有些作家很有才华，我还真不认识一点才华都没有的作家。但是，对事物独特而准确的观察，再用恰当的文字把它表述出来，则又另当别论。《加普的世界》其实是欧文(John Irving)自己奇妙的世界。对奥康纳(Flannery O’Connor)而言，则存在着另外一个世界。福克纳(William Faulkner)和海明威(Ernest Hemingway)有他们自己的世界。对奇佛(Cheever), 厄普代克(Updike), 辛格(Singer), 埃尔金(Stanley Elkin), 贝蒂(Ann Beattie), 奥齐克(Cynthia Ozick), 巴塞尔姆(Donald Barthelme), 罗宾森(Mary Robison), 基特里奇(William Kittredge), 汉纳(Barry Hannah)和勒奎恩(Ursula K. LeGuin)来说，都存在着一个与他人完全不同的世界。每一个伟大的作家，甚至每一个还可以的作家，都在根据自己的规则来构造世界。
黛因生（Isak Dinesen）曾说过，她每天写一点。不为所喜，不为所忧。我想有一天我会把这个抄在一张三乘五寸的卡片上，并贴在我写字台正面的墙上。我已在那面墙上贴了些三乘五的卡片，“准确的陈述是写作的第一要素” －－庞德(Ezra Pound)，就是其中一张。我知道，写作不仅仅只是这一点。但如能做到‘准确的陈述’，你的路子起码走对了。
我曾无意听到作家沃尔夫(Geoffrey Wolff)对他的学生说：“别耍廉价的花招” 这句话也该写在一张卡片上。我还要更进一步：“别耍花招”， 句号。我痛恨花招，在小说中，我一看见小花招或伎俩，不管是廉价的还是精心制作的，我都不想再往下看。小伎俩使人厌烦，而我又特别容易感到厌烦，这大概和我注意力不能长时间集中有关。和愚蠢的写作一样，那些自以为聪明和时髦夸张的写作也使我昏昏欲睡。作家不需要靠耍花招和卖弄技巧，你没必要是个聪明绝顶的家伙。尽管你有可能被人看成傻子，作家要有面对简单的事物，比如落日或一只旧鞋子，惊讶得张口结舌的资质。
几个月前，巴思(John Barth)在纽约时报的书评专栏里曾提到，十年前，参加他写作短训班的学生，大多对‘形式创新’ 着迷。而现在不太一样了。那些自由开放的实验小说不再时髦，他担心八十年代的人又开始写那些老生常谈的小说。每当听见人们在我面前谈论小说的‘形式创新’，我总会感到不自在。你会发现，很多不负责任、愚蠢和模仿他人的写作，常常都是以‘实验’为幌子。这种写作往往是对读者的粗暴，使他们和作者产生隔阂。它不会给我们带来与世界有关的任何新信息，只是描述一幅荒凉的景象，几个小沙丘，几只蜥蜴，没有任何人和与人有关的东西。这是个只有少数科学家才会感兴趣的地方。
值得一提的是真正的实验小说必须是原创的，它是艰苦劳动的回报。一味地追随和模仿他人对事物的观察方法是徒劳的。这个世界上只有一个巴塞尔姆，另一个作家如果以‘创新’ 的名义，盗用巴塞尔姆特有的灵感或表达方式，其结果只会是混乱，失败和自欺欺人。如庞得所说，真正的实验小说应该是全新的。 而且，不能为创新而创新。如果一个作家还没有走火入魔的话，他的世界和读者的世界是能够沟通的。
在一首诗或一篇短篇小说里，我们完全可以用普通而精准的语言来描述普通的事情，赋予一些常见的事物，如一张椅子，一扇窗帘，一把叉子，一块石头，或一付耳环以惊人的魔力。纳博科夫(Nabokov)就有这样的本事，用一段看似无关痛痒的对话，让你读后脊背发凉，并感受到艺术上的享受。我对这样的作品才感兴趣。我讨厌杂乱无章的写作，不管它是打着实验小说的旗号还是以现实主义的名义。在巴别尔(Isaac Babel)的那部绝妙的小说《盖 • 德 • 莫泊桑》里，叙述者有这么一段有关小说写作的话:“没有什么能比一个放在恰当位子上的句号更能打动你的心。”这句话同样应该写在一张三乘五的卡片上。
我喜欢小说里有些惊恐和紧张的气氛，起码对小说的销售有帮助。好的故事里需要一种紧张的氛围，某件事马上就要发生了，它在一步一步地逼近。小说里的这种氛围，是靠实实在在的词创造出来的视觉效果。同时，那些没写出来的、暗示性的东西，那些隐藏在平滑（或微微有点起伏）的表层下面的东西，也会起到同样的效果。普里切特(V. S. Pritchett)给短篇小说的定义是：“眼角闪过的一瞥。”请注意这‘一瞥’。先是有‘一瞥’，再给这‘一瞥’赋予生命，将这‘一瞥’转化成对当前时刻的阐明。如果运气好的话，还能进一步对事情的结果和意义加以延伸。短篇小说家的使命就是充分地利用这‘一瞥’，用智慧和文学手法来展现作者的才华，尺寸感，适度感，以及对外界事物的看法――我这里特别强调与众不同的看法。而这一切，是要靠清晰准确的语言来实现的。用语言赋予细节以生气，使故事生辉。语言精准了，细节才会具体传神。为了准确地描述，你甚至可以用一些通俗的词。只要运用得当，它们同样可以起到一字千斤的效果。
Dec. 7, 2006
Back in the mid-1960s, I found I was having trouble concentrating my attention on long narrative fiction. For a time I experienced difficulty in trying to read it as well as in attempting to write it. My attention span had gone out on me; I no longer had the patience to try to write novels, it’s an involved story, too tedious to talk about here. But I know it has much to do now with why I write poems and short stories. Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on. It could be that I lost any great ambitions at about the same time, in my late twenties. If I did, I think it was good it happened. Ambition and a little luck are good things for a writer to have going for him. Too much ambition and bad luck, or no luck at all, can be killing. There has to be talent.
Some writers have a bunch of talent; I don’t know any writers who are without it. But a unique and exact way of looking things, and finding the right context for expressing that way of looking, that’s something else. The World According to Garp is, of course, the marvelous world according to John Irving. There is another world according to Flannery O’Connor, and others according to William Faulkner and Ernest Heminway. There are worlds according to Cheever, Updike, Singer, Stanley Elkin, Ann Beattie, Cynthia Ozick, Donald Barthelme, Mary Robison, William Kittredge, Barry Hannah, Ursula K. LeGuin,. Every great or even every very good writer makes the world according to his own specifications.
It’s akin to style, what I’m talking about, but it isn’t style alone. It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguish one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time.
Isak Dinesen said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair. Someday I’ll put that on a three-by-five card and tape it to the wall beside my desk. I have some three-by-five cards on the wall now. « Fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing. » Ezra Pound. It is not everything by ANY means, but if a writer has « fundamental accuracy of statement » going for him, he’s at least on the right track.
I have a three-by-five up there with this fragment of a sentence from a story by Chekov : « … and suddenly everything became clear to him .» I find these words filled with wonder and possibility. I love their simple clarity, and the hint of revelation that’s implied. There is mystery, too. What has been unclear before? Why is it just now becoming clear? What’s happened? Most of all – what now? There are consequences as a result of such sudden awakenings. I feel a sharp sense or relief – and anticipation.
I overheard the writer Geoffrey Wolff say « No cheap tricks » to a group of writing students. That should go on a three-by-five card. I’d amend it a little to « No tricks. » Period. I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or a gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. Tricks are ultimately boring, and I get bored easily, which may go along with my not having much of an attention span. But extremely clever chi-chi writing, or just plain tomfoolery writing, puts me to sleep. Writers don’t need tricks or gimmicks or even necessarily need to be the smartest fellows on the block. At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing - a sunset or an old shoe – in absolute and simple amazement.
Some months back, in the New York Times Book Review, John Barth said that ten years ago most of the students in his fiction writing seminar were interested in « formal innovation », and this no longer seems to be the case. He’s a little worried that writers are going to start writing mom and pop novels in the 1980s. He worries that experimentation may be on the way out, along with liberalism. I get a little nervous if I find myself within earshot of somber discussions about « formal innovation » in fiction writing. Too often « experimentation » is a license to be careless, silly or imitative in the writing. Even worse, a license to try to brutalize or alienate the reader. Too often such writing gives us no news of the world, or else describes a desert landscape and that’s all – a few dunes and lizards her and here, but no people; a place uninhabited by anything recognizably human, a place of interest only to a few scientific specialists.
It should be noted that real experiment in fiction is original, hard-earned and cause for rejoicing. But someone else’s way of looking at things – Barthelme’s, for instance – should not be chased after by other writers. It won’t work. There is only one Barthelme’s peculiar sensibility or mise en scene under the rubric of innovation is for that writer to mess around with chaos and disaster and, worse, self-deception. The real experimenters have to Make It New, as Pound urged, and in the process have to find things out for themselves. But if writers haven’t taken leave of their senses, they also want to stay in touch with us, they want to carry news from their world to ours.
It’s possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things – a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring – with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine – the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That’s the kind of writing that most interests me. I hate sloppy or haphazard writing whether it flies under the banner of experimentation or else is just clumsily rendered realism. In Isaac Babel’s wonderful short story, « Guy de Maupassant, » the narrator has this to say about the writing of fiction: « No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place. » This too ought to go on a three-by-five.
Evan Connell said once that he knew he was finished with a short story when he found himself going through it and taking out commas and then going through the story again and putting commas back in the same places. I like that way of working on something. I respect that kind of care for what is being done. That’s all we have, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say. If the words are heavy with the writer’s own unbridled emotions, or if they are imprecise and inaccurate for some other reason – if words are in any way blurred – the reader’s eyes will slide right over them and nothing will be achieved. The reader’s own artistic sense will simply not be engaged. Henry James called this sort of hapless writing « weak specification ».
I have friends who’ve told me they had to hurry a book because they needed the money, their editor or their wife was leaning on them or leaving them – something, some apology for the writing not being very good. « It would have been better if I’d taken the time. » I was dumbfounded when I heard a novelist friend say this. I still am, if I think about it, which I don’t. It’s none of my business. But if the writing can’t be made as good as it is within us to make it, then why do it? In the end, the satisfaction of having done our best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave. I wanted to say to my friend, for heaven’s sake go do something else. There have to be easier and maybe more honest ways to try and earn a living. Or else just do it to the best of your abilities, your talents, and then don’t justify or make excuses. Don’t complain, don’t explain.
In an essay, simply enough, « Writing Short Stories », Flannery O’Connor talks about writing as an act of discovery. O’Connor says she most often did not know where she was going when she sat down to work on a short story. She says she doubts that many writers know where they are going when they begin something. She uses « Good Country People » as an example of how she put together a short story whose ending she could not even guess at until she was nearly there:
When I started writing that story, I didn’t know there was going to be a Ph.D. with a wooden leg in it. I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two women I knew something about, and before I realized it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter with a wooden leg. I brought in the Bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn’t know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was going to happen, I realized it was inevitable.
When I read this some years ago, it came as a shock that she, or anyone fot that matter, wrote stories in this fashion. I thought this was uncomfortable secret, and I was a little uneasy with it. For sure I thought this way of working on a short story somehow revealed my own shortcomings. I remember being tremendously heartened by reading what she had to say on the subject.
I once sat down to write what turned out to be a pretty good story, though only the first sentence of the story had offered itself to me when I began it. For several days I’d been going around with this sentence in my head: « He was running the vacuum cleaner when the telephone rang ». I knew a story was there and that it wanted telling. I felt it in my bones, that a story belonged with that beginning, if I could just have the time to write it. I found the time, an entire day – twelve, fifteen hours even – if I wanted to make use of it. I did, and I sat down in the morning and wrote the first sentence, and other sentences promptly began attach themselves. I made the story just I’d make a poem; one line and then the next, and the next. Pretty soon I could see a story, and I knew it was my story, the one I’d been wanting to write.
I like it when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories. I think a little menace is fine to have in a story. For one thing, it ‘s good for the circulation. There has to be tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often, there simply won’t be a story. What creates tension in a piece of fiction is partly the way the concrete words are linked together to make up the visible action of the story. But it’s also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface of things.
V. S. Pritchett’s definition of a short story is « something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing ». Notice the « glimpse » part of this. First the glimpse. Then the glimpse given life, turned into something that illuminates the moment and may, if we’re lucky – that word again – have even further-ranging consequences and meaning. The short story writer’s task is to invest the glimpse with all that is in his power. He’ll bring his intelligence and literary skill to bear (his talent), his sense of proportion and sense of the fitness of things: of how things out there really are and how he sees those things – I like no one else sees them. And this is done through the use of clear and specific language; language uses so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader. For the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given. The words can be so precise that may even sound flat, but they can still carry; if used right, they can hit all the notes。