The True Subject

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The essays collected in THE TRUE SUBJECT concern various topics of interest both to writers and to readers. Although they were first presented as lectures at writer’s conferences, many concern issues of everyday experience.

Such is the leading essay, “Can Mothers Think?,” by Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley. She discusses the difficulty of writing from the perspective of a mother and analyzes why few mothers have written. The fact that the role of mother has most often been discussed by fathers, other adults, and children accounts for literary ideas of motherhood that do not always match reality. Smiley hopes that more fiction will be written from the perspective of mothers so that readers will get a truer sense of the mother’s role.

Michael Dennis Browne writes of the need to fail in writing, but his ideas apply to all endeavors. Anticipation of failure allows one to enjoy the process of doing something without worrying about the results. His is an eloquent restatement of the importance of “how one plays the game” as opposed to “winning.” In a related vein, William Kittredge urges writers to produce stories that undermine selfishness and promote action toward social values, thus adding to the satisfaction of living instead of encouraging competitiveness.

Some of the essays pursue more literary topics. Agha Shalid Ali urges recognition of poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Bill Brashler writes of the experience of being a writer, soaking in all experiences, and forcing oneself to write. Sidney Burris discusses the poetry of W. H. Auden.

A common theme of the essays is that writing well is no longer a socially valued activity. Julian Gloag makes this point explicitly in his discussion of how the modern publishing environment encourages sameness and reduces the rewards for taking risks.