In How To Cook A Wolf, MFK Fisher says that she'll be happy to be invited over to your house for dinner "so long as you are self-possessed..., your mind is your own and your heart is another's and therefore in the right place."
It's the kind of perfectly balanced, tart and quick line that shows up on at least every page of every one of her books. I was telling someone at the Booksmith awhile back, when I picked up another couple of volumes, that although I had been aware of Fisher for years, it was only in the last year or so that I'd started to read her myself, and I was irritated and impatient at discovering what I had missed.
"It's a great shame," I said, "that's she's characterized as a food writer, because that's likely to put off some people from reading her. Food is her central metaphor, but what she writes about is love and relationships and the struggle to be that very self-possessed person that is her ideal. And she does it with some of the most glistening prose that an American writer ever put to paper."
The version of How To Cook A Wolf that I just finished is the revised edition and one of its particular delights is that Fisher extensively annotated the original volume (published in 1942) nine years later, and those glosses are interpolated throughout the text. She expands sections, chastises herself for earlier foolishnesses, changes her mind and quarrels with herself, goes off on tangents. It's great fun. She is a remarkably unselfconscious writer.
I've no idea how hard making the craft work was for her or how much revision she ended up doing, but the effect is certainly of someone tossing off brilliant sentence after brilliant sentence as if they've just come into her head. She never panders to her audience. Indeed, you get the impression that she doesn't give a damn if anybody reads the stuff at all. Her first audience is herself, and if she can please that tremendously demanding one, then it's fine if anybody else wants to read along... or not.
I'm happy to say that her reprint publisher (North Point Press) seems to get it. The bio blurb on the back cover says, simply, "MFK Fisher (1908-1992) is the author of numerous books of essays and reminiscences, many of which have become American classics."
The blurb that most impressed me, however, is on the back of The Gastronomical Me. "I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose." The author of that line is W.H. Auden -- who knew a thing or two about how to put down words, one after another, without wasting anything.
I suppose that part of the reason I take such delight in a writer like Fisher is that we are surrounded by so much flabby prose. Blogs, by their very nature, are generally terrible, of course -- they're intended to convey ideas quickly and few bloggers pay much attention to the construction and balance of their sentences (at least I hope that's the case, given the results). But most published prose suffers from the general decline in good editing. Along with everything else in our hyperculture, writers write too fast, too eager to get their ideas expressed, than to be bothered with making the prose as tough and sharp as it ought to be.
When I was teaching my intellectual property on the internet seminar some years ago, I would bring to one of the first classes a replica of Thomas Jefferson's favorite pen -- a slender silver tube with a large nib. I'd send it around the table with a bottle of ink so that each of the students could try it. I'd hold up the Library of America volume of his collected letters and remind them, "And he wrote all of this -- and so much more -- with that kind of technology." It would have required taking much more time thinking about each sentence before committing it to paper, given the work involved in revising.
My own blog posts are primarily experiments in sentence construction. The game has rules. Thirty minutes (more or less) for the initial draft, and then another thirty or so to cut and shift and push and listen. Alas, there's not a one that doesn't suffer from the same faults that I complain about in other's. But every once in awhile, I come up with a sentence or paragraph that marginally pleases me. That's enough to keep me going after it.