Still at the Top of His Game: On Nicholas Delbanco’s “Why Writing Matters”
By Nick OwcharApril 1, 2023
Why Writing Matters by Nicholas Delbanco
I had the privilege of working with the author when I was an editor for the books section of the Los Angeles Times. Delbanco enjoys discussing the craft of writing in any forum; he willingly took on reviews of books about John Fowles, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, William Trevor, and others, and deftly—effortlessly—explained to our readership (at the meager length we could afford him) why their work was and remains a marvel.
The same can be said of his 2020 book Why Writing Matters, which is part of a Yale University Press series featuring experts on their particular artistic-cultural fields of endeavor under the general title “Why [fill in the blank] Matters.” Other volumes in the series include Why Poetry Matters (2009) by Jay Parini and Why the Museum Matters (2022) by Daniel H. Weiss. In his own contribution, Delbanco gives us a fascinating, varied, sobering, elegant, insightful, wistful, sometimes amusing, always candid look at the craft as he’s successfully practiced it for more than 60 years.
That career started in 1966 with The Martlet’s Tale, a novel that received much attention thanks to John Updike’s enthusiasm for it. Since then, Delbanco’s career has followed the kind of arc you only see in a perfectly thrown football by Tom Brady.
Not long ago, during one of his visits to see family in Southern California, I told him I was a little surprised by the release of Why Writing Matters and the fact that he still has other irons in the literary fire right now. Why? I had assumed that, because he’s entered his ninth decade (having turned 80 last year), it would make perfect sense if Delbanco decided to pull a Philip Roth—stop writing, stop wrestling with the written word, and just savor the achievements of a long and brilliant career. Seemed to make sense to me.
But not to him. And there’s a very fine passage in Why Writing Matters that explains why not. Delbanco explains, in the chapter “Originality,” that unlike athletes, whose best years come in their youth, a writer’s talent and voice continue to grow and mature through time and that “most young writers know the best work lies ahead.” When asked about this, he said he does feel like he is still at the top of his game. “It’s clear that certain forms of endeavor—baseball or ballet, for instance—have their own intrinsic shelf-life,” he said, “and you won’t be able to do, 50 years later, what you took for granted in your youth. But there’s no obvious reason why artists should diminish over time and not profit from experience, and in Why Writing Matters, I tried to compose (for myself and others) a sort of summing-up.”
Why Writing Matters plunges us into all aspects of the writing life, describing the many experiences Delbanco has had, the lessons learned, and the writers befriended in the course of a distinguished career. His oeuvre doesn’t include a memoir—not yet—but he says he is working on something now, and much of what you find in this book feels like a first test run of incidents and experiences that will surely appear in that other work.
“I’ve just completed a text called ‘On Turning Eighty.’ It’s not a full-fledged memoir or, as a friend of mine calls it, me-moir,” he said. “But at a certain stage of age (and particularly if you’ve not indulged in the first person earlier), the desire to look back upon a life well- or ill-lived is almost unavoidable. And so, I’ve used my own little life as a template here.”
Along with his many novels, critical essays, and other works of nonfiction, Delbanco has been a friend and colleague to many familiar literary names (among them Updike and John Gardner), a mentor to others (including Jesmyn Ward, Elizabeth Kostova, Donna Tartt, and Michael Byers), a member of a literary family (his wife Elena and daughter Francesca are novelists, his daughter Andrea is an editor, and his brother Andrew is a critic), and a steadfast guide to the students in his literature courses at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he now holds an emeritus position.
Why Writing Matters draws on his experiences in all of these roles. Among the highlights, we enter Delbanco’s classroom to explore the syllabus he gave his students and the reasons for the selections he made. For those longing for the peace and security of an academic gig somewhere, being a teacher isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. He tells us daunting stories of the jealousy and pettiness brewing among students vying to be noticed. (He deserves a medal just for dealing with 20-year-old literary divas.)
In “Five Texts,” we’re treated to a version of a police lineup with some very unexpected suspects—Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Émile Zola’s “J’Accuse…!”—that couldn’t be more different from each other in content or form, and yet, as he explains, “because of the power of language and an attentive readership, the world they left behind them was not the one they entered.”
The things that have always struck me about Delbanco in person—and what readers may notice in this book—are the little syntactical inversions and aphoristic expressions in his every exchange (even with a waiter over a menu choice), which are the surest signs of a writer deeply aware of (and comfortable with) his voice. That style is everywhere visible in Why Writing Matters, whether it’s a passing comment about his friend and colleague Gardner (“his moderation was our excess and his excess brooked no containment”) or a description of the goals of a writing workshop (“a student works in miniature, then builds the actual thing”).
Also visible here are his ongoing concerns about cultural literacy and the fate of good writing in an age that has been radically shaped by new technologies and a proliferation of online forums and platforms. Though the chapter “More Matter,” which appears late in the book, opens with a playful glimpse of one of his precocious grandchildren, it is a sobering, poignant meditation on how the effort to achieve permanence of meaning with ink on paper has been superseded—and undermined—by the digitization of everything. “The world we now inhabit,” he laments, “is incomparably more populous, and we produce more language on a daily basis than ever in our history before. But a Facebook posting or email exchange is evanescent, fleeting almost by design, and the likelihood of lastingness is slim.”
His concern is with more than just lastingness, though, or the ephemeral quality that things have online, despite the insistence that the internet will preserve them forever. With that troubling transitory quality come other problems—a laziness and lack of precision that can result in the kind of mistrust towards the written word that leads a US president to call anything he doesn’t like “fake news.” “At present in America,” Delbanco writes, “our language is under assault.”
But isn’t there a silver lining here somewhere? Look at our political culture. The fact that so many people have been willing to invest their imaginations in conspiracy theories—whether they point to voting machines controlled by Hugo Chavez or a child-trafficking ring run out of a DC pizza parlor—means that storytelling is alive and well (though grotesquely deformed), right? In a very cynical, very backhanded sort of way, people really do care about stories, right? I asked Delbanco about this.
“Absolutely,” he said, “but ‘narrative’ is a two-edged sword and can be wielded equally in good or evil cause. I do spend a page or three lamenting what has happened to our language and its custodians, but what Orwell so brilliantly warned of in ‘Politics and the English Language’ is doubly troubling now.”
In the book’s glimpses of the extraordinary arc of Delbanco’s career, Why Writing Matters reminds us that the publishing world the author first encountered doesn’t exist any longer. Today, we’re in a really strange place full of irony—technology is producing more opportunities for writers to be seen and read, and yet this multiplication of platforms is also multiplying the chances of being overlooked and ignored.
Delbanco feels for his younger colleagues, especially those just starting out. “The world of publishing today bears at best a distant resemblance to the world I entered in 1966,” he said. “Technology has altogether altered the literary landscape—not to mention the larger truth that the novel itself feels like a form whose heyday has gone by.”
And maybe that, finally, is another reason why readers, especially other writers, will benefit from Why Writing Matters. It is more than just a rich compendium of insights from an elder statesman of American letters. Nicholas Delbanco also makes a case that the act of telling stories, regardless of one’s chances of publishing success, is essential to who we are as human beings. That, for many struggling authors, may well be enough.
Nick Owchar is editorial director of Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Colleges. A former deputy book editor of the Los Angeles Times, he is the author of the novel Sorry for the Interruptions.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Poet David Mason reflects on a lifetime of teaching literature as performance.
Athia Hardt reviews "Bad News," the new book from Rob Brotherton.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!