The lilac—dying, it drinks, goes on swilling


One day back in graduate school my advisor, a savvy and successful novelist whose books meant a lot to me and whom I had just traveled three thousand miles to come work with, called me into his office and sat me down sternly. “Look, no offense,” he said, holding up a page of my manuscript, a page so capillaried with red marks it looked like the face of a stroke victim, “but you’ve got to cut it out with these frigging F. Scott Fitzgerald sentences.” This was, on one level, the nicest compliment the man ever gave me. After all, it was my love for Fitzgerald and his frigging sentences that had made me want to be a novelist in the first place. If every writer, as Bellow once said, is a reader moved to emulation (and my advisor wasn’t so hot on Bellow’s sentences either), then to be told I was now writing the kinds of frigging sentences that had made me want to, uh, write those kinds of frigging sentences? On one level it was very nice to hear. Unfortunately my advisor didn’t mean it on that level. He meant it on a different level, a lower level. He meant that being enthralled as I was to lovely, thrilling, Daisy Buchananish prose was in my case less the solution than the problem. He himself was a rough-and-tumble realist, streety and sharp—a Redskin, in Philip Rahv’s famous phrase. Already he had me pegged as a member of that wan lesser tribe, the Palefaces, one of those cerebral, overly refined aesthetes who hung out in libraries and coffee shops doodling bon mots in overpriced notebooks. Moi! That this peremptory judgment was ludicrously unfair, ungenerous, and reductive did not make it any less true. I hurried out of his office that day with my face burning, my hands clenching and unclenching, shadow-boxing with shame.

more from Robert Cohen at The Believer here.