than the freaks, but the reasons for that are more practical than might be supposed. The rodeo cowboys were major characters the freaks were minor. I began with the rodeo cowboys, when I was fresh. I hit the freaks after 1800 pages, when I was tired. In his efforts to convict me of stereo-typing Mr. Barthelme really sacrifices accuracy for wit. Your average hippie uses words like hippie and pot a hundred times a day, and always has. They also said Hashbury. Journalists called it the Haight-Asbury. It’s romanticism to think that hippies aren’t vulnerable to Time magazine. There must be hippies in Austin. Can’t Mr. Barthelme go listen to them? 4.He’s right about the black militant. Who can write blacks? Not me. I avoided it as long as I could and then faked for dear life. 5.I have a brilliant English professor say: “Robert Frost has a poem about what you’re talking about.” Mr. Barthelme doesn’t think a brilliant English professor would talk about poetry that way. In this case the English professor is not talking about poetry at all. He is telling his wife that she’s a fool. A poem gets mentioned, in a domestic interchange. Why wouldn’t it? I’m curious. How would the professor have said it, if not that way? 6.He twice takes me to task for representing my group of graduate students as brilliant. I didn’t. I just represented them as graduate students. I didn’t think they were brilliant either. They think they’re brilliant, of course. Don’t all graduate students? Was I not supposed to let them think so? 7.He harps a great deal about this little passage, only part of which he quotes: “Houston smells like a crotch,” Kenny said, sniffing the wet air quizzically. “Male or female?” Flat asked. It was a novel question. They all tested the smell of Houston against their memories of the smell of crotches. “Female, I think,” Kenny said. NOW. Mr. Barthelme thinks the question that is asked is not only not novel it’s a real chestnut. Is it? I’ve always thought, myself, that Houston smelled like a cunt but in the fourteen years I lived there I never met anyone who had anything to say on the subject at all. Are discussions as to whether Houston smells male or female all that common? I think the sexuality of places is an interesting thing to write about establishing the qualities of places is surely one of the things fiction can do. I took some pains to render Houston, and came back several times to its smell certainly one of the most memorable things about it. I believe that question is novel, and will until I hear someone besides my character ask it. It’s a very minor passage, but it was not an accident, and Mr. Barthelme has still to convince me that it was a mistake. His second point about it is that the passage contains a blurring of narration. No such thing. Several graduate students are sitting around eating Mexican food and drinking beer. A question is asked and it seems to me quite clear as I quoted the passage that the company as a whole considers the question to be novel. If that makes them dull-witted, fine. It doesn’t make the narration a blur.
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