The Guestroom Novelist: A Donald Harington Miscellany. Edited by Brian Walters. (University of Arkansas Press, 2019, Pp. 319)
Reviewed by Mark Spitzer
In the interest of full disclosure, I should first mention that I am a University of Arkansas Press author and a die-hard convert to the Unorthodox Church of Donald Harington, who is my all-time favorite novelist. After picking up his knee-slapping The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks (1975), it didn’t take more than a few years to plow through thirteen more of his novels. Each riveting storyline incorporates a revolutionary innovation in storytelling; like framing the narrative voice as a lesson in architecture in TAOTAO, or narrating from the POV of animals and apparitions in With (2004), or shifting to the future tense to end with a mind-blowing magical postmodernism in Lightning Bug (1970). However, I’m not so indoctrinated by the genius of this iconic Ozark author that I can’t offer an objective critique of his new, posthumously published The Guestroom Novelist, which is his very first nonfiction book.
“Sacrilege!” I can already hear the cries. “You can’t say that! He won the prestigious Porter Prize for literary nonfiction!”
Okay, let’s clear this myth up right now. Let Us Build Us a City: Eleven Lost Towns was published in 1986 and has been commonly billed as “nonfiction” by booksellers, but that’s not what Harington received the Porter Prize for the following year. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, he received that award for “literary excellence.” And as the Porter Prize website clearly indicates, that “excellence” was awarded for “Fiction.” And as Harington states in The Guestroom Novelist, “Let Us Build Us a City is . . . a novel in the form of a nonfiction travelogue” (183). As for Harington’s other alleged nonfiction book, On a Clear Day (1995), that’s really a limited print-run art book of less than one hundred pages by George Dombek in which Harington only wrote 29 partial pages of text. Hence, On a Clear Day is not really a genuine, full-size, single-authored book.
So on to what types of nonfiction this miscellany covers. As the subtitle’s subtitle explains, The Guestroom Novelist is a collection of “Interviews, Essays, Articles, and Reviews.” Still, there’s more diversity to these selected works than the book cover suggests. Let’s start with Part I: “Essays, Articles, and Speeches,” in which the problematic essay “The Guestroom Novelist in America” kicks off the collection and introduces its thematic concept. Why is this problematic? We’ll get to that in a bit.
The second essay, “Let Us Become Arkansawyers,” is a brief and enlightening study of a phased-out word that Harington argues should be brought back since it hinges on a linguistics of labor (“sawyer” meaning someone who saws timber) from which Ozark culture and heritage evolved. Other essays include an overview of Arkansas “cities” that basically went bust, one of the most articulate and visually rich reviews of an artist and his art (William McNamara) that I’ve ever read, some commentary on the mythology of the historical Arkansas hero Albert Pike, an homage to chicken and dumplings, a disappointingly thin history of the Porter Prize, and a memory of a first date. Some of these “lost works” are colorful gems that will sparkle for lovers of Harington’s prose, but a few, I hate to say, were lost for the main reason why minor works of celebrated authors are meant to stay lost; because they’re not strong enough to add substance to the conversation.
On to Part II, “Reviews,” which consists of reprinted intros to other artists’ books, including books on art and architecture, and novels by Nabokov, Mark Twain, Kevin Brockmeier, Daniel Woodrell, and Stephen King. In two of these “reviews” Harington reverts to his signature move of flipping things on their heads. By suddenly interviewing his subjects (author Peter Straub in one case, poet Miller Williams in another), Harington shifts the focus 180 degrees, which works to add an intriguing, imaginative context to a highly cerebral format that just doesn’t speak in the playful language us lovers of Stay More (Harington’s fictional Ozark setting) have come to expect. Still, it’s unfortunate that the artists Harington chose to write about in this section were all male and white, especially in the age of the #MeToo movement, which could work to further pigeonhole him as part of the old school literary patriarchy he was definitely part of.
But now we get to the meat of the book: “Part III: Interviews,” which makes up two-thirds of the collection. This is where most readers will find the most value, because let’s face it: many readers who gravitate to The Guestroom Novelist will do so because they’ve read all the novels so now they’re looking for anything they can get by Harington. And since those readers, like me, are addicted to Harington’s prose, they have questions about the author, his craft, influences, back stories, relationships, development as a writer, and so on. This is the section that provides that context, and it will interest readers ranging from those who’ve just discovered the novels to hardcore Harington scholars.
In fact, in this series of in-depth interviews, Harington, in his own Haringway, creates himself into even more of a character in the legend he created of himself. The persona he assumes is that of a provocatively comic curmudgeon, sometimes getting testy with his interviewers. To a question asking if his novels “have nothing to do with the outside world,” Harington responds, “That’s a lot of crap” (110). Harington then goes on a semi-rant before turning the tables on Linda Hughes, who is suddenly the interviewee. Harington does this as well with Larry Vonault by abruptly becoming the director in a bizarre theatrics which challenges what the camera sees and questions who is really sitting where. Brian Walter’s final interview is also switcherooed, which allows for the firing of some surprise after-burners at the book’s conclusion.
There are also plenty of paradoxes and contradictions to be seen in these interviews. But that’s the thing about Harington: he’s all about duality, doppelgangers, bigeminality (having two penises), coming up with the unexpected, playing with time, and reversing things—which is one reason he’s been referred to as “the court jester of the Ozarks” (x). At one point, Harington explains how he designs characters by combining qualities that actual people don’t combine (my paraphrase) to explode stereotypes. Harington also says, “A novelist should not—ever—have the teaching of writing as a career. Teaching of writing interferes too much with one’s own writing” (168). But then Harington goes into detail about how he got his “first teaching job, at a small college in New York called Bennett” (169), where he was provided the opportunity to dive into the novel-writing process, finish his book, and make friends with William Styron, who helped launch his writing career. In fact, Harington later states, “I like teaching” (273), thereby complicating his insistence that it’s not in the writer’s interest to teach.
Now back to the problematic theme of the guestroom novelist in The Guestroom Novelist. The idea of this essay, which is the cornerstone of the entire book, is that you (and yes, Harington approaches this piece from the second person) are in a typical guestroom filled with typical guestroom novels. You’ve got your Sir Walter Scott, your Thackeray, your Margaret Mitchell, your Edith Sitwell, your Robert Louis Stevenson, and a bunch of authors you never heard of—because that’s what ends up on the back burners of home libraries. These are the books that aren’t displayed in living rooms. The guestroom is where the mid-listers and forgotten authors go—and especially those ignored by The New York Times.
Harington then aligns himself with these writers by making arguments about how they should’ve received more attention, but the industry left them in the dust. For example, in a letter to the editor of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette appearing right after the essay, Harington notes how his agent tried to “peddle [it] to the New York Times Book Review, Atlantic Monthly, etc., without any luck, probably because the author is himself the epitome of the guestroom novelist . . . worthy but unknown” (24). The result is that Harington’s stance comes off as privileged whining as he blames his lack of recognition on factors outside himself.
That essay, however, was written back in 1990, before Harington’s novels took off. After writing that essay, Harington worked with some powerful New York literary agents and was eventually picked up by quite a few New York publishing houses representative of the Parthenon of presses he desired to be published by: Little Brown and Co., Harcourt Brace Javonovich, Delacorte, Vintage, and Holt. Some print runs surpassed twenty five thousand. Those books didn’t bring in much royalties, and their lack of sales often made publishers hesitant to publish more. Still, Harington was reviewed in The New York Times, Time Magazine, and plenty other high-profile publications. Sometimes he got good reviews, sometimes he didn’t—but that’s not anything to complain about when all publicity is good publicity and the most powerful literary machinery in the world is putting your name in lights. Additionally, Harington had short stories published in Esquire, he was featured in several national Book of the Month clubs, he won the Oxford American Lifetime Achievement Award, the Robert Penn Warren Award, and the Porter Prize. And when the brunt of his books were re-released by Toby Press, Harington stated, “I could not be happier with the situation” (263).
So again, it’s that contradictory nature of the character Harington created of himself reflecting on himself through a craft in which creating convincing characters depends on reflecting consistent patterns of behavior. Thus, if Harington would’ve changed his character from a snubbed underdog to a satisfied and accomplished writer, he would’ve undermined the character he created of himself. And as Walter’s interviews clearly show, nearly twenty years after creating himself into the character of the overlooked outsider, court jester Harington was ultimately satisfied with his publishers and reviews. Just take a look at his own words: “With is steadily amassing a respectable series of fine national reviews” (160); “[With] sold well” (263); “[Publisher] Matthew Miller has made me known after all these years of obscurity. Without Matthew Miller, I would be nobody” (266).
But Harington wasn’t the only creator of his own character. Entertainment Weekly had a hand in labeling him as “America’s Greatest Unknown Novelist,” a title Harington enthusiastically embraced. This moniker matched the initial character he created for himself and perpetuated the premise that he was being held back, that an injustice had been done unto him, and because of this, he was deserving of sympathy.
So that’s why I’m calling timeout on the guestroom novelist theme of The Guestroom Novelist—because the sentiments at work in this framework hark back to an angst that Harington later overcame. Still, it’s an angst that Harington held on to, so perhaps there’s a certain degree of logic for this theme. But whatever the case, this is why Donald Harington’s first true nonfiction book (with a good amount of fiction in it) earns a mixed review. This is also why I’d advise most readers to stick with the novels instead (which is what Harington does best), and why I’d recommend this miscellany to those who want to know more about the artist behind the art. Because as Harington says in his own words (no doubt obliquely referring to his own inescapable modus operandi), “really, it’s all fiction” (209).
Mark Spitzer, novelist, poet, essayist, and literary translator, grew up in Minneapolis where he earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota in 1990. He then earned his master’s in creative writing from the University of Colorado. After living on the road for some time, he found himself in Paris as writer in residence for three years at the bohemian bookstore Shakespeare and Company. In 1997 he moved to Louisiana and earned an MFA from Louisiana State. He taught creative writing and literature for five years at Truman State University and is now an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. Author of more than 30 books, he has published nonfiction fish books, memoirs, novels, poetry collections, plays, articles on creative writing pedagogy, and books of literary translation. Spitzer has also been the official Nebraska state record holder for the yellow bullhead.