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A Right to Die, Rex Stout, Bantam, 1964, $0.50

Written during the height of the Civil Rights movement, it shows that even the classics are sometimes a part of their times. Stout usually transcends time and place by the exacting nature of his plotting and the smooth flow of his prose. He, however, wasn’t content to rest on his laurels alone (although had he done so there would have been no recriminations); Stout wasn’t afraid to take on the subjects of the day, from Eugene McCarthy in the 50s to the racial bigotry displayed here. Stout realized that people were not buying a Nero Wolfe book to get a treatise on civil rights, however, and the point that he makes about it is integral to the story but is not the story itself. I think that’s the difference between good fiction and didacticism. So many authors lose sight of the ultimate purpose of fiction on their way to the altar of moral rectitude. Science fiction is particularly guilty of this sin–poorly concealed political agendas under ill-drawn alien or future societies. And the stuff that gets published is nothing compared to what you might read in a workshop. I can write this because I am guilty of this particular problem, both in stories that have seen print and ones currently in slush piles across the world. It’s a beginner’s mistake that even hardened professionals find hard to shake. The pressure to make art is always with us; realizing that art is something that can’t be forced, that must come naturally, is never easy. Sometimes it is just best to relax and view how the masters like Stout approached the same chasm, and note how they were able to bridge it.

[finished 7 February 1995]


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