Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Robertson Davies: Reading and Writing

I've been looking over this book today, a collection of two essays written by the Canadian writer Robertson Davies.  One essay talks about reading, the other addresses writing.  My edition is out of print and the two essays have been included in a later and more extensive publication titled The Merry Heart, a book I may have to put on my wish list.

In addition to writing novels, William Robertson Davies (1913-1995) was a playwright, critic, journalist, professor, and the founding Master of Massey College.  This accomplished man of letters was one of Canada's best-known and most popular authors and I'm sad to say aside from these two essays, I've read nothing of his work.  I do like the way he looks in the photo above, though, with his Hemingway-esqe beard and asymmetrical, bold face.

Sometimes it's very encouraging to read about other writer's experiences, especially if they are confident and wise, as Davies seems to me.  In his "Writing" essay, he offers this:

If somebody is truly a writer, he will find it out and he will understand that if there is any romance attached to the vocation, it is balanced by a number of unromantic circumstances, for the biographies of writers make it clear what a tough and enduring breed they are.

Makes you feel special on a Tuesday morning, doesn't it?

The essays were published in the early 90s, and although Davies hadn't experienced the rise of ebooks and the endless discussions of their impact, he was considering certain changes for readers and writers in the modern, technological age.  With a life spanning the twentieth century, he's a good source for opinions on this.

The visual imagination of the modern reader is much greater than that of his great-grandparents.  It is said, cynically but with a terrible ring of truth, that the modern film is made for viewers with the intellect of a twelve-year-old.  Emotionally and intellectually this may well be true, but the visual imagination of a twelve-year-old today is acute.  If something is happening in a city street, he does not need the street to be set before him, garbage can by garbage can.  He has seen all the city streets he needs on the large screen or the small one.

Twenty years later, for any current writer thinking about things like flash fiction and interrelated short stories, film's impact on books and even metafiction...well, Davies's insights on the craft of writing are still timely.  And if you're growing tired of the "Show Don't Tell" mantra, Davies has further encouragement:

When Henry James said "Dramatize, dramatize, dramatize," what, in fact, did he mean?... I think he meant, simply, that the writer must show what is happening; he must not describe it coldly, as might a bystander.  Things must happen to his characters... But as P.G. Wodehouse - a master of narrative art in quite a different milieu - once said, action in a plot is not simply a matter of the one-eyed Chinaman coming up through the trapdoor and shooting the butler on every page... great novels are psychological as well as physical in action...  To continue for a little longer with narrative, I want to stress my own conviction that it is vital to serious writing.

And so I may not get much done today besides thinking, as I look through this book written by a reader and a writer for other readers and writers.  I'd like to read some of his fiction.  Any suggestions from Canadians or others on which books to start with?

1 comment:

  1. I like this man's thoughts, and ... writers ... a tough and enduring breed they are ... it has to be that way since those who can't help writing have to be patient, and inventive with the plots of their lives.


"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka