“I write / to astonish myself.”
Geoffrey Hill’s audacity (Section XXIII, The Orchards of Syon) came to mind while reading David Myers’ tribute to Wilfrid Sheed, dead this week at age eighty. Sheed’s novels, especially Max Jamison and The Hack, were witty and very funny, though my favorite among his books may have been his last, The House that George Built (2007), a love song to Tin Pan Alley. It might have borne the title of his 1993 volume about baseball, My Life as a Fan.
Sheed was by disposition a quiet enthusiast who earned his late happiness the hard way, in the wake of polio, depression and addiction to drugs and alcohol. He was no creampuff. He wrote for the best of Johnsonian reasons – he was a pro, and in the sixties and seventies his byline was ubiquitous – but he also seemed to be having a marvelous time. Savor this gem about Norman Mailer from Essays in Disguise (1990):
“’Do not understand me too quickly,’ he says. Good grief, little danger of that.”
Or this from The Good Word and Other Words (1978):
“Of Ezra Pound, as of Bobby Fischer, all that decently be said is that his colleagues admire him. There is no special reason for anyone else to.”
Not every good writer is great. If Sheed was minor he shared at least one quality with the greats – memorability. The Mailer quip I’ve remembered for decades, longer than any eruption by Mailer. Myers’ concluding sentences likewise sound lasting:
“If you never permit your style to flag, if you never lower your standards for the parts of speech, you might even endure the worst of patches.
“There in a single nugget-like idea is the reason that Wilfrid Sheed deserves to be remembered. He was a writer who never let down his style.”
Sheed’s style, as the examples quoted suggest, was as honed, balanced and efficient as a Bowie knife. He was not flashy, his language never attention-gettingly recondite or slang-ridden. He had the gag-man’s gift for brevity and speed but seldom played the wise guy. Style, Myers suggests, is not filigree but language suffused with a writer’s sensibility. That’s real astonishment. In a footnote to The Honest Rainmaker (1953), A.J. Liebling formulates the only writer’s credo I could ever endorse, and I fancy Sheed might have joined me:
“The way to write is well, and how is your own business. Nothing else on the subject makes sense.”