Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Notes toward Editing a Contemporary Writer's Letters

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Notes toward Editing a Contemporary Writer's Letters

Article excerpt

Surely one of the outstanding accomplishments of the late twentieth century is its highly sophisticated technology. However, the advent of the fax machine and electronic mail, ostensibly miraculous and utterly convenient modes of communication, has hastened the steady decline of letter-writing, once a revered form of literature. Presented with opportunities for the instant transmission of information, it is unsurprising that few elect to craft letters. For the 1990s, speed is of the essence, which is why salvos of praise greeted the electronic replacement of the card catalog. Indifferent to its historical emendations and invaluable handwritten information, many disclaim as loss what was once an indispensable research tool.

Electronic miracles may spell progress, but that harbors risk. Think, as Cynthia Ozick has, of that welcome invention, the telephone:

. . . in 1905, the era of print supremacy was still in force, unquestioned; the typewriter and the electric light had arrived to strengthen it, and the telephone was greeted only as a convenience, not a substitute . . . not much was lost that ought not to have been lost in the omission of letters agreeing to meet at 8:42 on Tuesday night on the east platform. Since then, the telephone has abetted more serious losses: exchanges between artists and thinkers; documents of family and business relations; quarrels and cabals among politicians; everything that in the past tended to be preserved for biographers and cultural historians.(1)

Because letters have lost their raison d'etre, they have become more of an anachronism than a creative venture. But an imaginative writer's correspondence can be, as Hazlitt once observed of Gray's, "nearly as good as poetry itself" and "worth [its] weight in gold."(2) To pursue Hazlitt's image, biographers mine letters in search of gold; yet how many imaginative writers engage in a substantial correspondence nowadays? Rare among them perhaps is Cynthia Ozick, who avows that it is print, not speech, that creates culture. Champion of the written word, she proclaims reading "an act of imaginative conversion" and discounts conversation as mere "air" (M&M, p. 170).(3)

In 1984 when I approached her for an interview, an exchange of correspondence ensued, the critic arguing for the vitality and spontaneity of an interview, the writer against the "loose spill" of the uttered word. When at last the interview took place and Ozick received the edited transcript, she announced: "There are vast distances of organization between typewriter-thinking and free conversation, just as there are vast distances between pen-thinking and typewriter-thinking. But the horrors of free conversation set down! How it tells us the truth: that experience, no matter how intense is nothing at all without the potter's hand! The joy I felt in our talk leaves me all ash when I read the work of the transcriber's hand."(4) My written attempts to convince her how valuable spoken interchange is to readers eager to understand the miracle of creation were of no avail. Months of silence followed, my fear of never seeing the interview in print growing. Even when I offered her the opportunity to edit the interview so it could at last be published and she agreed not "to make essay-sentences out of [the] spoken sentences," she protested, "But to see the words bare on the page! I often could not disentangle the garble of it; I often could not find the antecedent idea for a 'this' or a 'that.' I was often ashamed. The raggedness of a loosened voice! There isn't a grain of art in any of it." Is it any wonder that writing letters is an activity that engages her: "Letter-writing, alas is my life. I write letters. I dislike intensely writing letters, but I can't work until I clear, not so much the desk, but my mind so that there's nothing left . . . . I do write letters, an awful lot of letters . . . . I write imaginary letters. I sometimes wake up with this howling, or quiet, or a voice just answering sometimes. …

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