The Poet Speaks #12: Ralph Ellison, Anthony Burgess, James Dickey
If the Negro, or any other writer, is going to do what is expected of him, he’s lost the battle before the takes the field. I suspect that all the agony that goes into writing is borne precisely because the writer longs for acceptance – but it must be acceptance on his own terms. Perhaps, though, this thing cuts both ways: The Negro novelist draws his blackness too tightly around him when he sits down to write – that’s what the antiprotest critics believe – but perhaps the white reader draws his whiteness around himself when he sits down to read. He doesn’t want to identify himself with Negro characters in terms of our immediate racial and social situations, though on the deeper human level identification can become compelling when the situation is revealed artistically. The white reader doesn’t want to get too close, not even in an imaginary recreation of society. Negro writers have felt this, and it has led to much of our failure. Too many books by Negro writers are addressed to a white audience.
– Ralph Ellison
On whether he writes too much: I’ve been annoyed less by sneers at my alleged overproduction than by the imputation that to write much means to write badly. I’ve always written with great care and even some slowness. I’ve just put in rather more hours a day at the task than some writers seem able to. As for allusiveness – meaning, I suppose, literary allusiveness – that’s surely in the tradition. Any book has behind it all the other books that have been written. The author’s aware of them; the reader ought to be aware, too.
On youth culture: I despise whatever is obviously ephemeral and yet is shown as possessing some kind of ultimate value. The Beatles, for instance. Most youth culture, especially music, is based on so little knowledge of tradition, and it often elevates ignorance into a virtue. Think of the musically illiterate who set themselves up as “arrangers.” And youth is so conformist, so little concerned with maverick values, so proud of being rather than making, so bloody sure that it and it alone knows.
– Anthony Burgess
The talent game is a tough game. Luck plays an enormous part in it. It’s not like business, though luck has a very strong place in business too. You can write one good poem by luck or hazard that’s going to make people want your work. Whether or not you can produce anything good later on is not the important thing. It’s that you struck it right then. It’s the same with a novel – I wrote Deliverance. The movies bought it, it was serialized, written into a dozen languages; it’s the best novel I can write, but there’s also an enormous element of luck in it. I wrote the right book at the right time. People were caught up in a savage fable of decent men fighting for their lives and killing and getting away with it. My next novel could be a failure.
– James Dickey