有些作家很有才華，我還真不知道一點才華都沒有的作家。但是，對事物獨特而準確的觀察，再用恰當的文字把它表述出來，則又另當別論了。《加普的世界》其實是歐文(John Irving)自己奇妙的世界。對奧康納(Flannery O’Connor)而言，則存在著另外一個世界。福克納(William Faulkner)和海明威(Ernest Hemingway)有他們自己的世界。對奇佛(Cheever), 厄普代克(Updike), 辛格(Singer), 埃爾金(Stanley Elkin), 貝蒂(Ann Beattie), 奧齊克(Cynthia Ozick), 巴塞爾姆(Donald Barthelme), 羅賓森(Mary Robison), 基特裏奇(William Kittredge), 漢納(Barry Hannah)和勒奎恩(Ursula K. LeGuin)來說，都存在著一個與他人完全不同的世界。每一個偉大的作家，甚至每一個還可以的作家，都在根據自己的規則來構造世界。
黛因生（Isak Dinesen）曾說過，她每天寫一點。不爲所喜，不爲所憂。我想有一天我會把這個抄在一張三乘五寸的卡片上，並貼在我寫字臺正面的牆上。我已在那面牆上貼了些三乘五的卡片，“準確的陳述是寫作的第一要素” －－龐德(Ezra Pound)，就是其中一張。我知道，寫作不僅僅只是這一點。但如能做到‘準確的陳述’，你的路子起碼是走對了。
我曾無意聽到作家沃爾夫(Geoffrey Wolff)對他的學生說：“別耍廉價的花招” 這句話也該寫在一張卡片上。我還要更進一步：“別耍花招”， 句號。我痛恨花招，在小說中，我一看見小花招或伎倆，不管是廉價的還是精心製作的，我都不想再往下看。小伎倆使人厭煩，而我又特別容易感到厭煩，這大概和我注意力不能長時間集中有關。和愚蠢的寫作一樣，那些自以爲聰明和時髦誇張的寫作也使我昏昏欲睡。作家不需要靠耍花招和賣弄技巧，你沒必要是個聰明絕頂的傢夥。儘管你有可能被人看成傻子，作家要有面對簡單的事物，比如落日或一隻舊鞋子，驚訝得張口結舌的資質。
幾個月前，巴思(John Barth)在紐約時報的書評專欄裏曾提到，十年前，參加他寫作短訓班的學生，大多對‘形式創新’ 著迷。而現在不太一樣了。那些自由開放的實驗小說不再時髦，他擔心八十年代的人又開始寫那些老生常談的小說。每當聽見人們在我面前談論小說的‘形式創新’，我總會感到不自在。你會發現，很多不負責任、愚蠢和模仿他人的寫作，常常都是以‘實驗’爲幌子。這種寫作往往是對讀者的粗暴，使他們和作者産生隔閡。它不會給我們帶來與世界有關的任何新資訊，只是描述一幅荒涼的景象，幾個小沙丘，幾隻蜥蜴，沒有任何人和與人有關的東西。這是個只有少數科學家才會感興趣的地方。
值得一提的是真正的實驗小說必須是原創的，它是艱苦勞動的回報。一味地追隨和模仿他人對事物的觀察方法是徒勞的。這個世界上只有一個巴塞爾姆，另一個作家如果以‘創新’ 的名義，盜用巴塞爾姆特有的靈感或表達方式，其結果只會是混亂，失敗和自欺欺人。如龐得所說，真正的實驗小說應該是全新的。 而且，不能爲創新而創新。如果一個作家還沒有走火入魔的話，他的世界和讀者的世界是能夠溝通的。
在一首詩或一篇短篇小說裏，我們完全可以用普通而精准的語言來描述普通的事情，賦予一些常見的事物，如一張椅子，一扇窗簾，一把叉子，一塊石頭，或一付耳環以驚人的魔力。納博科夫(Nabokov)就有這樣的本事，用一段看似無關痛癢的對話，讓你讀後脊背發涼，並感受到藝術上的享受。我對這樣的作品才感興趣。我討厭雜亂無章的寫作，不管它是打著實驗小說的旗號還是以現實主義的名義。在巴別爾(Isaac Babel)的那部絕妙的小說《蓋 • 德 • 莫泊桑》裏，敍述者有這麽一段有關小說寫作的話:“沒有什麽能比一個放在恰當位子上的句號更能打動你的心。”這句話同樣應該寫在一張三乘五的卡片上。
我喜歡小說裏有些驚恐和緊張的氣氛，起碼它對小說的銷售有幫助。好的故事裏需要一種緊張的氛圍，某件事馬上就要發生了，它在一步一步地逼近。小說裏的這種氛圍，是靠實實在在的詞創造出來的視覺效果。同時，那些沒寫出來的、暗示性的東西，那些隱藏在平滑（或微微有點起伏）的表層下面的東西，也會起到同樣的效果。普裏切特(V. S. Pritchett)給短篇小說的定義是：“眼角閃過的一瞥。”請注意這‘一瞥’。先是有‘一瞥’，再給這‘一瞥’賦予生命，將這‘一瞥’轉化成對當前時刻的闡明。如果運氣好的話，還能進一步對事情的結果和意義加以延伸。短篇小說家的使命就是充分地利用這‘一瞥’，用智慧和文學手法來展現作者的才華，尺寸感，適度感，以及對外界事物的看法――我這裏特別強調與衆不同的看法。而這一切，是要靠清晰準確的語言來實現的。用語言賦予細節以生氣，使故事生輝。語言精准了，細節才會具體傳神。爲了準確地描述，你甚至可以用一些通俗的詞。只要運用得當，它們同樣可以起到一字千斤的效果。
Back in the mid-1960s, I found I was having trouble concentrating my attention on long narrative fiction. For a time I experienced difficulty in trying to read it as well as in attempting to write it. My attention span had gone out on me; I no longer had the patience to try to write novels, it’s an involved story, too tedious to talk about here. But I know it has much to do now with why I write poems and short stories. Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on. It could be that I lost any great ambitions at about the same time, in my late twenties. If I did, I think it was good it happened. Ambition and a little luck are good things for a writer to have going for him. Too much ambition and bad luck, or no luck at all, can be killing. There has to be talent.
Some writers have a bunch of talent; I don’t know any writers who are without it. But a unique and exact way of looking things, and finding the right context for expressing that way of looking, that’s something else. The World According to Garp is, of course, the marvelous world according to John Irving. There is another world according to Flannery O’Connor, and others according to William Faulkner and Ernest Heminway. There are worlds according to Cheever, Updike, Singer, Stanley Elkin, Ann Beattie, Cynthia Ozick, Donald Barthelme, Mary Robison, William Kittredge, Barry Hannah, Ursula K. LeGuin,. Every great or even every very good writer makes the world according to his own specifications.
It’s akin to style, what I’m talking about, but it isn’t style alone. It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguish one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time.
Isak Dinesen said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair. Someday I’ll put that on a three-by-five card and tape it to the wall beside my desk. I have some three-by-five cards on the wall now. « Fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing. » Ezra Pound. It is not everything by ANY means, but if a writer has « fundamental accuracy of statement » going for him, he’s at least on the right track.
I have a three-by-five up there with this fragment of a sentence from a story by Chekov : « … and suddenly everything became clear to him .» I find these words filled with wonder and possibility. I love their simple clarity, and the hint of revelation that’s implied. There is mystery, too. What has been unclear before? Why is it just now becoming clear? What’s happened? Most of all – what now? There are consequences as a result of such sudden awakenings. I feel a sharp sense or relief – and anticipation.
I overheard the writer Geoffrey Wolff say « No cheap tricks » to a group of writing students. That should go on a three-by-five card. I’d amend it a little to « No tricks. » Period. I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or a gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. Tricks are ultimately boring, and I get bored easily, which may go along with my not having much of an attention span. But extremely clever chi-chi writing, or just plain tomfoolery writing, puts me to sleep. Writers don’t need tricks or gimmicks or even necessarily need to be the smartest fellows on the block. At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing - a sunset or an old shoe – in absolute and simple amazement.
Some months back, in the New York Times Book Review, John Barth said that ten years ago most of the students in his fiction writing seminar were interested in « formal innovation », and this no longer seems to be the case. He’s a little worried that writers are going to start writing mom and pop novels in the 1980s. He worries that experimentation may be on the way out, along with liberalism. I get a little nervous if I find myself within earshot of somber discussions about « formal innovation » in fiction writing. Too often « experimentation » is a license to be careless, silly or imitative in the writing. Even worse, a license to try to brutalize or alienate the reader. Too often such writing gives us no news of the world, or else describes a desert landscape and that’s all – a few dunes and lizards her and here, but no people; a place uninhabited by anything recognizably human, a place of interest only to a few scientific specialists.
It should be noted that real experiment in fiction is original, hard-earned and cause for rejoicing. But someone else’s way of looking at things – Barthelme’s, for instance – should not be chased after by other writers. It won’t work. There is only one Barthelme’s peculiar sensibility or mise en scene under the rubric of innovation is for that writer to mess around with chaos and disaster and, worse, self-deception. The real experimenters have to Make It New, as Pound urged, and in the process have to find things out for themselves. But if writers haven’t taken leave of their senses, they also want to stay in touch with us, they want to carry news from their world to ours.
It’s possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things – a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring – with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine – the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That’s the kind of writing that most interests me. I hate sloppy or haphazard writing whether it flies under the banner of experimentation or else is just clumsily rendered realism. In Isaac Babel’s wonderful short story, « Guy de Maupassant, » the narrator has this to say about the writing of fiction: « No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place. » This too ought to go on a three-by-five.
Evan Connell said once that he knew he was finished with a short story when he found himself going through it and taking out commas and then going through the story again and putting commas back in the same places. I like that way of working on something. I respect that kind of care for what is being done. That’s all we have, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say. If the words are heavy with the writer’s own unbridled emotions, or if they are imprecise and inaccurate for some other reason – if words are in any way blurred – the reader’s eyes will slide right over them and nothing will be achieved. The reader’s own artistic sense will simply not be engaged. Henry James called this sort of hapless writing « weak specification ».
I have friends who’ve told me they had to hurry a book because they needed the money, their editor or their wife was leaning on them or leaving them – something, some apology for the writing not being very good. « It would have been better if I’d taken the time. » I was dumbfounded when I heard a novelist friend say this. I still am, if I think about it, which I don’t. It’s none of my business. But if the writing can’t be made as good as it is within us to make it, then why do it? In the end, the satisfaction of having done our best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave. I wanted to say to my friend, for heaven’s sake go do something else. There have to be easier and maybe more honest ways to try and earn a living. Or else just do it to the best of your abilities, your talents, and then don’t justify or make excuses. Don’t complain, don’t explain.
In an essay, simply enough, « Writing Short Stories », Flannery O’Connor talks about writing as an act of discovery. O’Connor says she most often did not know where she was going when she sat down to work on a short story. She says she doubts that many writers know where they are going when they begin something. She uses « Good Country People » as an example of how she put together a short story whose ending she could not even guess at until she was nearly there:
When I started writing that story, I didn’t know there was going to be a Ph.D. with a wooden leg in it. I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two women I knew something about, and before I realized it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter with a wooden leg. I brought in the Bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn’t know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was going to happen, I realized it was inevitable.
When I read this some years ago, it came as a shock that she, or anyone fot that matter, wrote stories in this fashion. I thought this was uncomfortable secret, and I was a little uneasy with it. For sure I thought this way of working on a short story somehow revealed my own shortcomings. I remember being tremendously heartened by reading what she had to say on the subject.
I once sat down to write what turned out to be a pretty good story, though only the first sentence of the story had offered itself to me when I began it. For several days I’d been going around with this sentence in my head: « He was running the vacuum cleaner when the telephone rang ». I knew a story was there and that it wanted telling. I felt it in my bones, that a story belonged with that beginning, if I could just have the time to write it. I found the time, an entire day – twelve, fifteen hours even – if I wanted to make use of it. I did, and I sat down in the morning and wrote the first sentence, and other sentences promptly began attach themselves. I made the story just I’d make a poem; one line and then the next, and the next. Pretty soon I could see a story, and I knew it was my story, the one I’d been wanting to write.
I like it when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories. I think a little menace is fine to have in a story. For one thing, it ‘s good for the circulation. There has to be tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often, there simply won’t be a story. What creates tension in a piece of fiction is partly the way the concrete words are linked together to make up the visible action of the story. But it’s also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface of things.
V. S. Pritchett’s definition of a short story is « something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing ». Notice the « glimpse » part of this. First the glimpse. Then the glimpse given life, turned into something that illuminates the moment and may, if we’re lucky – that word again – have even further-ranging consequences and meaning. The short story writer’s task is to invest the glimpse with all that is in his power. He’ll bring his intelligence and literary skill to bear (his talent), his sense of proportion and sense of the fitness of things: of how things out there really are and how he sees those things – I like no one else sees them. And this is done through the use of clear and specific language; language uses so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader. For the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given. The words can be so precise that may even sound flat, but they can still carry; if used right, they can hit all the notes。