In his short book, The Educated Imagination, Northrup Frye lucidly offers some ideas about what literature is (and is not) and what uses we might make of it. It is an interesting project not because stories are likely to vanish from our culture, but because it is not immediately clear why outlandish tales such as King Lear or Moby Dick or perhaps particularly Paradise Lost, with it’s talking snakes and opposing angelic legions, matter. Frye has some ideas on the topic and if you’re up for a good read and interested, I recommend the book.It will come as no surprise that in such a study he also has some comments to make about writers and it is these, I find, that stay in my mind largely, I suppose, because now that I’m retired, I think of myself as a writer more than I ever have before. (Identity appears to be grounded in activity, after all). Early in the book, Frye makes the observation that literature does not improve with time; today’s writers are not better than their predecessors, just different. Jane Austen is neither better nor worse that F. Scott Fitzgerald or William Faulkner and while ranking authors might be an amusing way to spend an afternoon, it’s an empty game, one best lift to those magazines that constantly claim they’ve found the world’s ten best beaches, nightclubs, dog parks etc, etc. etc. He then goes on to say:
writers don’t seem to benefit much by the advance of science, although they thrive on superstition of all kinds. And you certainly wouldn’t turn to…poets for guidance or leadership in the [modern] world. You’d hardly go to Ezra Pound, with his fascism…and anti-Semitism. Or to Yeats, with his spiritualism and fairies and astrology. Or to D.H. Lawrence, who’ll tell you that it’s a good thing for servants to be flogged because that restores the precious current of blood reciprocity between servant and master (25).
Later he adds:
…the poet is not only very seldom a person one would turn to for insight into the state of the world, but often seems even more gullible and simple-minded than the rest of us. For the poet the particular literary conventions he adopts are likely to become, for him, facts of life. If he finds that the kind of writing he’s best at has a good deal to do with…a white goddess like Graves…or episcopal sermons like T.S. Eliot…these things are apt to take on a reality for him that seems badly out of proportion to his contemporaries (89).Now, I find this a little humbling. Who wants to think of himself as more gullible, more susceptible to superstition than, say, his barber? But I also find it to be a helpful corrective. As a student, I often found myself in trembling awe before the “altar of literature.” Milton, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Wharton, Melville, Hawthorne, were larger than larger than life. They were divinities, abundantly wise, compassionate, insightful, human beings elevated and when I stood before some building (I can’t recall which one) and saw their names chiseled into granite, it made perfect sense. And now I come across Northrup Frye explaining to me that some of these people—maybe most of them—are individuals we might regard as crackpots.Well, why shouldn’t they be? In my blog entry on the muse, I confess that much of the writing I do comes as if from the ether. And Frye himself notes that “much of a writer’s best writing is or seems to be involuntary” and cites the famous dictum by D.H. Lawrence: “don’t trust the novelist; trust his story”(92). I don’t mean to say that literary composition is magical, a product of inspiration, something that comes to people as if in a dream. It isn’t. At least it isn’t in my case. I stake out hours for the work and once I sit down I don’t get up until I’ve written at least a thousand words. And I read a bit to keep my hand in and from what I’ve learned about the habits of other writers, I see that I conform to the pattern. Still, for all the grunt work that goes into composition, much of it feels out of my control, as if I were engaged in automatic writing.

Making the stories is a combination of perseverance and, for want of a better phrase, following the muse, and I think it’s fair to say that the muse would not sing to me—however faintly—if I didn’t stick to it. And I suspect that’s the case for others, too, writers and painters and musicians, all who pursue the arts and athletes, too, which is to say that LeBron could ring up all those points if he didn’t spend some grunt time shooting and shooting and shooting. Talent, whatever that is, would not be enough. But, and here Frye’s observations seem especially apt, none of this blesses me, or others, with any separate elevated wisdom. Yes, I can make stories, such as they are, and it’s a pleasure to do so and I hope they are at least readable. But that does not mean that I any less foolish than anyone else, my barber included. Like I said: humbling.

Still, those names do deserve to be carved in granite. They do, but in a way different that I imagined when I was much younger. Milton, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Wharton, Melville, Hawthorne, and many others, comprise what we might call a writers Hall of Fame, a literary Cooperstown and we ought to honor them, as we honor baseball players, for their prowess in a narrow field of human endeavor. As a writer I suppose I wish this were not the case. It would be handsome to believe that making stories is the most important project a person can find in life and that writing endows one with special insight, sage-like wisdom, deep compassion and grace. But it isn’t and it doesn’t. It’s one project among many, nothing more, and while it may offer a slim chance at a pathway to grandeur, even that at its best is a narrow road. As I said: humbling.

My efforts at grandeur can be found as Kindle books at the following:…

All quotations are from: Frye, Northrup, The Educated Imagination, (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1974)