whose affinities stretch back to Gulliver and beyond. The Devil Rides Outside has the lonely distinction of being the best French novel ever published in Fort Worth. It is a strange, strong book whose verbal energy a quality rare in our fiction still seems remarkable after almost 30 years. Full clarity came with The Ordways, in 1964, a beautifully crafted novel which turns the traditional family chronicle into a kind of dance of the generations. The Ordways is funny, moving, elegantly written, and firmly controlled . as if a less prolix. Thackeray had turned his attention to East Texas. . . .” In the best stories, just watching him not miss provides an intellectual excitement so high that it often brings emotion with it. The perfect stories accumulate slowly, usually one or two a year. . . .” There are as yet no solid achievements in Texas letters. “William Humdrum’s novels stand next to William Humphrey’s on a bookstore shelf. . . . IF WRITING is as bad as McMurtry says much Texas writing is, should it merit any attention at all? The art world deals with half-talents and notalents much more directly and brutally than the book world does. It shuts them out. In art, there are hundreds of notconspiculously-talented painters who sell their work to the aesthetically naive. They have their own associations, galleries, and shows. They award each other ribbons and citations, which prove useful in promoting sales. Naturalists to a man, they try for an almost photographic accuracy but have trouble achieving it. One of them may paint good mesquite trees but fail with live oaks; almost none of them can get the proportions of a windmill right or make a barn rest solidly on the earth. \(They, too, These painters, who are not primitives, not talented, not really artists, have no connection whatever with that other, wider, more venturesome world which constitutes the present moment in the long history of art. There are writers, too, who are not really artists, and maybe ought to have special associations, publishers, and stores. But the machinery for reviewing and selling books is different from that for paintings. William Humdrum’s novels stand next to William Humphrey’s on a bookstore shelf, and this mingling leads to a lot of bad work’s being taken seriously. Not every bluebonnet painting gets attention in our big-city papers just be cause its subject is Texas. But lots of books do get reviewed in those papers, and in magazines and learned journals, for that reason and that alone. McMurtry, perhaps, has gone along with this tendency too generously. Maybe a good first step toward hard-nosed criticism would be to scan those shelves of Texas books that he mentions and jettison three-fourths of them as sub-competent. After all, if they are what McMurtry calls them, “insular and uninformed . . . dull, portentous, stylistically impoverished, and intellectually empty” they aren’t literature. UCH OF McMURTRY’s writ ing about writing suggests that he favors a businesslike approach. He is a steady-state worker, not a big-bang worker. He believes in the daily stint, the calculated move, the planned career. Of writing about the country, he says, “It had dominated four books, which seemed enough. I began rather consciously to drain it from my work.” It’s a matter-of-fact statement to McMurtry, but to some it suggests that he regards talent and sensibility as things to be harnessed like a waterfall and put to work making whatever product its owner senses a national \(as opposed to a use of talent, maybe, but it may not be the best use. It’s not, for example, what Cezanne, or Faulkner, or Joyce did with theirs. I haven’t a single statistic to offer, but I’ll bet that in terms of readers reached, hearts touched, laughs got, national attention garnered, dollars earned, critics pleased any measuring stick you care to use McMurtry did better before he began to drain country matters from his work. Most writers, good or bad, are not masters of their fate, or even of their talent. They would go along with Georges Braque: “I do not do as I wish. I do what I can.” And that’s why, it seems to me, McMurtry is wrong to tell other writers to quit whatever they are doing and write about Dallas or Houston. It would be like asking Willa Cather \(had it been Mari Sandoz’ Nebraska instead of her Nebraska something not even in the realm of the possible. Laymen think writers are interchangeable, like plumbers. They will ask any writer to write anything. In small towns, they offer their complete knowledge of local scandal and suggest “collaboration” on a new and gamier Peyton Place. In cities they will invite some hearty concocter of Big Sky westerns, dressed like Roy Rogers and sagging with turquoise, to meet a frail, scrupulous, grayclad Civil War historian, expecting the two to become instant buddies and fall into lively shop talk. But the writers themselves remain moodily, helplessly aware that interchangeable is what they are not. They can do what they can do, and that’s it. They cannot do as McMurtry says. He is often a severe and excellent judge of a finished piece of work. But his disciplined, rational, almost systems-analysis approach to the process of writing \(and of deciding what to transferable. Yes, Texas is now urban, not rural. Yes, good material is abundant in Dallas and Houston. Yes, it is going to waste. But good material for artists has always gone to waste far more of it than has ever been used. There has been no great novel about Pittsburgh, either, and no one gives a damn. Maybe cities must deserve to be written about, and maybe Dallas and Houston don’t. Let’s imagine a talented kid, a born writer, growing up in Dallas. Let’s suppose that at the age of 20 she has the choice of writing her first novel about Dallas the only place she knows or getting out of town. Would you blame her for doing the latter? Texas cities don’t offer a serious writer much sense of belonging or support. We all know people who are tough, savvy, stylish, successful, and not particularly likable or admirable. Some Texans, and some writers, feel that Dallas and Houston are like that. In Dallas last November, one of the Taylor bookstores held a week-long “Bookfest.” Among the distinguished “writers” who signed books at autograph parties, Taylor’s advertised the cosmetologist Mary Kay; a Dallas Cowboy; aformer Dallas Cowboy; The Cowboys’ mascot; a reformed compulsive gambler; a “super handyman”; a restau “Maybe cities must deserve to be written about, and maybe Dallas and Houston don’t.” rant owner who had asembled a cookbook; and two Dallas Mavericks \(that’s were four people who could be presumed actually to have written the books they autographed: the authors of Thundering Sneakers, The Oasis Project, Texas Rhapsody, and Pathfinders. Such is the literary climate of Dallas. Or anyway the microclimate inside the city’s biggest, best-located, most successful bookstore. Would you want your daughter to write a novel about a town like that? The Texas rich can bring back any trinket they want from Europe a jewel, a painting, a symphony conductor. But certain aspects of civilization they THE TEXAS OBSERVER 13
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