For 36 years, Sol Stein edited and published some of the most successful writers of the century, including James Baldwin, Dylan Thmoas, Elia Kazan, W.H. Auden, and Jacques Barzun.
Stein himself is a prize-winning playwright produced on Broadway, an anthologized poet, the author of nine novels, plus nonfiction books, screenplays, and TV dramas.
His novel, “The Magician,” sold over one million copies, and his nonfiction includes the two highly acclaimed writing books, “How to Grow a Novel,” and “Stein on Writing.”
Stein founded the book-publishing firm of Stein and Day, and served as its President and Editor-in-Chief for over a quarter of a century.
The following is my exclusive interview with Mr. Stein:
Mike: How would you compare contemporary American novelists (DeLillo, Bellow, Roth, David Foster Wallace) to the ones from the 1920's and 30's (Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos)? Are we writing better novels today or worse?
Stein: I'm not sure it's useful to categorize writers. There are marked differences within the groups. Consider your first group. DeLillo is interesting, Bellow's best work is worth rereading, my experience of Roth has been quite uneven, and David Foster Wallace has created a useful doorstop. In the second group, only Dos Passos was experimental and now seems dated and interesting only from an historical viewpoint, while the others still provide experiences for the reader. This last is what fiction is about, providing heightened experiences for the reader that he doesn't get in everyday life. With David Foster Wallace, I see his words on the page, I see his tricks, I don't experience anything except frustration.
Mike: What's the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard—and from whom?
Stein: You've just heard it. Fiction is not an excuse for getting something off the writer’s chest, it is creating strong, memorable experiences for the reader.
I've learned craft from many teachers. I deal with the sources of what I know in my books so my readers will know I didn't make it all up. I was lucky to have a few marvelous writing teachers in school, college, and graduate school.
My best editors have also taught me some. The late Tony Godwin goaded me into writing my best novel. James Baldwin said I forced him to write “Notes of a Native Son.” The continuum is quite remarkable. The most appropriate dedication I've ever had was in Elia Kazan’s "The Understudy": "To Sol, who saw what I didn't think possible."
Mike: What advice would you give someone making the transition from non-fiction to fiction writing, or the other way around?
Stein: Nonfiction writers need to loosen their grip on reality in conceiving characters instead of reporting on characters they see. Reporting what someone said is light years from producing dialogue, which needs to be learned as if it were a foreign language. It is NOT anything like recorded speech. Anyone who has ever read court transcripts knows how boring recorded speech is. Nonfiction writers need to read good novels twice, the first time for pleasure, the second time to see how it's done. They need to learn the craft of writing fiction, which is like brain surgery. You are working on the reader's brain after anaesthetizing him by immersing him in an entirely imaginary experience that he believes is real.
Mike: What are the five quickest ways to improve one's writing?
Stein: Be a strict monitor of your precision and clarity. Stop reinventing the wheel. Over the centuries, writers have developed solutions to writing problems that can now be learned. Recognize that writing is rewriting, a big difference from newspaper reporting. Hone detail, check the accuracy of similes and metaphors, test credibility, make sure your characters are different and interesting and that readers will want to live with them for twelve hours or take them on vacation.
The worst mistake is to revise starting on page one.