Whether a fan of his writing or not, John Steinbeck has been integrated into the American canon and shaped the way American literature has been perceived, moreso than any other writer has done. In 1962 he was awarded the Nobel prize in literature for “his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” Not only have his works been frequently taught in schools around the country, his books have also been subject to numerous book-burnings and demonstrations; which is the landmark of any great writer.
At times Steinbeck was hesitant towards interviews, but the Paris Review has recently compiled a mix of different conversations, interviews, and writings about his art. It’s broken up into different sections, such as “On Work Habits”, and “On Publishing” for ease of finding the best piece of advice. But there’s one section in particular that sums it all up best. It comes from a section titled “On Getting Started” but it’s an excerpt from a letter Steinbeck wrote to someone asking for advice.
I especially like the third and sixth points. Too much stress will be induced if you try to write for a thousand people, instead writing for just one person will let everyone enjoy it. And speaking dialogue has to fight robotic conversations in writing. I’ve found that saying it aloud, almost like in a play, improves the writing a great deal. It can even be with another person for that effect.
The next section I have taken away the most from, is titled “On Publishing.” It begins with some remarks on publishing and then transforms into a lofty dialogue between a writer and his editors. Even if a writer has no intent to ever publish, the passage does reveal the major flaws of a writer’s personality. He can be stubborn, he can be naive, and he can be childish. In the dialogue the writer quickly gets upset and feuds with the editors, proofreaders, sales department, and even the reader itself.
Steinbeck has a great deal of authority on the subject of writing. Some of his novels have endured since they were published, others are rediscovered with each generation. But what remains clear is that there is no Steinbeck for our time, no other champion to take his place and there might never be one. This cold fact makes it all the more important to look back to the man’s writing and learn what we can from him.
“It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.” – Winter of Our Discontent.