Caroline Baum: Wallace Stegner, The Quiet American

by |July 2, 2012

What was I thinking when I gave a list of some of my favourite authors and left out Wallace Stegner? He must be one of the most under-appreciated writers of the twentieth century, certainly outside his native America.

(To digress for a moment: I hate the idea of writers falling out of fashion, but they do – just think of Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, C.P. Snow, Anthony Powell, Jean Rhys. Locally Elizabeth Jolley seems to have been forgotten in recent years.)

Why does Stegner get overlooked? He won the Pulitzer in 1972 for his novel Angle of Repose, but it’s his novel Crossing to Safety that remains one of my constant favourites.

It tells the story of two couples, one rich, one poor and the subtle shifts within their marriages over time and how the dynamics of friendship between them alter. It is full of subtle wisdom and insight, a book to return to every decade.

Stegner belongs to that coterie of writers who don’t write flamboyantly showy look-at-me prose. He is what I call a quiet writer.

Now in the past when I’ve discussed this term with other writers, they have wrinkled their noses a bit. One female writer worried this was a term that might be used to describe women’s fiction. That stopped me in my tracks a bit.

Then I tried to think of others I would describe as quiet writers. I think Richard Ford belongs in that category. The prose is dense, untricksy. I’d say the same about Michael Ondaatje too. There’s a gentle modesty to the way these writers tell a story, allowing it to unfurl in an understated way.

So who do you think of as a quiet writer?

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