Saturday, December 12, 2009

Literary Life: A Second Memoir

"I had expected to be thrilled when I received my first copy of my first book, but when I opened the package and held the first copy in my hand, I found that I just felt sort of flat . . . 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."

from LITERARY LIFE: A Second Memoir by Larry McMurtry

I don't know if I ever would've discovered the work of Larry McMurtry if hadn't been for the movie, Terms of Endearment (Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger). I loved the 1983 film--a story about a mother-daughter relationship that spans 30 years--and I was surprised to learn it was based on a book by Larry McMurtry. He's always had a reputation for writing literature of the American West, of which I had little interest. But after my Terms of Endearment epiphany (the book was very different from the movie, but just as wonderful), I went on to read the sequel, The Evening Star, and Moving On (a novel about the minor character, Patsy, from Terms).

Ever since, I've continued to read McMurtry. I tend to lean more toward his more contemporary-set fiction (
Duane's Depressed and the rest of the "Duane" books; The Loop Group; although Telegraph Days, about the Old West, was terrific, too) and his essays (Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen) are first rate. Even though he's won a Pulitzer Prize (Lonesome Dove) and an Academy Award (Brokeback Mountain, screenwriting adaptation from the short story by Annie Proulx), to many in highbrow literary circles, McMurtry is still considered an "outsider."

In reviewing his latest book,
Literary Life: A Second Memoir (his first memoir was Books: A Memoir; a third is in the works), Dwight Garner of The New York Times Book Review said this: "A lot of his (McMurtry's) stuff verges on being — how to put this? — typed rather than written. He’s published more guff, over the past 50 years, than just about any other major (semimajor? majorish?) American writer."

Guff? With close to thirty books under his belt (not to mention a slew of scripts), what author wouldn't have a few hits and misses? Does every book McMurtry writes need to have the heft of Lonesome Dove or The Last Picture Show? Is there not room for a writer--a writer who writes prolifically, in the extreme--to switch gears every now and then and lighten up sometimes? I find Garner's assessment harsh and unfair.

McMurtry has never claimed to be anything other than a writer of highly readable fiction and nonfiction who, at times, admits to have written books in order to make money. A "Minor Regional Writer," as he once called himself (which is grossly understated), is exactly the label the literary establishment has persisted in preserving, while continuing to try and undermine McMurtry's credibility and his craft. Thank goodness detractors have not been successful. McMurtry sells lots of book and his fans are numerous - and ardent. In my mind, the greatest gift of this author is his ability to craft authentic stories populated with characters in whom people can relate. He's a storyteller--in the truest sense of the word--whose prose can be brisk and light-hearted, but he's proven his storytelling-ability time and time again. Literary Life: A Second Memoir is a fascinating (and honest) look into the writing life of a dedicated author and how he's developed and maintained his craft all these years. You won't want to miss the passages where he shares insights into his reading habits and preferences.