Day 25: A good heroine beats a good hero every day

Weeks ago, I took a vow before the head of my order to spend my summer participating in the Clarion West Write-a-thon (#writeathon), blogging about it, dieting, punching the clock on my last job, and coping with sick family and arthritic bureaucracies. I didn’t foresee that the one thing I’d be least likely to do would be blogging. I thought for sure it would be dieting.

The older you get, the more bureaucracies you get

Are you frightened of a future full of sick old people? Grow up, you big baby! They’re your responsibility. However, if you act early, you can decrease the number of people by following this tip from the professionals: Marry an orphan.

Set the controls for the heart of 1966

In that year, Roland, my favorite English teacher, attended a writing conference at Georgetown University. Decades later, he gave me his notes. “I have no further use for them,” he wrote in his elegant, slanted penmanship. I want to share some of what I’ve found on these faded steno pad sheets.

Remember James T. Farrell? No? He was a rock star of the Depression!

The opening address was given by the novelist James T. Farrell, author of the Studs Lonigan trilogy. Studs holds the 29th spot on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. I’ve never read Farrell, but I have read that Normal Mailer was inspired to write after reading the Studs Lonigan books, which makes me want to not read James T. Farrell.

Judging by Roland’s notes, Farrell gave a remarkable speech that encompassed social commentary and the nuts and bolts of writing. He said that much of our sense of the world comes from the movies, not conversation or direct experience. He divided the world into two kinds of people, the glamorous and those who admire the glamorous. He decried the manipulation of art and its takeover and cheapening by business – exactly what Ursula K. LeGuin was talking about when she attacked Amazon at the National Book Awards in 2014. “Man must strive to attain the full stature of his humanity,” Farrell admonished the crowd, quoting Robespierre.

If so far this sounds like a writing conference today, you’re right, but there were things that went down in 1966 that wouldn’t go down at any conference today. For example, the language all of the writers used, male and female, and that Roland wrote his notes in, was male.

Farrell, paraphrased by Roland:

In terms of public, all that is important in a writer is his mind and heart as it is put on paper. He should not be made a public spectacle.

Unless a writer retires to solitude he will not find himself. He must master solitude. He must accept that as part of his destiny.

From R.A. Knowlton, a well-known editor and writing teacher of that era:

The successful fiction writer must be an untrustworthy fellow who can tell a good lie and get away with it.

As far as I can tell from googling the names Roland jotted down, there were no writers of color present and almost no recognition of what today we’d call marginalized populations. I found two exceptions:

  1. James Baldwin was included in a mention of the hot new writers, along with Saul Bellow, Isak Dinesen, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and John Updike.
  2. The Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis was praised for Epitaph of a Small Winner, an 1881 novel that must have just been translated into English.

“Women’s magazines want emotion. Mass circulation mags want action!”

The particulars of writing for magazines in 1966 were fascinating to me. Writing for magazines is what I’ve been trying to do for most of my life.

R.A. Knowlton did not have a high opinion of what he called the mass circulation, slick paper magazine. Fiction in these magazines isn’t supposed to mirror reality, he said; it’s an escape. “Truth,” says Mr. K, “makes very poor fiction.” He said that magazine fiction doesn’t carry much prestige (“Amateurs get all the applause”) because readers still want “the old virtues and illusions in their fiction.” This is why writers should never use divorce and divorcees in slick fiction. “Your main character must want something, but not anything illegal or immoral.”

(Attendees were advised of various taboos: no curse words in Boy’s Life, no teenage drinking in National Future Farmer. Was it OK to switch?)

However, Knowlton noted that contemporary (as in 1966) editors “want more force and emotionally contentious stories.” “Cream puffs,” he predicted, “are on their way out.” How I wish I knew what he meant by cream puffs. Is that what I’ve been writing?

And we’re back to the old people

At one of the panel discussions Roland attended, he was told that your main characters must be “reasonably” young – certainly not over 40. “Older readers can remember what it’s like to be young but young readers can’t imagine what it’s like to be old.” This reminds me that it was Thomas Wolfe, of all people, a man who wrote millions of words without ever understanding the female half of the human race, who figured out why we rarely get heroes in their 70s and beyond: No one lives long enough to understand how to write them.

Other nuggets for the aspiring magazine writer:

  • “A good heroine beats a good hero every day.”
  • “Stick to your own sex, also to one viewpoint.”
  • “Frankness seems to be most desired in non-fiction…the trend is to things that where formerly said only in the confessional or a doctor’s office.”
  • “Women’s magazines want emotion. Mass circulation mags want action!”

The most compelling remark in the pages Roland sent: “The only sort of story you can write is one from yourself.” Amen.

Cashed out

In 1966, the best-paying fiction markets in the U.S. were McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and Cosmopolitan. The New Yorker could not have been far behind.

McCall’s, a zine with a bank vault straight out of Richie Rich’s basement, offered $3,000-$4,000 per short story. According to my inflation calculator, $4,000 in 1966 would be $31,000 in 2019. Now you know how the Johns – Updike, Cheever, O’Hara – made a solid middle-class living writing short fiction in the 1950s and ’60s.

You can bet your ass and six of your goats that no one writing science fiction, mysteries, or westerns made this kind of money in those kinds of genres. In one year in the ’50s, Philip K. Dick earned $1,500 from the sale of about a dozen stories. He mentioned it because it was a superlative year. At least he could say that the only sort of story he wrote was from himself.

On to Day 26 of the Write-a-thon

So we beat on, keyboards against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.