For nineteen months William Zinsser wrote a weekly column for the internet edition of "The American Scholar". He began the gig when he was eighty-seven. His work won him the National Magazine Award for digital commentary during the year 2011. By the time he received that award in March 2012 he was nearly blind. The redoubtable independent publisher Paul Dry has assembled fifty-eight of Zinsser's columns in this lively book, THE WRITER WHO STAYED, which also is the title of one of the pieces.
That essay was about Daniel Fuchs, an acclaimed Eastern novelist who in 1937 went to Hollywood to be a screenwriter and - unlike predecessors such as Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner - stayed there for thirty-four years. Other essays are about Pauline Kael, Chick Young and "Blondie", Mitch Miller, the rudeness of multi-tasking with an electronic gadget while supposedly engaging in an in-person conversation, Hall of Fame centerfielder Edd Roush, the Great American Songbook, and the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. Needless to say, the topics are wide-ranging. Almost two dozen, however, are on language and the craft of writing. That, I suppose, is to be expected from the author of "On Writing Well", but I must say that as a whole I enjoyed them less than I did the more esoteric ones.
There are moments of curmudgeonry, but in general Zinsser tries to be, and is, a positive, upbeat person. "I always write to affirm. I choose to write about people whose values I respect; my pleasure is to bear witness to their lives." Thus, it is not surprising that he is bothered by the recent phenomenon of victim memoirs:
"Whining crept into the American memoir in the mid-1990s. Until then the world of letters adhered to an agreed-upon code of civility, drawing a veil over emotions and events too private or shameful to reveal. Then talk shows were born and shame went out * * * the window. Memoirists sprouted from the American soil like dandelions. Using memoir as therapy, they bashed their parents and brothers and sisters and relatives and teachers and coaches and everyone else who ever misunderstood them--a new class of self-appointed victims."
The only complaint I have about the book is that it was hard to strike the appropriate balance between reading too few and too many essays at a time. When read only one or two at a time, they tend to seem rather fluffy or inconsequential. But when I resolved to read the last half of the book at one sitting, I found that Zinsser came across as a tad stuffy and self-satisfied. My final take on the THE WRITER WHO STAYED, I suppose, is that it is an intelligent, literate book without much gravitas.