Page 4


John Graves likes to farm, William Humphrey likes to fish, William Goyen enjoys living in L.A., and none seem much interested in slighting their absorbing pursuits to write the Great Texas Novel. the fact that they were city people; they all seemed well aware that the styles which would shape their lives and sustain their fiction were being formed in Houston and Dallas, not back on the homeplace, wherever it had been. For reasons I don’t fully understand, my mid-sixties optimism was unfounded, generally as regards our literary flowering, specifically as regards the Western myth. At a time when the latter should have ceased to have any pertinence at all, drug-store cowboyism became a minor national craze. Boots became trendy in New York just as the last of the real cowboys took to wearing dozer caps and other gear more suitable to the oil patch and the suburb. I recognize now that in the sixties I generalized too casually from a personal position. In A Narrow Grave was my formal farewell to writing about the country. It had dominated four books, which seemed enough, and I began rather consciously to drain it from my work. I proceeded to write three novels set in Houston, one set in Hollywood, and most recently one set in Washington, D.C. I didn’t deplore country living still don’t but I had no doubt at all that urban life offered me richer possibilities as a novelist. Granting certain grand but eccentric exceptions, virtually the whole of modern literature has been a city literature. From the time of Baudelaire and James, the dense, intricate social networks that cities create have stimulated artists and sustained them. No reason it should be any different in Texas, since we now have at least one or two cities which offer the competitions of manners upon which the modern novel feeds. It was thus something of a shock, as I started looking at my shelves of Texas books in preparation for this essay, to discover how few of them deal with city life. Not only are there few readable city books, but many of the country books are filled with explicit anti-urbanism. Writer after writer strains to reaffirm his or her rural credentials. Why? The vast majority of Texas writers have been urbanites for decades. Many are veterans not only of the Texas cities, but of the cities of the East Coast, the West Coast, and Europe. 10 OCTOBER 23, 1981 Where has this experience gone? Where are the novels, stories, poems, and plays that ought to be using it? Why are there still cows to be milked and chickens to be fed in every other Texas book that comes along? When is enough going to be allowed to be enough? PART OF THE TROUBLE, I am afraid, lies with Texas readers, who, if my experience is any indication, remain actively hostile to the mere idea of urban fiction. Virtually every time I give a lecture in Texas I find myself being chided by someone in the audience because I have stopped writing “the kind of books I ought to write.” Evidently, in the eyes of these readers, only my first three books were the kind I ought to write the ones that happened to deal with small towns and cowboys. Leaving Cheyenne forever is what my readers seem to want. Speaking at the University of Texas a year or two ago, I was confronted by a young lady who suggested, in distinctly resentful tones, that my next book would probably be set in Princeton, which, in her innocence, she took to be synonymous with the East. When I pointed out that I was more familiar with Virginia than New Jersey, she said, “Oh well, all those places up there are so close together.” Her attitude, though severe, was not much different, from that of many old friends, who sigh wistfully and cast fond glances at their copies of Leaving Cheyenne when they ask me what I’m writing now. The reader’s attitude, reduced to basics, is that the writer who doesn’t want to keep rewriting the book that pleased them most is merely being selfish. Once a writer manages to write a book that gives a reader pleasure, his