E.B. White on Writing

source: letters of Note

source: letters of Note

E.B. White, author of such beloved books as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, as well as long-time New Yorker contributor, sits down with the Paris review for an interview on a range of topics, from how it was at the New Yorker  to the craft of writing. Some excerpts:

On Writing:

My wife, thank God, has never been protective of me, as, I am told, the wives of some writers are. In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man—they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.

When I start to write, my mind is apt to race, like a clock from which the pendulum has been removed. I simply can’t keep up, with pen or typewriter, and this causes me to break apart. I think there are writers whose thoughts flow in a smooth and orderly fashion, and they can transcribe them on paper without undue emotion or without getting too far behind. I envy them. When you consider that there are a thousand ways to express even the simplest idea, it is no wonder writers are under a great strain. Writers care greatly how a thing is said—it makes all the difference. So they are constantly faced with too many choices and must make too many decisions.

On Children’s Literature:

Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In Charlotte’s Web, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.

Some writers for children deliberately avoid using words they think a child doesn’t know. This emasculates the prose and, I suspect, bores the reader. Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention.

He seems a bit curt sometimes, but some of the things he says make much sense.

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Reading on the resource grab, corruption

The New Yorker published an excellent story, “Buried Secrets — How an Israeli billionaire wrested control of one of Africa’s biggest prizes”

The Western world has always thought of Africa as a continent to take things from, whether it was diamonds, rubber, or slaves. This outlook was inscribed into the very names of Guinea’s neighbor Côte d’Ivoire and of Ghana, which was known to its British masters as the Gold Coast. During the Victorian period, the exploitation of resources was especially brutal; King Leopold II, of Belgium, was so rapacious in his pursuit of rubber that ten million people in the Congo Free State died as a result. The new international stampede for African resources could become another grim story, or it could present an unprecedented opportunity for economic development.

Guinea has an iron ore deposit that may be worth up to US$140 Billion. The mining rights, which had been granted to Rio Tinto, were mysteriously rescinded and granted to an Israeli company with no mining experience — under more than dubious circumstances. Read the story for an international thriller as the new, (more) democratic government of Guinea seeks to find the evidence of corruption that would allow them to claim the resources back. Read it also for a glimpse of just how difficult uncovering corruption can be.

Many Sub-Saharan African countries are in a tight spot: they are far poorer than they should be, and many are sitting on a vast wealth of resources that they don’t have the capital to extract. The Chinese are happy to help, and so are others. The question around these deals is always whether the nations in question get a fair share. Often, it seems, most of the benefit goes to élites and of course the foreign countries so generously providing funding.

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