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Winter 2002

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Steloff reading rivets the crowd

     Though his PR photo looked like Sean Connery playing Ernest Hemingway, writer Russell Banks impressed his Skidmore audience just by playing himself—and a few characters from his short stories.

Novelist Russell Banks

     This year’s Steloff Lecturer at Skidmore, Banks has written a string of widely acclaimed books, including Cloudsplitter, Rule of the Bone, Book of Jamaica, and Continental Drift. Two more novels, The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction, have been made into critically lauded feature films. Banks has taught at Princeton and also at Skidmore’s Summer Writers Institute.

     But it wasn’t his track record that so riveted the audience at a panel discussion on the art of fiction; it was his candor and the generous detail he shared. When asked, for instance, about his formative years as a writer, he answered, “In my first few years of writing I imitated others, all kinds of others. I wrote recklessly and compulsively—plays, poetry, everything. And I read obsessively—Don Quixote every summer, Moby Dick every few years.

     I also had serial love affairs with very different kinds of authors—I was a kind of literary slut for a long time.” But, he added, “that’s how you shape your imagination.”

     When a student asked him about writer’s block, Banks said, “In my early thirties, I believed I hadn’t written anything that was grown-up, so I gave up writing and took up graphic art. Then after a while, I found myself writing words on index cards and scraps of paper—all kinds of words, jokes, aphorisms—instead of art. And I thought, writing is happening to me again. But this time it was happening in a way I trusted, because I wasn’t trying to be a writer. The best way to break writer’s block is to forget about writing a message to the world, and just allow yourself to play.”

     After the panel, Banks was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters and delivered the formal Steloff Lecture—in the form of two short stories that knocked the socks off a full house in Gannett Auditor-ium. “The Fish,” a devastating fable on the perils of being unique, was set in an Asian landscape and written and delivered in clear, classical prose. Then Banks switched to a richly authentic contemporary vernacular for “The Moor,” in which a blue-collar guy encounters the older woman he loved decades ago. Banks read both stories expressively, performing them, playing his audience with every twist and turn of the plot, and finishing to thunderous and sustained applause.

     In closing, President Jamienne S. Studley remarked, “Being unable to see a speaker’s face is usually a drawback”—alluding to her ceremonial seat on the podium, an honor that guarantees her a rear view of many college events. “But tonight I was glad to sit there so I could enjoy watching all of you reacting to Russell Banks.” —BAM

 


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