Honorary Degree Recipient Talksrecording...
Transcription by Lissa Minkel '07 · Robert Stone's speech. Includes Q & A.
In 1971, he was the author of a single highly-praised first novel, Hall of Mirrors. In the years since then, with six further novels and a distinguished collection of short fiction, he has become one of America's premier writers, and that by common consent. It could be said about Bob Stone's fiction, I'm saying, that it's filled with characters who have ideas, are obsessed by them, and try to act on them. The difference between most of these characters and their author is that he is serious enough about ideas to distrust them, the bigger, the more to be distrusted. Rather like Robert Frost, he entertains ideas to see if they entertain him.
The skeptical and exploratory bent of mind is also on display in Bob's criticism. The essays and reviews, often in The New York Review of Books, in which he takes on some of the writings, some of the ideas of predecessors and contemporaries. I should say too that it's not incumbent upon the recipient of an honorary degree from the College to give a talk. I know two who said absolutely not. You don't need to sing for your supper, as it were, but he was generous enough, and we're very much indebted to him for being willing to speak to us. The title of his talk is, "Unteachable, Unknowable, Echoes of Beckett." Bob Stone.
Thank you Bill. Can everybody hear me? I remember first coming here in '71. Really impelled, I think, by a kind of dropout's revenge. And, because I felt that I might find I had something to say about the process of fiction. I wasn't sure at that point. But I think what bound me forever to Amherst, what makes me as gratified and pleased and moved by this honor, is something I once saw written on a wall in Johnson Chapel, a graffito of the early 70s.
I've never been able to it out of my mind. I think I've thought of it every day, in the way that the character in Citizen Kane thinks every day of the girl he saw on the Hoboken Ferry. I keep remembering this graffito. It said, "There are no metaphors." And I walked past that and I got as far as the end of the hall and it slowed me down, and I went back to see if it really read as I thought it read. "There are no metaphors." I tried thinking that one through, and it struck me, what kind of fiendish, youthful mind had come up with this wisdom, if such it was? I found it utterly disorienting. And I've thought of it, as I say, every day since then.
What it directs me toward, when I think about it, is the uses of fiction, the uses of literary device. If there were no metaphors, everything would occur as an absolute singularity, only once. Not very deeply resembling anything else that happened. There would be no reference point. We would never ever find our way. Even to the relative extent that we do around this condition. I still try to put myself in the mind of the young person, as I think it must have been, who wrote that.
And every once in a while, I mean, since I was taking on the business of talking to students at that time, and one thing we have to go through if we ever try to do a such a thing as a composition course, is that regularly some athlete of perception discovers that you can't teach writing, and so you have to hear about that several times a year, and of course you can't. But it's extraordinary what you can learn in talking about it. What I learned, and this is what I mainly remember about Amherst. Beside the friendships with some extraordinary people that I made here, also what I learned here. I don't know, really I can't speak for what students may have learned. I think directly, nothing. But I learned a great deal. Another reason that I'm so pleased to be here.
I argue, I try to argue for the importance of what I do. I've been doing that for a long time, I mean, arguing for the importance of what I do. And I still insist on the necessity of narrative, of fiction. That there are metaphors, and it is only because there are metaphors that we're able to step aside from things, since we are things, and attempt to impose some kind of significance, some kind of order, on this phenomenology that we're out here in. Even to begin to, even if there were no meaning, assume and, I guess we can't speak with any confidence as to whether our condition has inherently any meaning.
If it hasn't, then we have to think a little bit about our civilization. We have to think further about our civilization, since we inherit a state of mind in which narrative, stories, mean something. And we are--been to search out our holy books, to find what our lives are about. And, most importantly, I guess what our suffering is about, because I guess more than anything, we want our suffering to mean something, if nothing else does. Whether it does or not, I think we continue to live, we must continue to live, as though it does. We must, if necessary, impose a meaning on it, and pace that young man of many years ago, we have only metaphors to do that with.
Those years, when I was first here, the early seventies, were also the age of what became known as the New Journalism. It created a very interesting situation, potentially revolutionary situation in a way, consciousness and writing. The claim was made that fiction was obsolete. That there really no point in listening to somebody's made-up stories when you could deal with the thing itself, the real thing, and make your own edifying reflections on this. Then, of course, fiction came back when some of the principal practitioners of New Journalism rediscovered it, but in those days of the early 70s it was often argued that it was obsolete.
It's created a very odd situation, in which someone could claim, in reporting, let's say, a party at Leonard Bernstein's, that they spoke with the authority of the subjective authority of the novelist. Presented the inner life, the inner lives, of the people present. Their true motivations, their literal speech, as it was spoken. But also invoke the authority of the morning paper. So there was a claim to total accuracy in this. All the kind of authority that narrative could invoke was called forth in this kind of journalism. It was very hard to answer. A kind of overweening claim that I think we all had to consider to reject, and yet, you know, we're still trying to match language with reality. We're still trying to, maybe in pursuit of a fallacy, make a congruency between things and language. That seems to be something that we really cannot go beyond, or even successfully approach.
I mention this simply because it's been one of the obsessions of mine since I started writing. Maybe if I thought a little bit less about the process, I would have gotten more work done, but I've always insisted on arguing for the significance of it. For the necessity of it; it seems to me that stories are as necessary as bread. The only way that we have to look at any kind of reflection of our lives, to search out any kind of meaning in our lives, is to turn to stories.
When one tries to write nonfiction, you try to report something accurately. You soon discover that facts can get in the way of truth. It's the great temptation, the great corrupting temptation of journalism, I think, that it's so easy to adjust the facts in order to serve the higher truth that I think a lot of people writing about what's going on now have trouble resisting. Makes me think of something I discovered about George Orwell in Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell, I think, was the very soul of honest writing, he's always seemed to me rectitude itself. When Orwell went up to Wigan, he was given quarters by the transport union, who sent him out to do this story on poverty and the Depression. The place he was assigned wasn't sufficiently squalid, so he asked for a different place, a more squalid place.
He kept a journal, and he also wrote the famous Road to Wigan Pier. In his journal he reports leaving town on a train and he watches as the train goes faster and faster, takes him out of town, takes him past the council houses, the city projects, where he sees a woman cleaning a drain with a stick. She doesn't see him because he's on a train, going faster and faster. It's a very memorable and moving report. But in his journal, he reports it in an entirely different way. He's walking, he's not on a train, he's just walking up the hill on the road. He goes by a woman who is cleaning a drain with a stick. She sees him. They exchange eye contact.
Why does he change it in that way? I talked to a whole class once, everybody having a different opinion of the ethical status of doing that. Some people saying, but he just made it up, that's unforgivable, and some people saying, what difference does it make? We always seem to be one step ahead, one step behind things, and language is an imperfect vehicle, it truly is, there are only a few moments when you feel like you've really got it.
Let me finish here by reading something I dare say most of you are probably familiar with, and it's something that I've always read to classes of mine. Sometimes gotten very upset by, very moved by, but I'm going to presume to read it to you, even though I suspect all of you have heard it at one time or another. This is Conrad, Joseph Conrad's preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, only a part of the preface, but what Conrad wrote, I think, is a kind of anthem for anybody who's ever written fiction.
He wrote, "To snatch in a moment of courage, from the remorseless rush of time, a passing phase of life is only beginning of the task. The task approached in tenderness and faith is to hold up unquestioningly, and without fear, the rescued fragment before all eyes. It is to show its vibration, its color, its form; and through its movement, its form, and its color, reveal the substance of its truth--disclose its inspiring secret: the stress and passion within the core of each convincing moment. In a single-mined attempt of that kind, if one be deserving and fortunate, one may perchance attain to such clearness that at last the presented vision of regret or pity, of terror and mirth, shall awaken in the hearts of beholders that feeling of unavoidable solidarity; of the solidarity in mysterious origin, in toil, in joy, in hope, in uncertain fate, which binds men to each other and all mankind to the visible world."
Would you want to entertain a question, or a remark?
Philip Roth said something like, it's so hard to write fiction in America because you really can't keep up with the truth, the truth is so bizarre. Do you have a reaction to that?
I think Roth himself has probably refuted that. I think what he's written speaks for itself. American Pastoral is such a great book. It has such intensity, such passion that I think he's got it covered.
What do you think of Roth's remarks, though, that he recently said that fiction probably is over in twenty-five years? The novel looks--
Well, poetry, so to speak, epic poetry, was over at one point, when the novel did, actually, more or less replace it within literature. One gets that feeling because, remember, Joyce really trying to press the envelope with Finnigan's Wake. It doesn't seem to press very readily. It's very hard to take this anywhere it hasn't gone. I hate to say that. I don't think it's at all out of the question. Although I'll tell you what I think is going to happen. Nominal nonfiction is already replacing it as reading, but the nominal nonfiction gets more and more fictionalized. I mean, who's kidding who, when it comes to nonfiction? I mean, plainly, the writing creates, the style creates, the feeling creates the sense of verisimilitude in the nonfiction, so it ends up depending on the same forces, on the voice of the storyteller, on the immediacy of the language. All the things that make up fiction make up nonfiction as well, including some degree of invention, in my opinion. So it may just turn back on itself completely. One can say, well, fiction is being replaced by nonfiction, but nonfiction is being subverted by the necessity of storytelling. So in fact, things could turn out, I don't think in a way that we can't imagine. I think they could really not change as much as we might think.
What are you working on now?
Well actually I'm working on a memoir, but mine is really true. Every word is accurate. I am working on that. I'm also working on some stories, another novel.
Just for those of us who struggle, how do you physically do your writing? How do you keep from your back breaking? What are your tricks of the body?
Well, I have trouble with my back. I think you have to try and keep yourself in the best possible shape. It's very easy to go slack. I think a certain amount of discipline and concentration is certainly necessary. It's good, as I used to not know, not to drink yourself insensate, or to take every pill that anybody gives you. I mean all these things do mount up, they have their cost. It's good to--men sana in corpore sano. It's--at a certain point it begins to count, at a certain age, you've got to begin to take care of yourself. So, I think some attention to physical well-being and discipline is not at all beside the point.
What are some of the novels you're reading now?
Let's see, I'm going to leave somebody out who I know is very important to me, and I feel that's so unfair, in advance, I don't know who it is I'm going to leave out. Novelists I've been reading over the recent years...Years ago, I read, to talk about somebody who's in the news in the moment, I read Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, which I thought was an absolute knock-out, and I do think Marilynne is a wonderful writer. I haven't finished Gilead, I have barely started it. I once told Marilynne that I thought she was too smart to be a writer, which, in a way I wasn't kidding. I mean, she has an extremely acute intellect which informs her writing. She's one of the writers I'm reading.
I liked Chuck Palahniuk; Fight Club, and some of his subsequent novels. I've got his name slightly wrong, I think. Palahniuk. Chuck Palahniuk. I think Michael Chapin's really a good writer, entertaining and funny. I think good things...Seems to me there have been three or four other...I'm reading more novels, I have to say, I am reading more novels than I used to. There was a time when I really would avoid reading novels because I thought they would somehow infect or contaminate or somehow influence what I was working on. I'm more open to other people's work.
I just started reading for the first time, I hate to confess this, Proust, Swan's Way, The Remembrance of Things Past. I'm amazed. I should have known it was as good as it is. Everybody always said so. And the translation is wonderful, Scott Moncrieff, the translation is, as in its present form, I think it's really great. And probably within the last ten years I read for the first time All the King's Men. And I don't know why I had never read that before. I think it's a wonderful wonderful American realist, American romantic realist novel. I think it's absolutely extraordinary. So, that's not many, I mean, there are more, but I just can't bring them to my mind.
Were you speaking of Tom Wolfe?
Oh yeah, I was, I was. I think Tom Wolfe's a good writer. I think what he has to say about writing generally is so much blather, I've come to that conclusion. But I think he writes well enough to have an opinion. I don't like his novels very much. I do like his nonfiction. I was not one of the fans of Bonfire of the Vanities and I didn't read the book set in Atlanta or the book set on a college campus for a couple of reasons. But I do think he has wonderful energy and really that he writes well.
He's headed back to nonfiction, the paper informs us.
So fiction has failed again.
Thank you very much.