Who’s the most famous writer you’ve never read? I can think of a few offhand, but now I can cross one off the list: Annie Proulx. A good friend sent me a book of her short stories the other day: “Fine Just the Way it Is.” I’m about halfway through it. I love that title. I like her style.
Yeah, I know. Everyone plus dog has read and raved about Proulx’s Pulitzer-winning “The Shipping News.” That book is 30 years old now; you’d think I might have made time for it at some point. Nope. Mea culpa. But on the strength of the stories I’ve read so far, I did check it out at the library yesterday.
My only previous experience with Annie Proulx was the movie, “Brokeback Mountain.” I didn’t care for it. My wife would say I was put off by the whole gay-cowboy thing, but I think the transition to film may have taken some nuance and authenticity out of the original work. OK, maybe I wasn’t crazy about watching the cowboys (sheepboys?) go at it. I’m always a little squeamish about movie sex. But the movie just didn’t ring as true to me as these few stories I’ve read.
I grew up in rural Montana and was part of a ranch family from age 12 to about 18. That is my frame of reference when I read stories about the West, new or old. It has nothing to do with stuff like “The Horse Whisperer,” where everybody is good-looking and dresses in unstained Western wear and is full of laconic cowboy wisdom.
On a real ranch, you wear rubber boots and coveralls much of the time, and you’re more likely to be shoveling out a ditch or a chicken house than riding the range. Such wisdom you find can verge mighty close to cliche. Annie Proulx seems to get that. I like stories about the West that don’t try to romanticize it.
Anyone else discover a famous writer late in life? Let me know.
John H. says
I’m in the “have never read Annie Proulx” group at the moment, and I love short stories, so I’ll have to check out that collection.
Great question about famous writers. Two come to mind.
The first is Jack Kerouac. I had heard various things, good and bad, over the years, about “On the Road” but never read it. It gets mentioned often, and it appears on the bookshelf of every disaffected youth and/or soulful writer in movies. So I finally borrowed it from the library and gave it a try. I was not prepared for how truly terrible it is. Deeply sexist, occasionally racist, utterly self-involved, and worst of all, poorly written and boring. I gave up around the halfway point when I could see that it wasn’t going to get better. I’m well aware that some people treasure this book, but its appeal is a mystery to me. I grudgingly admit that there may be some influence on later writers, but “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, for example, is miles better (pun intended).
The second author is Washington Irving, although I’m cheating a bit here. I have been fond of “Tales of the Alhambra” since I read it in high school. But I never read any of his other works. I recently got “The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon” for free from Project Gutenberg and it feels like a new discovery. It’s a diverse collection: stories, essays, travelogues. Some pieces are quite dated but some feel quite fresh, especially considering it’s 200 years old.
It’s not 100% great. As in any collection, some parts are better than others. “They can’t all be gems”, as the saying goes. But Irving’s writing style is straightforward and easy to read, and he has a sense of humor. (In “Rip Van Winkle”, the local tavern has a sign with King George’s head on it. When Rip wakes up from his long sleep and returns to town, he sees that the sign still bears the same face, but the red coat has been painted blue, the scepter has been painted into a sword, and “General Washington” is written at the bottom.)
Now and then a passage stands out as something that could have been written today. Like this one, describing the effect of travel by sea from America to Europe. It could be describing air travel:
“There is no gradual transition by which, as in Europe, the features and population of one country blend almost imperceptibly with those of another. From the moment you lose sight of the land you have left, all is vacancy, until you step on the opposite shore, and are launched at once into the bustle and novelties of another world.”
Dave Knadler says
Still haven’t read “On the Road.” My sense of it, through several decades of pop-culture references, is just as you described: the disjointed ramblings of a vainglorious man.
Big fan of Washington Irving, based on my two favorite stories since childhood: “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and of course “Rip Van Winkle.”
I love that closing quote you added. I agree, truly timeless.
Deanna Harms says
I didn’t read Norman Maclean’s 1976 masterpiece, A River Runs Through It, for many years. To make amends, now I try to read it once a year.
Dave Knadler says
It took me awhile to get to “A River Runs Through It” as well. Maybe in my 40s?
I later picked up “Young Men and Fire,” but it just wasn’t the same. But then, how could it be?