Diary: Padgett Powell, Eff the Classics (Part Two)

Read Part One of this post here!

For what is called “forms courses” I customarily had offered a variegation of distinctive stylists, and at their inimitable best—Turgenev, Diderot, Kleist, Dinesen, Bernhard, Flann O’Brien, Beckett, Paley, Juan Rulfo, Peter Taylor—with the assignment that students write after the authors. I told the students: “The primary goal (beyond stretching your stride) in this mimicry is to relieve you of bringing in ‘you’—historically the business, sometimes insufferable, of the workshop proper.” The Dreadful You is a lovely title I claimed therewith. (It occurs to me now that this might be precisely where I got a toe caught in the undertoad of the tsunami of politicalicity.)

Anyway, this last go, I went on and presented not styles or forms per se, but a pile of relatively small, relatively good books that might, in their specific aggregate, through some kind of non-harassing spell of the weak and the strong, make a person want to write a book. Small books, because large are oppressive. I despise the list of books devised by teachers who try to extort students, overtly or covertly, into sharing their particular affections. When I have been the extorted, it has but bred a suspicion of the books, a suspicion of the taste of the teacher, and a contempt for the effort at seduction (literary harassment). These are not, I told them, books—in our pile—that I love and want you to love. They caught my eye in one way or another, some of them now over fifty years ago, and have stayed in the mind. Sometimes favorably, sometimes not, and I can see that the favorable and unfavorable impressions may have shifted and reciprocated over time.

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The cat was out of the bag: I was in my last course advancing the lunacy that this specific pile of books would have a suggestible, good student write a book specific to having read it. They would read it, leave, write a book (possibly begun while in the course), and say “I wrote this book because of the damned pile of books addled Powell had us read.”

I was convinced I had envisioned the perfect pile of books, and that this was all insanely sane. I told them that students who write books begun in my class—recently Emma Smith-Stevens’s The Australian and Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin—make my day (make my 3.4 decades).

And here is the prescription. I stand by it, despite trepidation that Thomas McGuane might call me and say, Powell, you’ve said my book is unbalanced or weak or something asinine, and I might have to say, Mr. McGuane, its charming ass is not going to be canonized, like mine. The pile then:

The Teachings of Don Juan, Carlos Castaneda—but right off the bat the list is askew, because this is not the right Castaneda book. The right one features crossing the face of waterfalls by means of tentacles that extend from one’s navel. The Teachings, however, the first of these books, is correct in that it is clearly a novel that was presented as a thesis in anthropology at UCLA, as which it would later, I believe, be discredited. Thus I think it is a literal fraud, and it seems to me that that is the proper definition of the novel: a fraud.

Miami Blues, Charles Willeford (though others in this series are as good, particularly New Hope for the Dead)

Reflections in a Golden Eye, Carson McCullers; a quintessential Gothic-horror moment within this slim book by an author elsewhere tending to the tender end of the spectrum of sentimentality

Wise Blood, Flannery O'Connor; all the wit and hard perfect style in a book that strangely cannot levitate as the stories do

Ninety-two in the Shade, Thomas McGuane; a beautiful evocation of the stoned appetite. McGuane dwells in the abstractey to a large degree—one might say half the book is this abstract poeticizing. He is less careful than Williams (below), more exuberant, more youthful, in fact one can argue more stoned, perhaps deliberately stoned-sounding, which he perhaps as a probably stoned young man could not help. One gets the feeling, withal, that he does not want to help it—this stoned poeticizing is what he is most after, what he thinks is the most fun, the thing to do as a writer—as the writer that he is. I suspect even that it is this character of the writing that drew Don Barthelme to it. This book should be disagreeable because of these opaque excessive teenagey flourishes, some of which cannot even be comprehended, but the book is somehow winning.

The Clothes They Stood Up In, Alan Bennett; clean old-guard hardball we do not do in America

The Changeling, Joy Williams; “My husband is the newscaster Jim Dandy,” “I thought that was a dog food.” Look at the opening of the book with respect to withholding and not withholding, also as it informs how she treats the abstractey, as we’ve so far coined it. We will look at the Willeford in terms of withholding and not, too. Withholding is the unfavorable side of the coin of forthcomingness. Forthcomingness is what writing is. The term is deliberately awkward. If what writing is could be not awkwardly defined, we would not be in the business of trying to define it. We’d just do it.

The order in which I have listed the books is as good as any in which to read them. The matter is not critical. I do not want to hear from Ms. Williams, either, that I have slandered her book. I am more afraid of her than of McGuane. Non-classic-book prescribing is a rough business. If I had read these books when I was twenty, twenty-five years old I would have necessarily sat down and issued a bent, unbalanced, weak, strong, vigorous, languorous, withal interesting book. Even today, at sixty-nine, something would give. For closure I might have thrown in Tennessee Williams’s Hard Candy or Tales of Desire, non-canonical wounded stories that include the infamous “Desire and the Black Masseur,” which title alone should effect a molecule of necessary juicing even before the masseur eats anyone. No one ever worked harder, beginning with less, than did Tennessee Williams trying to sing his way out of St. Louis and his uncle’s shoe factory, or shoe warehouse, or shoe whatever it was.  I can see Williams devouring his Lorca, front to back, and finding Lorca’s own perfect analyses given by a parrot or cannibal masseur and thinking I could do that.


Padgett Powell is the author of six novels and three books of short stories, most recently Cries for Help, Various. A new volume of his essays, Indigo: Arm Wrestling, Snake Saving, and Some Things in Between, will appear this fall. He wrote on Charles Willeford for Book Post earlier this year.


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Image: Ivan Turgenev by Ilia Repin (1874) and Isak Dinesen with strange bedfellows