This week’s issue of The Culture Alliance’s Fiction Friday newsletter includes John J. Miller on Ronald Reagan’s favorite novelist, C.S. Lewis on the attention critics give to Story as such, and an excerpt from a powerful short story on love and loss from aspiring YA author Kelly C. Roell. You can sign up for TCA’s Fiction Friday newsletter here.
Conservatives are huge consumers of nonfiction, and plenty of pundits and politicians respond accordingly. Ronald Reagan’s favorite author, however, was a novelist, and had as great an affect on his thinking as the likes Hayek, Buckley and Chambers. John J. Miller examines Louis L’Amour, the author Reagan "went out of his way to celebrate."
The bookshelves [at the Reagan Ranch – the so-called Western White House near Santa Barabara, CA] hold 247 volumes by the likes of William F. Buckley Jr. and Whittaker Chambers. Almost all are the actual copies that Reagan read. Yet five titles by western novelist Louis L’Amour are duplicates. The originals remain at the Reagan home in Bel Air.
“Because Louis L’Amour was my husband’s favorite author, I decided to keep his books at the house with me instead of returning them to the Ranch,” says Nancy Reagan. Four of the books are fiction: The Lonesome Gods, The Walking Drum, Last of the Breed, and The Haunted Mesa. One is a memoir: Education of a Wandering Man. In addition, there’s a complete set of hardcover L’Amour novels behind the president’s desk in the private quarters of the Reagan Library in Simi Valley. …
Many conservatives have a pronounced tendency toward eggheadedness. Portraits of figures such as Friedrich Hayek and Russell Kirk line the hallways of the Heritage Foundation, not images of bestselling novelists. To be sure, Reagan was broadly familiar with right-of-center intellectuals. His appreciation of L’Amour, however, may reveal something important about his success as a politician — and hold lessons for conservatives who would like to see it repeated. …
For many of Reagan’s liberal adversaries, the president’s fondness for L’Amour’s books confirmed their cherished picture of him as a cowboy-loving simpleton. Sometimes conservatives piled on. “By all means, read westerns, Mr. President, but why Louis L’Amour?” wrote George Will. “He is a pale writer.” …
Will was punning on Pale Rider, a western movie starring Clint Eastwood that had come out around the time Reagan was turning the pages of Jubal Sackett. Maybe the columnist had sampled one of L’Amour’s lesser works. Whatever the case, pale writers sometimes obtain faddish commercial success. They rarely secure a lasting place in the culture. L’Amour’s ongoing popularity is perhaps best understood as an expression of American folk wisdom, and the abiding appeal of the author’s standard themes of patriotism, freedom, moral uprightness, and hard work.
Reagan achieved his own success because he sounded similar notes in the arena of politics. L’Amour, in fact, was a registered Democrat. “We’re not Republicans,” says his widow, Kathy. “But we did vote for Ronald Reagan twice. I guess we’re Reagan Democrats. We always felt he was so good for the country.” Reagan believed L’Amour was good for the country. When the author died in 1988 — of lung cancer, even though he wasn’t a smoker — Reagan recorded the news in his personal diary. Two days later, he called Kathy to offer his condolences.
Every author, including literary celebrities such as Louis L’Amour, began as an aspiring writer. This week’s excerpt is from a short story by aspiring YA author Kelly C. Roell. She is seeking representation and, until she finds it, pays the bills as a test prep writer for About.com, a NY Times company. "Dust to Dust" appeared at Libby Malin’s "Lunch Reads" blog.
The funeral was just stretching on and on that hot Sunday in the middle of the summer. I took a look at my long bony fingers, sweaty and clammy from the 90-degree weather, and ached to be splashing around in the creek behind the church. Daddy promised that the rain from Friday would cool everything down, but the sun just sucked up all the water the same as it did every year. All the women, dressed in black with funny-looking hats, whispered at each other and blew their noses into hankies as they fanned themselves cooler. Pastor Tom preached on and on in his booming voice like it was just another boring Sunday and no one had even died. Miss Patterson, my favorite Sunday school teacher, whispered ‘cross the aisle to Daddy that “It’s a cryin’ shame, ya know.” Daddy shrugged his big old coal-mining shoulders and said, “The good Lord knows what’s best.” I knew he wasn’t really sad because he was a “hard-hearted man with no sense and no decency,” like Momma used to say when he’d come home smelling like whiskey.
At the end of the sermon, which lasted around five days to all us pew-squirming kids, I finally got to get up and stretch my scrawny legs. “Chicken legs,” like Momma said. I spread my arms out to the side and yawned so wide my insides felt clean with the new air, muggy as it was. Daddy pushed me up to the front with a “Git movin’, Katie” and I sulked out of the yawn and made my way up to the casket. My silly frilly dress, made by Momma’s loving hands, scratched and bothered me into a tither as I stood by the coffin and pretended to like everyone hugging and squeezing me. I hated frills and foo-foo dresses, and hated sweaty people touching me just the same. I thought that just because someone died, I shouldn’t have to be scratched to death by the dress and hugged like it was my own self that was dying.
Although really, I wouldn’t have minded.
At least then I’d get to see Momma again. …
Continue reading "Dust to Dust" here.
Finally, whether a work is classified as Western, Young Adult, Science Fiction or Thriller, what really attracts readers are the stories writers tell. C.S. Lewis notes, in his essay "On Stories", it is the quality of Story to which most critics pay the least attention.
It is astonishing how little attention critics have paid to Story considered in itself. Granted the story, the style in which it should be told, the order in which it should be disposed, and (above all) the delineation of the characters, have been abundantly discussed. But the Story itself, the series of imagined events, is nearly always passed over in silence, or else treated exclusively as affording opportunities for the delineation of character. There are indeed three notable exceptions. A
ristotle in the Poetics constructed a theory of Greek tragedy which puts Story in the centre and relegates character to a strictly subordinate place. In the Middle Ages and the early renaissance, Boccaccio and others developed an allegorical theory of Story to explain the ancient myths. And in our own time Jung and his followers have produced their doctrine of Archetypes. Apart from these three attempts the subject has been left almost untouched, and this has had a curious result. Those forms of literature in which Story exists merely as a means to something else – for example, the novel of manners where the story is there for the sake of the characters, or the criticism of social conditions – have had full justice done to them; but those forms in which everything else is there for the sake of the story have been given little serious attention. Not only have they been despised, as if they were fit only for children, but even the kind of pleasure they give has, in my opinion, been misunderstood. It is the second injustice which I am most anxious to remedy. Perhaps the pleasure of Story comes as low in the scale as modern criticism puts it. I do not think so myself, but on that point we may agree to differ. Let us, however, try to see clearly what kind of pleasure it is: or rather, what different kinds of pleasure it may be. For I suspect that a very hasty assumption has been made on this subject. I think that books which are read merely ‘for the story’ may be enjoyed in two very different ways. It is partly a division of books (some stories can be read only in the one spirit and some only in the other) and partly a division of readers (the same story can be read in different ways).