In the April issue of the French cultural magazine Transfuge, SHSU English professor Paul Ruffin is the subject of a piece entitled “Paul Ruffin: a Great American Writer, and He’s Armed to the Teeth.”
American literature specialist Eric Miles Williamson, a literary columnist for the magazine, writes, “Paul Ruffin, author six collections of poetry, two novels, three short story collections, and two books of essays, is arguably America’s greatest little-known author. Why little-known? Because he grew up poor and white, and in America, that still constitutes being “advantaged.” Another white male writes a book: big deal.”
The article continues: “Had Paul Ruffin been a minority who’d grown up abysmally poor, who, like Ruffin, had to join the military to escape the rural Assembly of God hell that was his birthright, whose abusive father had only a third-grade education and worked for years on the production line of a toilet-seat factory, whose staple food as a child was mayonnaise sandwiches, who didn’t even have indoor plumbing until he was in junior high school, he’d be the toast of the country, published by big New York presses, internationally acclaimed . . . . He’d have won a major award or two. . . . He’d be teaching at Yale University. . . .
“That Paul Ruffin is not famous is all to the better,” Williamson says: “He hasn’t been coerced into paying attention to critics who might have conned him (as they have so very many weak-willed American authors-turned-hacks) into toning things down and sissifying them, editing his little-read masterpieces into works of watered-down, politically correct, and perfumed and slickly packaged commercial sewage.
“In the form of the short story his only living American rivals are Richard Burgin and Barry Hannah. For my money, Ruffin is better than either of them. His collections, The Man Who Would Be God, Jesus in the Mist, and Islands, Women, and God, just might be genius.
“Ruffin’s stories are about common people, folks from Texas and Mississippi who live quiet and humble lives—factory workers, farmers, fishermen, husbands and wives and youngsters and oldsters. But although Ruffin’s characters are common, his books are not. In his stories, every sentence is honed and tight and true, the stories brutal and honest and harrowing.
“Very old laws govern Ruffin’s fictional world, and he puts them dazzlingly on display. His work makes that of Flannery O’Connor and Chris Offutt seem tame by comparison.
“In America, there’s no sharpshooting short story writer better.”
Ruffin says that he knew that the article was coming out but that he didn’t know exactly what Williamson was going to say about him until he saw the English version of the piece.
“It’s a rather long article,” Ruffin says, “and Williamson has some pretty unkind words to say about some of my contemporaries. I’m certainly glad that he likes my work.”
In addition to serving as the American literature specialist for Transfuge, Williamson is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle and the Associate Editor of American Book Review.
Williamson’s first book, East Bay Grease, published by St. Martin’s Press, was a highly successful commercial novel in this country and will soon be released as a movie.
“Eric’s agent,” explains Ruffin, “placed East Bay Grease with a French publisher, and his career really took off over there. They have since released two more of his books, with another planned for publication.
“The Editor of Transfuge really loves Williamson’s work and respects his opinion of American writers, so he hired him to write pieces on American authors for each issue. He has written articles for the magazine on Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Updike, Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Pynchon, Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Alice Walker, etc.
“And sometimes he’ll drop the hammer on a writer. For example, he writes of Joyce Carol Oates: ‘We hypothesize that if you chop her head off, her torso will remain sitting upright in its chair, and it will keep on writing, perhaps even faster than before, unencumbered by a brain. Soon, like Updike, Oates will be a shade. Having written no single great book, her works will go out of print, library copies will turn to dust, and she will vanish from human memory.’ And of Fitzgerald: ‘Writers don’t read the hack: they have better things to do with their time, like pick their toes. Whatever influence Fitzgerald once held in American letters recedes and fades like an ugly memory of a childhood sickness.’ On Updike: ‘It will be different in heaven, where Updike reckoned he was going. There Mistah Updike will find nothing but perfect books. I hope Updike has to read them all, especially his own—over and over again—bored out of his mind for eternity, a divine and just reward for squandering his linguistic skills on perfection.’
“He told me that I was the least-known American author he’s ever written about. Again, I’m really glad that he likes my stuff.”
Williamson was first introduced to Ruffin’s work when the Houston Chronicle sent him a copy of Islands, Women, and God to review. He wrote a long, glowing review of the book, concluding with the observation that “Surely Ruffin will be remembered as one of the greatest writers of his generation.”
“From that point on,” Ruffin says, “Williamson has praised my work every chance he gets. He always wants copies of my new books of fiction, and he sees that they are reviewed in good places. He pushed Jesus in the Mist with the National Books Critics Circle; and though it didn’t win their fiction award for that year, it was a finalist.
“These days, more than ever before, a writer needs some sort of break. The best writers are not likely to get anywhere without them, and some of the worst writers make it to the top because of them. Williamson could very well be my break. He’s an advocate for my fiction—he believes in it—and he’s spreading the word about it.”
Though how much good will come of the French article remains to be seen, Ruffin says, “It’s already boosting my writing career. A new American agent just e-mailed, wanting to take on my work, and Williamson is hooking me up with his French agent. Better than that news is that a French publisher has bought a story of mine, “The Interloper,” for the Noir Anthology, and they are talking in terms of releasing translations of a minimum of two of my books, one of them probably my first novel, Pompeii Man, which is set in New Orleans. They think that the French will really go for what one reviewer called “a disturbing erotic thriller.” We’re also discussing the possibility of their putting together my Selected Stories, choosing the best pieces from each collection. Once they publish the book over there, my agent will have a much better chance of landing it with a major house over here. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”
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April 28, 2009
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Brian Domitrovic, assistant professor of history, appeared on Book TV (C-SPAN) May 1-2, speaking about his recent book "Econoclasts: The Rebels Sparked the Supply Side Revolution and Restored American Prosperity" (www.econoclasts.net).
Houston Chronicle education writer Jeannie Kever recently turned to Regents Professor of English Paul Ruffin for his views on university presses moving toward "digital books" as opposed to traditional ink-on-paper."We're fulfilling the ancient role of the university press, and that is to produce books," said Paul Ruffin, the Texas poet laureate for 2009 and director of the Texas Review Press at Sam Houston State University. "I don't want to give up the book because it is an art."
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