An Author for All Seasons

By Grohskopf, Bernice | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

An Author for All Seasons


Grohskopf, Bernice, The Virginia Quarterly Review


Going to See the Elephant: Pieces of a Writing Life. By George Garrett. Edited by Jeb Livingood. Texas Review Press. $18.95 paper.

George Garrett's writing can't be categorized. The range of subjects, styles and interests in his novels, stories, essays, criticisms, reviews, and poems is unlike that of any other writer. Going to See the Elephant: Pieces of a Writing Life, edited by Jeb Livingood, a new paperback, provides a limited introduction to his work.

The collection is divided into three sections: A Writing Life; Other Voices; True and False Confessions. The opening essay, "Going to See the Elephant," is a brief instruction manual for all writers who may want to find out what they will see when they see the "Elephant."

In his essay, ."A Writing Life," Garrett warns writers who are employed by academic institutions to beware the risk of the "not so subtle pressure for the employee-writer to become an institutional person," meaning one who brings "credit to the institution, and, yes siree, thinking and acting correctly within the socio-political context of the institution." Under such pressures the writer will try to avoid writing on "controversial subjects," and thus "more and more American literary art isn't about anything that matters to anybody."

Garrett is as outspokenly critical and bitter about the "sleazy publishing habits" of those who run the New York publishing scene: "Mediocre, even blatantly bad books can be marketed as 'blockbusters' and can sometimes earn huge profits for everyone concerned." Thus, we end up "with a literary situation not conducive to the development of literary quality."

One of the most interesting essays in the collection, "Cowboys and Indians: A Few Notions about Creative Writing," was originally commissioned by the editors of The Chronicle of Higher Education, who asked Garrett to write an "opinion piece on the subject of contemporary creative writing courses." After he sent the essay, the editors promptly returned it, explaining that they didn't "approve of his opinions." The rejected essay is a forthright criticism of what Garrett believes has become the corporate climate of institutions of learning, and the way in which that climate results in "uniformity of thought," thus discouraging creativity and originality. That the editors of The Chronicle refused to publish it reveals more about them than about Mr. Garrett's writing. The essay is published in this collection, although it is unclear when this incident occurred, since the editor failed to supply dates (or places) of publication.

In his section on fellow writers, "Other Voices," not all will agree with Garrett's opinions. He rates F. Scott Fitzgerald "one of the most gifted" of American writers; he considers Truman Capote's In Cold Blood a "historical landmark" that is prophetic about a "desperate, savage, violent America." For Eudora Welty, he expresses admiration and affection. Welty "opened doors and windows for me," and changed his life. The poet, Fred Chappell, he regards as "a true master of prosody and metrics," and wonders "why the literary establishment has been ... reluctant to recognize Chappell's achievement in poetry." In summarizing Chappell's philosophy Garrett might well be summarizing his own: "He ridicules powerful delusions and frozen stereotypes. He celebrates fidelity, humility, the powers of love, the honor of a job well done." But Garrett admits he is a cynic; "Comedy, be it ever so dark or grotesque, is always a shadow dancer in my work."

The "Liar, Liar" is James Dickey who, Garrett describes as "willing to say or do almost anything for the sake of advancing his career." He was a "jock without much talent or ability."

On the reception of his own work, he notes, justifiably, how little "attention has been paid to his work during the forty and more years since I first began to publish." But he is grateful to those fellow writers who have shown interest, provided encouragement and companionship. …

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