I’ve been thinking about John Cheever quite a bit lately, particularly after reading this New Yorker article about Cheever’s unique and artful language choices. Shortly after, I started seeing his name everywhere: in articles and interviews, even in conversations. It seemed like everyone was thinking about Cheever.
I talked with a friend about this recently, and she asked me if I’d read much Cheever. I thought about it and I know that I definitely have, although the only story I could remember reading for sure was “The Swimmer”. My friend told me she ordered his collected stories, and it sounded like a good idea so I ordered a copy for myself.
In the (mercifully) brief preface, Cheever wrote:
Any precise documentation of one’s immaturity is embarrassing, and this I find from time to time in the stories, but this embarrassment is redeemed for me by the memories the stories hold for me of the women and men I have loved and the rooms and corridors and beaches where the stories were written. My favorite stories are those that were written in less than a week and that were often composed aloud.
What I like about this passage is that Cheever acknowledges that his earlier stories were not as strong as his later ones, but nonetheless, they’re important to him and serve as memories of his past. I’ve read about authors who admit to being embarrassed by their early works, but I think it’s helpful to be able to see a writer’s development over time, especially a writer as revered as Cheever.
So far, I’ve read four of his early stories in this collection, and it’s fascinating to be able to recognize how flawed they are, and yet, how impressive, particularly the language. Even stories that felt contrived, or lopsided in some way were still pleasurable to read because of the language.
Artful, precise language, strong metaphors and analogies are all important components in a sophisticated story. Those aspects are what elevate a piece of fiction to an art form, to Literature with a capital “L”. I was given this lesson recently while at Squaw, when an agent workshopped my story and called me out for instances of “lazy writing”. I’ll write more about what I learned from that particular experience in a future post, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.
In the meantime, I’ll learn all that I can from reading one of the masters of the short story form, and fellow New Englander, John Cheev[ah].