Monday, March 29, 2010

Exchange Value - Charles Johnson


Charles Johnson April 23, 1948

Unfortunately, with this story, I find myself using for the first time in this reading project the word “contrived” and it hurts to do so.

Annnnnddddd wouldn’t you know it:

"As an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University, Johnson studied with novelist and literary theorist John Gardner, whose conception of "moral fiction"-demanding from the author a near-fanatical commitment to technique, imagination, and ethics-deeply impressed Johnson."

It’s unfortunate. I’m the last to be considered to offer any serious judgment on writing but, I just felt this story should have offered more.

I can’t help but feel, that it was included in this collection for one reason only – John Gardner is once again using this anthology to push his disciples forward in the literary world of the 1980s.

And you know, I can’t really see Ravenel offering any sort of resistance to what he has done.

Knowing the personality of Gardner, it seems that he would have steamrolled any suggestion by Ravenel that he was stuffing this edition by including his “crew”. Gardner’s admission that he rushed in his selection can only lead me to the conclusion that he took an easy way out in some of the the selections.

So – here is a bit about the relationship between Johnson and Gardner – This is taken from the “African American Review” – full citation at the end of the post.

From early in their relationship:

At his home, I plopped three of the six unpublished novels I'd written in two years down on the meadhall-sized table in his dining room. Far from seeming like an ogre, Gardner, wearing wrinkled bluejeans that day and a white shirt that curved around his slight paunch, came across as kind. There was nothing phony or pretentious about him; he was the very portrait of self-confidence, but also self-mocking, and deeply involved in the work of the chattering students crammed into his house.”

And as their friendship developed:

The distance between teacher and student collapsed; he began treating me like a younger brother. He took possession of my literary development and, I believe, saved me five or six years of groping on my own. In our conferences and conversations Gardner began pushing me gently, then sometimes roughly to imagine harder and with greater precision, to write with fairness for every character in my book, and to hold in contempt any sentence I composed that fell below the level of the best sentence I'd ever written.”

As a mentor:

“But Gardner was a whole university education - a "school" - in himself. Some of his commentaries to me, written in longhand, run seven or eight pages.”

And again as a friend:

“I made it a point early on in our friendship never to ask him for anything. And since I never asked, Gardner - to my astonishment - gave and gave and gave.”

The development and inclusion of “Gardner People”:

“Once he opened up, Gardner was a teacher who could fill you to overflowing with confidence and his bottomless love for fine storytelling regardless of the culture or race that produced it. That first year of our friendship he introduced me to his friends - a network of scholars and artists I now refer to as "Gardner people" he brought together across North America (and Japan), and who still stay in touch, bonded by the belief - which grows each year - that this farm boy from upstate New York was, in his theory and practice, just maybe ten years ahead of his time. "

On his sudden death:

And then he was dead, killed in a motorcycle accident on September 14, 1982, on a lonely, curving stretch of road in Pennsylvania. Dead two weeks before the publication of my second novel. I felt, as so many "Gardner people" did, that our spirited conversations, our arguments over every aspect of life and literary culture, had been cut short in mid-sentence. Him we expected to go on forever, growing old but never less vigorous, holding forth on our sins against civilized life and holding up art as a Way to redemption. We will never see his like. again. And twelve years after his departure, during the quiet early morning hours when I work - as I first did until daybreak on Faith - I know beyond all doubt that I'm still writing feverishly to get a rise out of John Champlin Gardner.”

Johnson, Charles. "John Gardner as mentor." African American Review 30.4 (1996)

I suppose that Johnson’s skill and talent deserve the recognition of Gardner and the extra push that his reputation provided.

Johnson was and is hugely successful, and he attributes his early success to the relationship he had with Gardner. And the lessons that Gardner taught Johnson proved beneficial.

What I feel is a sort of “cheapness” to have this story included here.

Finally, all Gardner was trying to do was help. Johnson stated that Gardner just gave, and gave – and he did again by including this story.

Once again, what I am seeing develop into a lesson for me as provided by this story and the others that Gardner has included, is that sometimes it helps to have friends and teachers that are willing to take that extra step on your behalf.

Too many times – in my life, I’ve sought to isolate myself from assistance.

To distance myself from help – to almost forbid myself from asking for it. I need to learn to take advantage of the resources that are at my disposal – perhaps someday, I’ll have a John Gardner type person that will step into my life, I just hope that he/she hasn’t already passed me by.

1 comment:

  1. Ok. I'm still waiting for you to analyze the story and tell me why you felt it was cheap. All you did was ramble about Johnson's friendship with Gardener. OK, we already know that; you didn't have to copy and paste from several interviews to prove that point. When Exchange Value was published in "The Best American Short Stories of the Eighties" Gardner was there to assist too? When he won the National Book Award same year, Gardener was on the jury too? All I can say is that you didn't understand the story. This might help: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exchange_Value

    ReplyDelete