Prose fiction is story-telling.

The magic of the storyteller

For Xmas my wife gave me the four-volume boxed set of “The Paris Review Interviews.” It is nice having them gathered in one place, and to have ones I missed back in the days when I regularly read Paris Review. The volumes are paperback and easy to carry around, so I keep one (I am still in vol. 1) in my carry bag when I go to the cafe, and when I break for lunch, I dip into it. Today I read Robert Stone’s 1985 interview.

Stone is one my favorites; I think I’ve read all his novels (he was better earlier than he is now), and relished books like Dog Soldiers, A Hall of Mirrors, and A Flag for Sunrise.

Parts of this interview caught my attention in particular. Like this, when Stone was asked if he has an articulated theory of fiction? This is his answer:  “Prose fiction must first of all perform the traditional functions of storytelling. We need stories. We can’t identify ourselves without them. We’re always telling ourselves stories about who we are:  that’s what history is, what the idea of a nation or an individual is. The purpose of fiction is to help us answer the question we must constantly be asking ourselves, who do we think we are and what do we think we’re doing.”

That’s pretty much what we writers of fiction do, isn’t it? Or certainly what we ought to be striving to do. We are storytellers, and we are doing with our words on paper the same thing that cowboy is doing in the picture.

If we are lost, what replaces us? If we are lost, who do we, as people, as nations, as cultures, become?

On another subject primary in my thinking …

Robert Gottlieb, publisher and editor

Following Robert Stone’s interview comes one with Robert Gottlieb. For decades Robert Gottlieb was editor in chief at Simon & Schuster, and later publisher and editor in chief at Knopf. A summary statement provided by the interviewer, who is unnamed so must have been George Plimpton, has this to say, echoing the root of my nostalgia for what publishing used to be.

“Publishing was a very different business in the fifties. Many of the big houses were still owned by their founders — Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer owned Random House; Alfred Knopf owned Knopf; Dick Simon and Max Schuster were still at Simon & Schuster. As a result, publishers were frequently willing and able to lose money publishing books that they liked, and tended to foster a sense that theirs were houses with missions more lofty than profit. ‘It is not a happy business now,’ says Gottlieb, ‘and it once was. It was smaller. The stakes were lower. It was a less sophisticated world.’ ”

No one can bring back that book business, when publishers took a chance because they liked a book or believed the writer had promise, they they believed in their literary mission.

Now the book business is all business, it is all bottom line spreadsheets, with “literary” decisions made by accountants and salesmen, who have no more invested in the “book product” than any other product they could count or sell.

I will bemoan this loss to our cultural life and heritage until my moaning days come to an end.


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