Speak no ill of the living: Pat Conroy on book reviews

The Death of Santini

 

My wife gave me a copy of Pat Conroy ‘s The Death of Santini for Christmas.

Okay, I picked out, but she paid for it and gift-wrapped it.

I assume most of you are familiar with Conroy’s body of work. Best-known of his titles are probably The Water is Wide, The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, The Prince of Tides.  A couple of years ago he published My Reading Life, a book I highly recommend to any book lover or writer.

So I’m about a third of the way through The Death of Santini, and I have already come across a couple of jewels about Conroy ‘s view of the fellowship or camaraderie of writers.

First, understand The Death of Santini is subtitled The Story of a Father and His Son.  In it Conroy examines his relationship to his dad, a Marine fighter pilot (aka, “The Great Santini”), a violent man, ruthless in his treatment of his children and his wife. Yet, in the course of his autobiographical work, Conroy uses the writing of his books as markers on the journey of the developing relationship between him and his father.

Take this example about what Conroy learned while he was a student at the South Carolina military university, The Citadel.

As a novelist, however, I thought I was blessed with my Citadel education.  It gave me a wider knowledge of the nature of atrocity and mankind’s capacity for infinite cruelty.  I believe the Citadel plebe system prepared me quite well for the setbacks and disappointments of life–it even prepared me for the savagery and jealousies of my brother and sister writers.

That would seem to portend a less than stellar experience at the reviewing hands of his fellows.

A little later in the book, Conroy discusses the winter when he wrote The Water is Wide. As he tells of the writing voice that began to emerge in that cold season, he drops another note about critical lessons learned.

I trained myself to be unaware of critics, and I’ve held them in high contempt since my earliest days as a writer because their work seems pinched and sullen and paramecium-souled.  Yes, it was that fruitful winter that I made the decision to never write a critical dismissal of the works of another brother or sister writer, and I’ve lived up to that promise to myself. No writer has suffered over morning coffee because of the savagery of my review of his or her latest book, and no one ever will.

Let’s see, “pinched and sullen and paramecium-souled.”

Ouch.

Pearls like that are why people need to read books by great authors.

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