There’s nothing new about people presuming to tell writers how they ought to write. A good critic never does that. He never says: “This is how you should have written it.” Yet the bookish precincts of the internet are overloaded with such diktats, often anonymous and always rude and impertinent. On this date, October 24, in 1924, Willa Cather cleaned the clock of a certain “Mr. Miller,” whose identify is otherwise unknown:
“I am so sorry my writing vexes you, and it will continue to vex you! I do not in the least agree with your assumption that one kind of writing is right and another kind is wrong. I write at all because it pleases and amuses me -- and I write in the way that pleases and amuses me.”
By 1924 she had already published O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), My Ántonia (1918) and A Lost Lady (1923), among other books, and was well on her way to becoming the finest American novelist of the twentieth century (if we leave out Henry James).
“Again, there is one kind of story that ought to tell itself -- the story of action. There is another kind of story that ought to be told -- I mean the emotional story, which tries to be much more like music than it tries to be like drama -- the story that tries to evoke and leave merely a picture - a mood. That was what Conrad tried to do, and he did it well.”
As did Cather. Her “action” is secondary, yet her fiction is never inward-gazing, à la Virginia Woolf. She writes: “I think the two greatest writers of fiction in modern times were Count Tolstoi and Ivan Turgenev, and I think they were equally magnificent in their achievement.” She neatly closes her letter with yet another jab at the presumptuous Mr. Miller, masked in graciousness: “You see, I pay you the compliment of coming back at you with some spir[i]t.”
Last week, after recounting yet another outrage at work, a friend concluded her email to me with this: “I’m on a Willa Cather jag right now, which helps considerably.”