Erskine Caldwell on writers

“What has been my habit, I suppose for many years, is to read one work of a writer whom I have heard of as being worth reading. That’s how I get to a book, and when I read one book by a writer, I’m satisfied. I don’t have to read four of them to form an opinion. For example, we’ll take some of my contemporaries like William Faulkner. I read one book of Faulkner which I liked very much. I thought it was superior and I still think it’s a wonderful book and perhaps it’s one of the least know that he’s ever done. The title of the book was As I Lay Dying, which was not a sensational book. It was a solid book. So I formed my opinion of Faulkner just on that one instance, and I think I was right in forming that opinion. The same is true of other writers. One book only, that’s all I read. I read one of Steinbeck, for example. I read one book of Hemingway. I read one book of Dreiser; I read one book of Sherwood Anderson.”

“I think you must remember that a writer is a simple-minded person to start with and go on that basis. He’s not a great mind, he’s not a great thinker, he’s not a great philosopher, he’s a storyteller. I mean, that’s the field I belong in; there are, of course, writers who have great minds, but I don’t pretend to. I can’t take the responsibility of saying that I know anything that anybody else doesn’t know, because I don’t. I have my own way of writing, which I don’t recommend to other people. I do it my own way. I don’t like other people to tell me to do it their way. I’m just completely obnoxious and hardheaded. And I can’t help it. That’s why I can’t tell anybody how to write. I don’t know how to do it; it was just a combination of trial and error and revision that finally came out as it did. It’s not an exact science, as you know; you can’t pin it down. All I can say is I like plenty of yellow second sheets. That’s what I want in life: yellow second sheets—and typewriter ribbon and plenty of typewriters, too. I wear them out one or two every year; I dislike old typewriters, and I dislike ones that break down, and I dislike ribbons that get dim, and I dislike white paper. So you see I have my prejudices.”

The excerpt is from Conversations with Erskine Caldwell, edited by Edwin T. Arnold. Caldwell (1903–1987) was born in Georgia and grew up across the south, the son of a minister. He was married four times, including to the photographer Margaret Bourke-White, with whom he produced You Have Seen Their Faces, a collection of photographs and interviews with rural people in the Great Depression. He was most famous for Tobacco Road, considered one of the 100 most significant novels of the twentieth century, and God’s Little Acre, one of the best-selling novels of all time. In part, the novels dealt frankly with primitive sexuality, and the lurid covers on the paperback versions harmed his literary reputation. Much of his work explored the dire poverty of Georgia farmers and the abuse of southern industrial workers during the Depression, but he also wrote powerfully about racism and racial violence. Caldwell published, in his lifetime, twenty-five novels, nearly 150 short stories, and twelve books of nonfiction. He told one interviewer he wrote from nine to five, seven days a week, in a barren room with the shades pulled.


Filed under NOTED, reading, working method

4 responses to “Erskine Caldwell on writers

  1. What a work ethic! I don’t think I could do 9-5 seven days a week in a barren room with the shades pulled… But then, Caldwell was awfully prolific, and I’m not.

  2. Interesting excerpt and interesting concept, but I’m not sure I understand his point. If he means only read one book if the writer is bad, I agree with him. Why read more than a chapter, I say. But reading only one Faulkner seems insane. I read because I need story telling to be a part of my life, just as we need to dream to stay sane. Once you find a consumate storyteller like Faulkner or Dickens or Joyce, how can you resist reading every word they wrote? (I take that back about Joyce, but I hope one day to successfully tackle Finnegan’s Wake. Every time I’ve reread Ulysses, it’s gotten better. I’m on my fifth time.)

    • Elizabeth: I know. He was a human pencil!

      David: It is an odd policy, which is why I noted it—most of us try to read more work by a writer we like. He either was busy reading other things and didn’t keep up with his contemporaries or he didn’t read much at all, too tired after writing all day.

  3. John

    I’m disciplined enough to keep the shades rolled down, but not nearly enough to maintain a barren room.