From the Author’s Bookshelf
Recently, I’ve been reading the collected short stories of Pat McManus, because I needed something light and funny. For those of the audience who aren’t familiar with this author, Patrick F. McManus was a writer of short, humorous stories that mostly deal with the outdoors- hunting, fishing, camping, and the like. He was born during the Great Depression and died about a year ago, having written ten or so collections of shorts that mostly started out as articles in outdoor magazines, as well as a series of crime novels. He also taught creative writing and journalism, back when that actually meant something.
But as I said, he died last year. So, why the eulogy? Well, it’s partly because I’m rereading his works now. Also, I finally persuaded my husband to pick up my copy of Never Sniff a Gift Fish. I wasn’t sure if it’d be to his taste, but he seems to enjoy the stories, so, having corrupted the only other human I see on a regular basis, I’m now searching for new and innocent minds. You guys fit the bill. Okay, maybe not the ‘innocent’ part, but close enough.
Until recently, I didn’t realize that McManus wrote his stories almost forty years ago. I had seen the publication dates on each book, and he occasionally mentions having grown up during the Depression, but it never really sank in that he was born the same year as my grandfather, and was having his career as a writer and teacher when my parents were kids.
His writing is nearly timeless. I say nearly, because kids nowadays have a different experience than kids of past generations. But up until about 25 years ago, McManus’s childhood- running wild with his friend Crazy Eddie, going hiking in the Idaho mountains with his buddies as a teenager- was fairly normal.
This isn’t going to be a rant about ‘kids these days’. To most of you, I am a kid. Rather, I want to hold up McManus’s work as an example of fiction that ages well and is remarkably non-political.
Most people have a sense of nostalgia that pops up every once in a while, a wish to return to the good old days. Even if we know objectively that those days weren’t so good. In America, the good old days are- usually- the 1950s.
The 1950s were… okay. The Cold War was ramping up; we were winding down from World War II while trying to prop up the European countries that had been so devastated by the fighting. But that decade remains ever-golden in a lot of memories and imaginations.
If I had to guess, I’d say that the 1950s are ‘the good old days’ because they were better than the decades that came before and after. Also, it’s the earliest period in American history that ordinary people lived a lifestyle recognizable to us (how long it will remain recognizable is another matter). People began to live in nice little suburban houses; most families had indoor plumbing and electricity; cars became popular and widely available.
It’s possible to write about any decade from the 1950s to the 2000s, roughly, and the reader might not realize when the story is actually taking place. Technology changed, of course, but it was possible to gloss over those changes without altering the plot in most cases. For example, McManus talks about writing in his study. To most of us, that means sitting in front of the computer, clacking away at the keys. But because McManus focuses on the story, not the setting, it’s impossible to tell. Based on the time period, he was probably using a typewriter, but maybe he was writing longhand. And it doesn’t really matter, because the story was about bird dogs, and bird dogs don’t change very much. He briefly mentions the internet, email, and cell phones in one of his last books, mostly for the purpose of complaining about them in true curmudgeonly fashion.
This is not to say that you should only write about the 1950s to the 2000s, or only choose plots that ignore the existence of cell phones and computers. In a few decades, the majority of the reading populations will have lived their entire lives with those technologies, and books without them will look dated. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But your books will age differently if you include lots of details specific to a year or decade, and might appeal to a narrower audience. Again, not necessarily a bad thing; people will be able to read your book and know exactly when the story is taking place. To a reader looking for escapist fiction, this is a must-have. To a nostalgic reader looking to put themselves in the place of the characters, it might be off-putting.
On the politics front, even stories about McManus’s adult life are almost completely devoid of the subject. He mentions the Cold War in “A Hunker is Not a Squat”, saying that he’d be happy to give lessons to the Russian (he never refers to them as Soviets) and American diplomats ‘so they can get the present mess straightened out in a hurry’. And when describing a good man with a ‘dark’ side (the person hunts from the seat of a truck, which is frowned upon but hardly evil), he says that such a man was ‘a deacon in the church, a medical doctor, a faithful husband, a loving father, and a Republican’. At one point, he goes hiking with the first President Bush.
And that’s about it. There’s no virtue signaling, no pretending to be hip and in touch with current events. It’s wonderfully refreshing, in an era when writers count the number of gay/female/racial minority characters in their works to make sure they’ve met the quota- even if the book has nothing to do with any of those labels. And because politics is ever-changing, an apolitical story tends to age better than one that focuses on current trends.
Maybe I’m feeling nostalgic, but the world needs more stories like McManus’s. Funny, apolitical stories that focus on the absurdities of life. They’re not devoid of morals- don’t sweat the small stuff is a theme that comes through over and over- but he doesn’t beat the reader over the head with a sermon. And the stories are just plain funny (sidebar: McManus also wrote a book on how to write humor; it’s called The Deer on a Bicycle, and as soon as I finish here, I’m going to see if Amazon has it).
My usual advice still stands (though I’m not sure why you’d take advice on writing from me; I’m just winging it). Write whatever you want. Nowadays, there’s an audience for everything. Your job is to connect to that audience with a story they like. Personally, I like timeless and apolitical stories. Which is why I’m going to go and read about Pat McManus and his crotchety old dog, Strange. Can’t get much more timeless and apolitical than a kid tromping through the woods with his dog.