Writer vs. Artist Revisited

Truman Capote

Truman Capote

It’s been a week since I finished reading Belva Plain’s The Golden Cup. I’m revisiting it in my mind to ask myself what I remember: It was a charming story, entertaining, but it has not left an impression. I’m not rushing out to read more of Ms. Plain’s stories, although I would pick one up if it came my way and I needed a diversion. Nothing related to my life–including my writing life. The writing was good, or I wouldn’t have read it through, but not good enough to want to critique it. There was nothing to emulate. I’m thinking, when it was published, that it might have been avant-guardish to have a gay character in main stream fiction, but I don’t know that for a fact. Gay fiction has been around forever, although more for literary types and not so much for commercial consumption. While Plain wrote about homosexuality, Capote was homosexual–and it isn’t a significant part of his oeuvre: He simply is who he is.

On the other hand, I am still reading, and reading about, Capote. I have a half dozen books on the shelf bought in the last two weeks. Not only is he fascinating as a person and a writer, what has been written about him is also fascinating. His prose is substantial–I don’t mean that in the sense of being voluminous, it isn’t that; but in the sense of being significant; it has something to say to me. His life has something to say to me, as unlikely as that may seem. His writing has something important to say as well.

Capote likely was always a troubled person. At any rate, his life or his life-style caught up with him. I prefer to think it was his life. When one processes more information, and with more nuance, I imagine life could become distressing. One might want to be able to shut it down, turn it off, escape from being bombarded from continual impressions and, especially, from needing to follow them obsessively to some sort of resolution in one’s mind.

I’ve been fond of the notion of structural functionalism since the 1980s when I discovered that sociological theory–Compte, Durkheim and, more recently, Parsons. It stands to reason that structure does reinforce, even predict, function. If you build a fence, you can’t step from one side to the other without going over or around; if you plant a tomato seed, you will not grow a daisy from it; if you buy a one-story house, you won’t be looking out of third-story windows when you go to bed at night . . .

Capote’s writing is literature, Plain’s is entertainment. There it is. It would be hard for me to believe that Capote ever wrote a word thinking to entertain, although what he wrote did entertain–he wrote for theater and screen! He took great care with words, although not arranging them artificially. His prose isn’t about shock value, thought it can be shocking; it isn’t pretentious, though it may be hyperbolic; and it isn’t dodgy: On the contrary, it is reliable and sound even when it is surreal–everything adds up.

His words precisely ‘see’ the world he brings to the page. The words flow from the page to the mind of the reader and stick while Plain’s words flow from the page through the mind of the reader and fade away.

Mona L S Baisch

Writer vs. Artist

Truman Capote circa 1930

Truman Capote circa 1930

Last night I read an excerpt from Truman Capote’s ‘A Tree of Night,’ and then I started to read Belva Plain’s ‘The Golden Cup.’

The latter is a charming story and easily read, but not what I would call ‘pulp fiction.’ The writing is good and the story engaging; just the thing to read oneself to sleep. Capote’s work, though, is the memorable story. Plain’s story began to leave my mind when I put the book down, while Capote’s story stayed in my mind and worked its way into my dreams.

I found myself reading Capote out loud. Not to read him out loud was to find myself reaching forward for a plot line, and Capote’s writing isn’t just about plot, or even mostly about plot. It begins simply–single words, descriptive words from a simple place: A young woman returns to school after attending her uncle’s funeral. Then it becomes the stuff of the unconscious mind, and it does it word by word.

Both Plain and Capote are good writers but only one, I think, is an artist. And, interestingly enough, it isn’t the one who will be most widely read. — Mona L S Baisch

Belva Plain

Belva Plain


Note:  Belva Plain died in 2010 at the age of 95. Born Belva Offenberg, Plain grew up an only child on the upper East Side of Manhattan, the daughter of a successful real estate developer. Her father’s grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Germany; her mom’s ancestors were Irish Catholics. She graduated Barnard College and had a writing career spanning three decades.   Ms. Plain came late to writing; she had raised her three children before beginning to write her first novel ‘Evergreen.’ Most things about her life were normal, although the tragedy of her heritage must have impressed her life. From all accounts, Ms. Plain, who died quietly in her sleep, was a comfortable, pleasant person. It is interesting that she never achieved another success equal to her first book.

Truman Capote died in 1984 at the age of 60. Capote was the only son of 17-year-old Lillie Mae Faulk and salesman Archulus Persons, who divorced when he was 4 years old. Capote attended a number of schools graduating from the Upper West Side private school (now the Dwight School) in 1943; that was the end of his education. He began writing at the age of 12. Many things about his life were unusual. Not many people can be said to have angered Robert Frost; an interesting but not isolated instance of personality clashes. Capote befriended Pulitzer prize novelists, was himself one, was out-of-the-closet when it wasn’t particularly fashionable. He died from liver cancer, complicated by phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication. It is interesting that his last book was his crowing achievement, and he never completed another book after ‘In Cold Blood.’