Happy birthday, Stanley Elkin! Here are some quotes from his books and interviews.
“The rules are to form perfect sentences. The rules are to make those perfect sentences, to flesh those sentences out in high structures of imagination. If a writer can do that, it seems to me that he’s done about all that he’s supposed to do.”
“Rhetoric doesn’t occur in life. It occurs in fiction. Fiction gives an opportunity for rhetoric to happen. It provides a stage where language can stand.”
“Because it was the fate of the damned to run of course, not jog, run, their piss on fire and their shit molten, boiling sperm and their ovaries frying; what they were permitted of body sprinting at full throttle, wounded gallop, burning not fat—fat sizzled off in the first seconds, bubbled like bacon and disappeared, evaporate as steam, though the weight was still there, still with you, its frictive drag subversive as a tear in a kite and not even muscle, which blazed like wick, but the organs themselves, the liver scorching and the heart and brains at flash point, combusting the chemistries, the irons and phosphates, the atoms and elements, conflagrating vitamin, essence, soul, yet somehow everything still within the limits if not of endurance then of existence. Damnation strictly physical, nothing personal, Hell’s lawless marathon removed from character. ‘Sure,’ someone had said, ‘we hit the Wall with every step. It’s all Wall down here. It’s wall-to-wall Wall. What, did you think Hell would be like some old-time baker’s oven? That all you had to do was lie down on a pan like dough, the insignificant heat bringing you out, fluffing you up like bread or oatmeal cookies? You think we’re birthday cake? We’re fucking stars. Damnation is hard work, eternity lousy hours.'”
“He loved the shop, the smells of the naphthas and benzenes, the ammonias, all the alkalis and fats, all the solvents and gritty lavas, the silken detergents and ultimate soaps, like the smells, he decided of flesh itself, of release, the disparate chemistries of pore and sweat—a sweat shop—the strange wooly-smelling acids that collected in armpits and atmosphered pubic hair, the flameless combustion of urine and gabardine mixing together to create all the body’s petty suggestive alimentary toxins. The sexuality of it. The men’s garments one kind, the women’s another, confused, deflected, masked by residual powders, by the oily invisible resins of deodorant and perfume, by the concocted flower and the imagined fruit—by all fabricated flavor. And the hanging in the air, too—where would they go?—dirt, the thin, exiguous human clays, divots, ash and soils, dust devils of being.”
“There was no denying it. The Israelis were on the West Bank now, laying foundations, making it over, turning it into the new Miami. And the camps! For generations now the Palestinians had been crammed into rat-infested quarters open to the sky, forced to live out in the weather like a city for Lears. How different were these ‘camps’ with their running sewers from the favellas of the hopelessly impoverished or even from the ghettos of our own people?”
“There’s something comforting, almost soothing, about realism, and it’s nothing to do with shocks of recognition — well it wouldn’t, since shocks never console — or even with the familiarity that breeds content, so as much as with the fact that the realistic world, in literature, at least, is one that, from a certain perspective, always makes sense, even in its bum deals and tragedies, inasmuch as it plays — even showboats and grandstands — to our passion for reason. The realistic tradition presumes to deal, I mean, with cause and effect, with some deep need in readers — in all of us — for justice, with the demand for the explicable reap/sow benefits (or punishments), with the law of just desserts — with all God’s and Nature’s organic bookkeeping. And since form fits and follows function, style is instructed not to make waves but merely to tag along, easy as pie, taking in everything that can be seen along the way but not much more and nothing at all of what isn’t immediately available to the naked eye.”
“I do not do schtick. What I do are organized routines and connected schtick— schtick upon schtick upon schtick until we have a piece of carpentry.”
“I ride a pretty tight shot gun on myself, believe it or not, but when, in the course of human events, something occurs to me that gives a particular kick to a sentence, I’ll probably let it pass.”
“No—I don’t think of myself as inaccessible at all. The language is high, and the sentences are long and convoluted, but they always come out right, and if you’re willing to follow me through the dashes and the parentheticals…I don’t think my work is inaccessible.”
“There is a certain kind of thing that I picked up from Faulkner, and that’s the business of delayed revelation.”
“I had a wonderful conference yesterday with a graduate student who told me, among other things, that writers write for emotional reasons, and I said No, writers do not write for emotional reasons—they write because they want to make something. I asked her if she knew the Stephen Sondheim musical with the number about making a hat—”a hat, a hat, I made a hat where there never was a hat.” That’s so moving to me I choke up when I tell you about it, and I said that’s what writing is about, that’s what all art is about: you’ve made a hat where there never was a hat! That’s why people write. I don’t know if that answers your question, but that’s how I try to engage students to get out of this one-on-one, tit-for-tat realism: make a thing that never was.”
“Because aesthetics is the only subject matter, because style is, and all calls are judgment calls. Because ideas are even scarcer than those fabled two or three stripped plots, those fabled three or four basic jokes, art a fugue of ideas finally the hen’s-teeth variations, genre revolving around itself, the spin-off, like a few chips of colored glass in a kaleidoscope.”
“Fiction isn’t always a class act, but it’s always about class, its cast, like every classed society, fixed and ranked as playing cards, prissy with privilege, prerogative; fettered by precept and precedent, all those inside-the-lines moves prescribed as the knight’s broken waltz on a chessboard, the pawn’s slow snail’s pace or the swift rush of the bishop’s blindsiding diagonals, the queen’s graceful free-form and king’s hobbled freedom, each player fixed on its marked-star mark. Story in its essence nothing more than role being faithful to its nature, following some programmed itinerary toward redemption.”
John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.