Six Degrees of Association

Kathryn Harrison, reviewing Joan Acocella’s Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints in the NYTBR (“Lives in the Arts,” February 18, 2007), quotes Acocella writing about Dorothy Parker in the last paragraph of her review, after which she closes with this kicker:

[Acocella] has a distinct point of view, a refreshingly not-fashionable one—she salutes Sunday-school virtues!—and writes from her conviction that beneath its hectic, irresponsible, even intoxicated surface, art makes singularly unglamorous demands: integrity, sacrifice, discipline.

Which is partly referring back to this quote from the book (p. xii), from Harrison’s lede:

[W]hat allows genius to flower is not neurosis, but its opposite […] ordinary, Sunday-school virtues such as tenacity and above all the ability to survive disappointment.

After reading the review, I had to read Acocella’s New Yorker profile of Parker (“After the Laughs”) in its entirety; this is a slightly longer excerpt (p. 365) of the section of the profile from which Harrison is quoting in the last paragraph of her review:

People are always telling us how there is no connection between moral strength and artistic strength: how Picasso preyed on women, how Wagner hated Jews, how you can be a terrible person and still be a great artist. But the case of Parker reminds us that, while the relation between morality and imagination may be a complicated one, it does exist. Hope, forgiveness—these are not just moral actions. They are enlargements of the mind. Without them, you remain in the tunnel of the self.

Which made me go back to an interview with George Saunders conducted by Roy Kesey and published by Maud (I should note that what I’m omitting with the bracketed ellipsis here is the most interesting bit; I highly recommend you read the whole thing):

Let’s say you start out to write a story about an Evil Radical Republican, because it happens that you are a liberal and are sick of all this shit that’s been going on. Well, if you write with attention and open-mindedness (and these are, or can be, craft-based things—more on this in a minute) then you will soon find there is no such thing as an Evil Radical Republican. There are people we may call that, or who may call themselves that, but once you leave the superficial plane, no—no such thing. Or, another way of saying this: Leaving your character as just that is going to make a very boring story. So you look deeper. […]

What I’m saying is, all moral concerns in fiction reduce to technical concerns. And technical concerns drive us towards specificity and detail and truth.

Which also reminded me of Saunders’s excellent essay “The Battle for Precision” (“So that is one reason I write: as a kind of spiritual practice, to force truth to emerge from my habitual state of lazy dishonesty”). And it made me go back to this observation of Acocella’s about Parker’s fiction:

Like many of her poems, her stories are about the relations between men and women, but in the stories she is forced to supply details. She can’t just say there’s a sucker born every minute; she has to say which sucker, and in the process the situation deepens and intensifies.

But: Reading the author of The Kiss writing this line:

[S]he salutes Sunday-school virtues!

I can’t help but also be reminded of this parenthetical—which also, in a different way, concerns narrative and morality—from Virginia Heffernan’s New Yorker profile of Tina Fey (“Anchor Woman,” November 3, 2003):

([Fey] once wrote a piece for a workshop in Chicago that featured Catherine the Great complaining about life’s inequity: “You can be a murderous tyrant and the world will remember you fondly. But fuck one horse and you’re a horse-fucker for all eternity.”)