Inform and Instruct

Tommy and I have discussed the point of writing, what, if anything, it is supposed to mean, or do. For the last decade I have been quoting Richard Russo about the purpose of witting from a bit he wrote in the preface of “The Best American Short Stories of 2010.” He is a novelist known for “Empire Falls” and “Nobody’s Fool.” I read “Nobody’s Fool” after my wife and I had watched the excellent movie with Paul Newman, Jessica Tandy, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith. It was the last movie Jessica Tandy made and she was good, as was the whole cast. I enjoyed the book when I got to it later, but the movie had some nice things about it as well. I liked them both. I knew Russo’s name from the preface he wrote but had never read anything else he had written until the movie. There was much to like in the novel “Nobody’s Fool.” Offhand I don’t recall any of the stories from that edition of “The Best American Short Stories.” I might if I still had my copy to leaf through, but it went back to the Goodwill. Russo’s preface I remember though, and had thought on now and again through the years.

In the preface he told an interesting story about when he was teaching at SIU and they had brought Isaac Bashevis Singer to campus to speak to the English Department. I was on that campus in 1983 for a semester. I probably would have taken a class with Russo had I stuck around but life took me another way. His success came in 1986, so he was still there teaching when I was there. I thought that interesting when I puzzled it out much later. The lecture with Singer, an author I have not read, ended with a Q and A and a graduate student posed a question to Singer about the purpose of literature, and Rosso recounts Singer’s somewhat dogmatic answer was simply to “entertain and instruct.’ I have been quoting that since I read it, though in my head I thought the instruct was about how to live your life and the entertain was the sugar coating on the lesson to make certain parts more palatable.

Years later I regurgitated that aloud in Frank Grady’s class and he pointed out that sentiment was from the Roman Poet Horace from 2000 years ago and Singer was only repeating what he had been taught. I had not thought on it too much after I had learned it as it seemed to answer my questions on the subject fine. But in my discussions with Tommy I began to wonder if I felt otherwise than the simple maxim. Part of the reason was the quote I have mentioned in the blog, that I had learned from Tommy, the Ulysses quote about before death something noble could be achieved. Another part was a recent quote from a poem in the Edwin Arlington Robinson poetry collection “Children Of The Night.” (Not about Vampires!) I read that the other evening when something sparked my memory about the poem “Richard Cory” that so many English teachers used last century to teach classical poetry construction and rhyming schemes. 

Robinson wrote in one of his poems, 

“To get at the eternal strength of things, 

and fearlessly to make strong songs of it, 

Is, to my mind, the mission of that man 

the world would call a poet.”

He went on about God a little further on and I would say writer or author instead of poet, but I thought he had something there. I am not convinced of the christian god or even some great spirit behind everything, the universe as a deity, self aware or not. But many times when a writer goes on about the glory of some god or another I find it inspiring if I consider that from my way of understanding things they are speaking of simply being alive. It may be that is what I think the purpose of writing is, to celebrate life. I don’t always know my own mind until I reflect on things a little.

And I will have to think on this. I searched for the Horace quote and found this nugget on Goodreads, 

“The aim of the poet is to inform or delight, or to combine together, in 

what he says, both pleasure and applicability to life. In instructing, be

brief in what you say in order that your readers may grasp it quickly 

and retain it faithfully. Superfluous words simply spill out when the mind

is already full. Fiction invented in order to please should remain close 

to reality.”

So what Russo wrote that Singer paraphrased was just a bit different straight from Horace. These subtle differences may be important. They also may not.