There's so much to read in a newspaper, and our attention span is so diffused nowadays, by tweets and posts and the constant pressure of where we might be other than here and what we might be reading other than this, that I sometimes flip through the paper hurriedly, first noting what's there, before I set down to read this or that article that catches my attention.
|Ernest Hemingway and Lillian Ross|
The memoir, Here But Not Here: A Love Story was about her half-century-long affair with William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, and though it was published after his death, Ross's book drew "furious" response. Charles McGrath, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called it a "cruel betrayal" since Shawn's widow was still alive. "a tactless example of the current avidity for tell-all confessions."
A similar chorus of outrage had met her most famous work, a profile of Ernest Hemingway, "How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?" which chronicled the author's stopover in New York in 1950, capturing his staccato pidgin speech ("He read book all way up on plane," Hemingway said, of a fellow passenger. "He like book.") and near constant inebriation.
"Nothing more cruel has happened to an American writer," Irving Howe wrote in the New Republic, ignoring the fact that Hemingway both approved the piece before publication and afterward praised it, as well as Lillian Ross.
Then again, I find the greatest indignation is not from people directly affected by a piece of writing, but from third parties, aghast by proxy, on the behalf of people they assume must be done wrong by this or that piece of writing. The Ross obituary does not mention, and history may not record, what Cecille Shawn felt about Ross's relationship with her husband—which, after 50 years, you imagine she knew about—or the book.
It's almost as if many people—but not all—have an allergy to candor, so much that they have to express it when given the opportunity.
As I always say, the reason most people can't write is not because they can't string words together, though that's a factor, but because they draw away from expressing the frank truths that make for good writing. They are more worried about this or that acquaintance than about the most important person, the reader.
Though not everyone shies away hard realities.
When I finished Ross's obituary, I turned to LaMotta's, and in it, he summarized perfectly what I had been thinking reading the strong, in my view unfair, reactions to Lillian Ross. The Martin Scorcesse movie that made LaMotta famous to a new generation, "Raging Bull," was a masterpiece, but certainly did not paint the violent, abusive fighter in a positive light. Nor did LaMotta expect it to.
"I kind of look bad in it," LaMotta told the New York Times. "Then I realized it was true. That's the way it was. I was a no-good bastard. It's not the way I am now, but the way I was then."
LaMotta was not a writer nor sophisticated thinker like Charles McGrath or Irving Howe. But he had a realization that escaped both of them: that truth is itself a kindness, more flattering than a bucket of honeyed lies. A fiction writer crafts how things could have been, maybe how they should be, creating characters who seem real, and has a free hand because there are no people to be flattered or insulted.
A non-fiction writer has only reality, and the degree that writer is faithful to reality, and not what the subject might like, or the publication might prefer, determines whether, like Lillian Ross, a particular writer is remembered and cherished or, like the dozen of other profile writers who no doubt tackled Hemingway in 1950, instead are justly forgotten. What her contemporaries condemned her for then was the very thing most valuable about her now.