November 3, 2006
William Styron died November 1, 2006. He is one of the last of the generation of what I think of as Heroic Novelists. I still haven’t read THE CONFESSIONS OF NAT TURNER, but SOPHIE’S CHOICE and LIE DOWN IN DARKNESS are well worth reading, as are his memoir pieces and his memoir of depression. His work has the enviable seriousness of one who truly believes that novels are the most serious form of art and that art is the most serious form of human endeavor. The ones left living include, probably most notably, Phillip Roth, ten years younger than Styron, who was old enough to be a marine in World War II.
When I speak of these Heroic Novelists, I speak of the ones who saw writing as a great proving ground for Men: books were serious, being a novelist was heroic, being a novelist thus was real men’s work.
I’m a little appalled at myself for writing this– I’ve given a great deal of my life to writing novels, but the truth is, especially from my thirties on, I’ve increasingly seen it as one human activity, an excellent one for exploring all sorts of states and ideas, but it is one of many human activities. And one that might give you carpal tunnel syndrome, but not black lung.
Of course I envy the Romantic-Heroic seriousness of writers like Styron, but also of course, as I’ve often said, I identify more with Jane Austen whose writing was an intense pleasure she took when free of family responsibilities– and, indeed, with Chaucer and his diplomatic work and even Shakespeare, who was an actor and businessman as much as a writer. In other words, whatever the struggle to write, and it can indeed be heroic (see Tillie Olsen’s book SILENCES), it is one of many human struggles. I suppose if writers weren't living out an ordinary life, they would have little to share with the people who don't write.
A couple of years back, we had some discussion of Styron and his work in my online newsletter, BOOKS FOR READERS: see http://www.meredithsuewillis.com/bfrarchive26-30.html#28 and http://www.meredithsuewillis.com/bfrarchive26-30.html#29 .