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Posted: May 9, 2021

Literary Life is a writer’s kind of book

Book Review

By Derryll White

McMurtry, Larry (2009).  Literary Life.

“If you were going to write a novel, I’d be sure to know the history of the genre before I attempted to add to it.” – Alan McKillop

‘Literary Life’ is a writer’s kind of book. Larry McMurtry very clearly lays out the requisites: read everything you can; review as much as you can; pay attention to voice and point of view.

McMurtry goes on at some length about how reading contributes to a writer’s life and work.  C.K. Ogden had about 80,000 books while Michael Foot had 120,000. Umberto Eco, another Canadian, possessed 30,000 volumes. Those figures make my own 5,000 pale in comparison.  What the author insists is that in order to produce literature one has to read literature, constantly and voluminously.

Larry McMurtry casts back in ‘Literary Life’ over his own life – what drove him to write (money he says, but not believably), what conditioned his writing and how age has affected it.  He generously points out that a writer’s seventies is “an age that Is not quite winter but is certainly no longer spring or summer.” Perhaps his most solid point in the 175 pages of reflection is that place matters, that the characters and language must reflect the landscape in which the writer physically exists. My mentors, Fred Wah and Charles Olson, hammer that point home as well.

The “summing up,” as McMurtry puts it, is that he is a writer of some distinction who certainly moves past the success of ‘Lonesome Dove.’ I now embark on a quest to acquire ‘Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen’ which McMurtry considers his definitive personal novel.

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“Even if one succeeds in making a silk purse of a sow’s ear, there remains the problem of what to do with a one-eared sow.” – Dave Hickey

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Excerpts from the volume:

THE WRITING LIFE – By this time I knew that I really wanted to be a writer.  I had spent the summer pounding out a rough draft of ‘Horseman, Pass By’, and by early fall, when I had plunged deep into graduate studies, I had also raced through an ever rougher draft of ‘Leaving Cheyenne’, which, years later, became my second novel.

WRITING – I learned then and have relearned many times since, that the best part of a writer’s life is actually doing it, making up characters, filling the blank page, creating scenes that readers in distant places might connect to.  The thrill lies in the rush of sentences, the gradual arrival of characters who at once seem to have their own life.

PERSPECTIVE – …and how lucky I was to begin my career at a time when it was relatively easy to publish first novels.  More than one hundred were published by trade publishers in 1961, the year I published ‘Horseman’.  Publishers then still considered themselves to be gentlemen and scholars, and they still thought it was important to publish young writers, carrying them for a book or two until they matured and, hopefully, produced a little revenue for the firm.

WRITING – I believe the only gift I had that led me to a career in fiction was the ability to make up characters that readers connect with.  My characters move them, which is also why those same characters move them when they meet them on the screen.

– Derryll White once wrote books but now chooses to read and write about them.  When not reading he writes history for the web at www.basininstitute.org.


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