- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

Stanley Elkin on Writing, Sentences, Fiction, and More


Happy birthday, Stanley Elkin! Here are some quotes from his books and interviews:


“Make a thing that never was.”


“I don’t believe less is more. I believe that more is more. I believe that less is less, fat fat, thin thin, and enough is enough.”


“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.”


“Writing is a kind of whittling, a honing to the bone, until you finally get whatever the hell you’re looking for. It’s an exercise in sculpture, chipping away at the rock until you find the nose.”


“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.”


“What I enjoy about fiction—the great gift of fiction—is that it gives language an opportunity to happen.


“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 don’t really think that fiction changes lives…except it can maybe give you taste—I suppose taste can change your life.”


“I ride a pretty tight shotgun 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 would never write about anyone who is not at the end of his rope.”


“There is solace in finality and a grace in resignation no matter what one is resigned to—death, helplessness, the end of chance, resignation itself. But life’s tallest order is to keep the feelings up, to make two dollars’ worth of euphoria go the distance. And life can’t do that. So fiction does.”


“Like a lot of what happens in novels, inspiration is a sort of spontaneous combustion— the oily rags of the head and heart.”


“It’s fine, precise, detailed work, the infinitely small motor management of diamond cutters and safecrackers that we do in our heads.”


Life is shapeless, but art, as everybody knows, is shaped.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“Because art ought to be as one-on-one as intimacy, something if not actually shades-drawn and pulled-curtain to it, then at least discreet, and the last thing—saving architecture perhaps, which, like that gazebo from which those marches occur, is public, communal as wafering—art ought to be is stirring. And if Van Gogh’s painted room in Arles can command my tears, all I can tell you is that those must be a different sort of tears, vintage tears, could be, unlike my public performances in the sculpture garden as ripple from champagne.”


“But it’s hard to talk about art. Maybe there should be a law against it, some First Amendment gag order like crying Fire!’in a crowded theater. Still and all, if one knows what one likes, well where’s the harm, eh? And anyway this is the war news, day thirteen or fourteen into the Mother of Battles, though it seems longer, of course, deeper into time than anything I can remember—and I’m sixty if I’m a day—and I’ve seen, well, not a lot, but my share, more than, and what I haven’t seen, like everyone else, I fill in the blanks, make an allowance, do the Kentucky windage adjustments, write off if not to experience then to helplessness and despair this, well, looting of end times everywhere, this breaking and entering the other guy’s turf, with wiser heads figuring—this is a big benefit of the doubt I’m giving away here—that damn-near no one has led the right life. The Gulf a floating filling station, Marines have died, civilians on all sides in God knows what apocalyptic positions fallen on what rubble and hoisted on what shrap- nel, and I see that over on the ‘Home Shopping Club’ Operation Desert Storm sweatshirts are going for $19.75, over four hundred sold and counting, and, Jeez, if the world made it, it would have been the millennium in nine years and, in another one-and-a-half, the semi-millennium of the discovery of the New World. Some millennium.”


“And I take it back about injunctions on art talk, prior restraint. Because maybe that’s the only thing we ought to be allowed to talk about, stuff above our station, playing catch-up with culture, sucking up to civilization. And the point is, well, God bless the artists the point is. Here’s to those with the paints, whether we know whereof we speak or not. Here’s to artisans, folks who make violins, cast bells, throw pots, have perfected their pitch. Here’s, I mean, to all those whose attentions are engaged in innocent acts, to everyone everywhere who doesn’t know where the time has flown. To minders of their own determined business who wouldn’t hurt a fly. Here’s to occupational therapy even, to doodle and whittle, to whistle and hum and all the preoccupied instrumentals of the head and heart, the aye-lu-loo-lus and sweet-dream lullabies of softest yore. And to all those makers of those less-than-masterpieces who lend point to the sermon, and to dilettantes, oh, especially, Lord, to dilettantes, window shoppers on the artier avenues, friends of the museum, patrons of the symphony, pals of the zoo, to everyone everywhere who’s ever tossed a pledge to PBS, NPR, ladies and gentlemen of good will who keep the Sunday. So, waiting for the worst, hoping for the best, it’s back I go to my own harmless knitting, an expert self-proclamated but innocent as any.”


“Though maybe all movies fall short of art with their soft blandish- ments and easy endowments— sound, close-ups, an arch, arranged lushness, perfect and unblemished as a gorgeous bay posed on a post- card. (Are my pants too small, is my hat off-plumb? Nah, nah, this from a lover of movies, one of their easiest marks, privileged to get out of an evening, watch the coming attractions, the trailers, who, settled in his seat in the auditorium, sighs, remarks to the wife, “What could be better?) Because the truth about art is the company it keeps with the slightly askew, and the real stunt of the beautiful is not to be too beautiful.”


“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.”


“The fact that we die is one of the more interesting things that happen to us. Fiction ought to be about bottom lines, and that’s as bottom-line as you can get.”


“[I]t seems to me that fiction moves by means of two elements, an almost pharmaceutical mix of the learned and the inspired. Writers depend upon a sort of vocabulary—learned—of pre-existent alternatives. I mean the big traumatic givens of literature, mistaken identity, poverty, adultery, a special assignment or, more pertinently, love at first sight (Curley’s ‘Love in the Winter’), bad news from the doctor (Tillie Olsen’s ‘Tell Me a Riddle’), a widow trying to make a new life (Calisher’s ‘The Scream on 57th Street’), a challenge (Albert Lebowitz’s ‘The Day of Trials’)—all things that have their source neither merely nor necessarily in ‘life’ but in prior literature, large, dependable displacements that put the heat on the characters. By ‘inspired,’ one means not so much the unique as the spontaneously generated, things that have no counterparts in literature, the wonderful courtship in the men’s lavatory in Alfred Chester’s ‘In Praise of Vespasian,’ the hilarious ‘Bravo. Hey, Harry. Bravo,’ in Targan’s ‘Harry Belten and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.’ The point is that in all first-rate fiction a delicate balance between these two very different sorts of plot elements is maintained. In bad fiction, where the action is all ‘learned,’ the result is melodrama; in bad fiction where the action is all ‘inspired,’ the result is chaos.”


“For, finally, point of view is art—Barth’s ‘Menelaiad,’ the narrator at the still center of the turning town in William Gass’s ‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country’—what the Muse, speaking always in the tongues of personality, tells me. It is fiction itself, in some special, synecdochic, part-for-the-whole sense, for all stories drive all other stories out as surely as all music drives out all other music, or all consciousness all other consciousness. The individual fiction precludes fiction (the very concept of this anthology is a paradox), precludes the world, precludes time (the apparent gift of fiction, its essential trait, the thing it has that no other form has, is tense, yet in great fiction it is always—philosophically—the present) and, watch it, even the reality of your own existence. I’m your uncle, I like you, come home and I’ll take you to the ballgame and get you a hot dog. Listen. Don’t read if you would retain a sense of your life. Or read for meaning, quibble with a story’s issues and themes and ideas. Those are its least important aspects anyway, there only as technique, integument, art’s artificial gum base. All writers have only one of two things to say. They say yes or they say no, or shades of yes or shades of no—the binary substructure of vision. Stick to that, venture beyond and I promise you an envy like the toothache.”


“In all instances (those quoted as well as those that have not even been mentioned) we are dealing, at the end, with a kind of rhetorical sacrament. We are dealing with solace, the idea of solace, art’s and language’s consolation prize. The notion that the character needs bucking up. And the writer begins to play for keeps, laying on a from-now- on syntax that suggests, and powerfully too, that the conditions that obtain will somehow manage to sustain themselves forever. It’s some- thing a bit beyond the conventional notion of epiphany, inasmuch as epiphany is usually some sudden, fellswoop blast of insight. This is epiphany that sticks to the ribs. “He saw all its meanings and knew that she would never stop gesturing within him, never”: the emerald is told twice—just as the word never is repeated in Updike’s sentence and helplessness in the passage from Gertler—that what is resumed is  ‘the scrabble for existence.’ Alec, in magical language already quoted, quite suddenly ceases to be, chased by Mavis Gallant’s incantation, and the characters are not only consoled for their loss but freed. ‘Because this one I am keeping,’ Speck thinks, ‘this one will be signed.’ (Again the repetition.) So, through repetition, magic, visions, inversion (‘He let fade the jagged collage . . .’; ‘Dying, Hog looks . . .’; ‘Because this one I am keeping. . .’), or series (‘This lapse, this inattention, lasting no longer than was needed to say “No, thank you” or “Oh, really?” or “Yes, I see”‘; ‘He was right to call my attention to its suffering and danger. He was right to harass my responsible nature. But I was right to. . .’; ‘The motion was eager, shy, exquisite, diffident, trusting . . .’) the rhetoric lifts subtly away from the story, its attention no longer really focused on the character’s problems so much as it is on a kind of conversion, on bottom lines from the heart. There is a solace in finality and a grace in resignation no matter what one is resigned to—death, helplessness, the end of chance, resignation itself. But life’s tallest order is to keep the feelings up, to make two dollars’ worth of euphoria go the distance. And life can’t do that. So fiction does. And there, right there, is the real—I want to say ‘only’—morality of fiction.”


“Art imposes order. Everyone knows this. Like a kind of magnet it arranges life’s iron filings into lovely patterns, into superb cat’s cradles of the sweetest geometry. But the essence of these orderings—in fiction at least—is character, and character is not everywhere. It grows in and from choice, from choice’s predispositions and predilections. Various as snowflake, it is never for one individual what it is for another. Only what engines it is the same. Here is character’s oxygen cycle: Vague desire becomes specific desire, specific desire becomes will, will be- comes decision, decision action, action consequence. Consequence is either acceptable or unacceptable. If it’s acceptable the chain stops, if unacceptable it begins all over again. But always, peeking over the will’s shoulder—to pick up just one element in the chain—is the character’s brooding, critical, and concerned presence. Plot is simply the unity between what character desires and how it seeks to satisfy those desires. It is a closed community of intention that can be dissolved only by success or resignation. And here’s an elemental ground rule of plot. There may be no good losers in fiction. All characters are essentially sore losers. And even resignation, which occurs with in- creasing incidence in fiction, is lousy losing. The character would have his life otherwise. That he consents to his fate is an aspersion on his energy, not his values, only the will crying uncle.”


“What’s wanted is character, consistency of vision, inspired Pavlovian pattern, conditioned or not, natured or nurtured. What’s wanted, I mean, are the hermetic, locked-in obsessives of art.”


“Like most people of my generation, I fell in love with the philosophy of existentialism. There is no particular religious tradition in my work. There is only one psychological assertion that I would insist upon. That is: the self takes precedence.”


“It was Art. It was always Art. I work by the contrasts and metrics, by the beats and silences. It was all Art. Because it makes a better story is why.”


“Because the subject is art, and art, first of all, is a noise, a testing, stretching, then a busting of the decorums and proprieties, child’s play—literally—in some cautious, juridical, Cinderella’s slipper, try-it-for-size sense. The full stop I-dare-yous. Seeing just how far one is prepared to go, I mean.”


“All books are the Book of Job, high moral tests and tasks set in fairy tales, landmined and unforgiving as golf greens, as steeplechase and gameboard and obstacle course.”


“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.'”


“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 favelas of the hopelessly impoverished or even from the ghettos of our own people?”


“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.”


  • John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published 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, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

Leave a Reply