"Still On Call"
By Richard Stern University of Michigan Press, $25.95, 264 pages
At the same time, I met an older writer, one whom I had not read earlier, one with an established reputation, revered by discerning readers and called a “literary treasure.” This was my first exposure to someone who became an author in the 1940s and has written more than 20 books. He has written novels, his first was “Golk” in 1960, for example, as well as literary criticism, essays, commentary and reflections. His contemporaries were the likes of Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth. His own work has been the subject of two books.
Richard Stern might be the most established writer you’ve never heard of. Those of us beginning careers, as writers, scholars and readers, would do well to sit at the knee of this literary master, one who is writing from the other side of literary lift. The writers who are setting out in their careers, are recognized by The New Yorker, would be enriched by spending time with Richard Stern.
In his recent collection of “orderly miscellany” "Still On Call," he provides a view from the other side of the literary life. The book is a collection of both archival and recent ephemera such as journal entries, blog posts, recollections, and general thoughts on writing. The book is organized into three sections, “Coasting” (reflections and pieces like “How I think I Got to Think the Way I Think”) “Posting” (blog posts) and “Hosting” (relationships with other writers and intellectuals).
"Still On Call" is a wonderful complement to Stern’s career, and a primer for someone who has not had the opportunity to read one of his many works. Stern’s robust set of novels, short stories, and criticism complemented his decades of teaching, most notably for 45 years at the University of Chicago. His works were not bestsellers but were well-respected. He achieved a solid reputation as a writer’s writer, a sort of master craftsman, and he enjoyed long, intimate friendships and working relationships with some of the twentieth century’s leading authors and literary critics. Perhaps most important, at the age of 82, he seems to have achieved a remarkable degree of satisfaction, contentment, and perspective on both his own life’s work and the position of the writer in society - all qualities of lived experience that are not so much won or lost so much as steadily developed.
So in "Still On Call," Stern sees himself in a position to speak to the true stakes of a literary life. As one works through the book, it’s clear that the life of the writer can be considered quite distinct from the writer’s actual output. Indeed, I found Stern at his most engaging when discussing University politics, his travels, and the texture of everyday life.
Stern’s life and career (and probably the life and career of the great body of professional writers) seem to have been shaped more by personalities, environments, and the gradual arc of urban bourgeois life. Unsexy as it may be, the writing life is about continuity and perpetual refinement and for aspiring writers and citizens, Stern offers himself as a model of a growing and evolving mind and heart.
The book’s longest part, selections from Stern’s blog for The New Republic, are the most surprising of the book. It speaks to Stern’s innate skill, voice, and care for each sentence and it is clear that his thoughts on events long passed are still worth reading. The blog posts are casual, but well thought out. Stern corrals quotes from Shakespeare, Trollope, and Rilke into his discussions of political campaigns, sport, and other current events and he writes like a true public intellectual. These blog posts in particular remind one of the paucity of thoughtfulness, perspective, or decency throughout the blogosphere.
Only the crassest reader could fail to be endeared to Richard Stern, or worry about the fading of his open, wise voice from the national conversation.
Alex Yablon is a writer and graduate of the University of Chicago.
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"Still On Call" by Richard Stern
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