Walker Percy on Writing

I recently bought a fancy edition of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer — which is one of my favorite novels.

In it, he wrote this preface, which I’d never read before. It’s really great, for a number of reasons. It provides insight into his ideas about writing, about his own life — and about his greatest novel, as well.

Here is the preface, which I copied out, from the book:

A special message to subscribers from Walker Percy

The writing of The Moviegoer came about as a consequence of the happy conjunction of several unhappy circumstances. These circumstances included exhaustion, disgust, failure, surrender, boredom with writing in general, mine in particular, and the first inklings of an important discovery. The discovery was that no law of God or man required me to write otherwise than it pleased me to write. It did not matter was Faulkner had done. It did not matter what Dostoevski had done. It did not matter what critics had said. It did not matter what rules of composition had been laid down. Not even good advice mattered—and I had gotten some very good advice from some very generous and competent writers: do this, do that, for God’s sake don’t do the other. The best thing to do with advice, even good advice, is to listen as hard as you can, take it to heart, then forget it.

I had written two novels. One was a sort of Southern bildungsroman, Thomas Wolfe transplanted from Carolina to Mississippi and not traveling well, a good deal of soul-searching, a good many passages of beautiful prose. It ran about eleven hundred pages. The other novel was a small Magic Mountain, a hillock. Hans Castorp was magically reincarnated on an unmagic alp in the Adirondacks. Sickness and sex were rendered. Autopsies were performed. The nature of evil was explored. The nature of life and death were gotten at.

Neither novel was very bad, though not good enough that I could ever bring myself to read them. Both followed established novelistic practice and were consciously freighted with the tradition of Wolfe and Mann and other, better writers. Fortunately they were not published.

Failure is not a bad thing, as long as it is recognized as such. The good thing about failure recognized as such is that thereafter there is nothing to lose. The failed person is free to please himself. He is his own man.

Why then not set out from zero, stranded, which was where I found myself and was where I put Binx Bolling in this novel? Why not strike out as if no novel had been written before, as if it were a new world? In fact it was a new world. Binx was stranded in a sense between traditions, between worlds, between the old modern world and the world to come. Everyone else in the novel was stranded, too. The difference was that Binx knew it and they didn’t. Since he knew he was stranded and was not afraid to know it, his world became as fresh and unexplored and inviting as if it were newly made. He set forth like Crusoe.

I sat on the back porch of a shotgun cottage in New Orleans, overlooking a rank, overgrown patio. I wrote the first sentence of The Moviegoer. It had a sly, flat—yet cheerful—tone which pleased me.

W.P. Covington, Louisiana, 1980

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