It’s only fitting that one of our first “On the House” posts should feature the words of co-founder Louis Rubin, whom we lost recently but whose ethos we try hard to keep alive. Rubin’s astute observations of a manuscript’s problems could be as pointed as they were keenly observed, but they were always, always delivered out of a prevailing desire for greatness, for the writer in question to produce the absolute best work possible.
Whether it was an unpublished author submitting a manuscript for consideration or an established author submitting his latest draft, Rubin would craft long, generous letters outlining his assessment, words of advice and encouragement that endure. Below, a sampling.
On crafting a story that’s big on technique but short on narrative:
“The crucial thing about a novel is that you have to want to keep reading.”
On point of view:
“Who’s on first? This isn’t an abstract, theoretical matter, point of view. It’s a matter of what happens and why, which is the meaning of the story.”
On not giving up after a rejection:
“It’s easy for me to sit here and tell you not to be discouraged. . . . But when you’ve put everything you have got into a ms., and it gets turned down, you can’t help but want to assassinate the editor and blow up the world, including yourself, or else consider taking up bricklaying or selling securities. But the fact is that there’s an enormous amount of talent embedded in this ms., and sooner or later it’s going to crash through and you too will be On Your Way.”
On not getting distracted by the secondary aspects of being a writer:
“You aren’t a personality, a virtuoso performer, but a writer, and in the long run the satisfaction from being a writer comes not from the limelight and the attention, but from being able to create in language. You are eager to be famous, to make it big, etc., and that’s understandable. Few people aren’t. But I want you to make it big as a literary artist, as a creator of beautiful stories, not as a Celebrity. That kind of fame is quickly gone, and as transient as the weather.”
On believing in yourself:
“You have nothing to prove. . . .What you want is not to prove, but to be, to create. If this book . . . didn’t exist and you never wrote another word in print, you’d be as worthy and as attractive, warm, loveable and likeable a person as ever. To repeat, you have nothing to prove.”
On why talent must not trump technique:
“You are so Goddamn Good at this writing business that every time you write a paragraph you turn up something interesting. That’s why you are going to write story after story and book after book, and get better and better. . . . But you still have to learn things about technique and effect, so that you control your imagination to the end you’re working toward (without stifling it). That means making the things you turn up either work for you or turning them back down again and using them in another story.”
For more on the wisdom of Louis Rubin, listen to Algonquin co-founder and editor Shannon Ravenel and authors Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle and Clyde Edgerton on WUNC’s The State of Things.