Remembering Austin Wright

Years after enjoying a moderate success in the States, Austin Wright’s Tony and Susan, a disturbing but beautifully written novel, is enjoying quite a success in the UK. I wish Austin were alive to see this happening. He was one of my favorite professors in grad school, and in his role as director of graduate studies a compassionate mentor.  Everyone in my graduate program was fascinated by the difference between the impression he gave in the classroom and the one he gave in his books. He had quite an internal life. Outwardly, gentle, tweedy and professorial, inwardly obviously deeply passionate and intrigued by the suffering we cause one another.

In his seminar, The Formal Principle in the Novel, I first realized that most novels do have organic forms that echo the underlying exploration or mystery.  One of the most valuable lessons I received in grad school.

Thanks, Austin.

3 Comments on “Remembering Austin Wright

  1. Emma,

    Could you expand on what you (and Wright) mean by novels having an organic form that echoes the underlying mystery? I like the idea that form echoes content–as an art historian, I learned that in grad school. But I’m not sure what it means when it comes to novels, especially to writing them.



    • As I was walking along the lake just now I thought, uh oh, that was a loaded post, and now I hope that Austin’s book (with my notes) isn’t in the storage unit. But it’s probably better if I answer in light of my own experience writing over 15 novels rather than returning to my grad student notes. I’ll ponder this today and write another post. Thanks for the question, Lisa. I’d love to hear more about it in relation to art, perhaps in response to my forthcoming thoughts.

      Emma (though Austin knew me as Candace)


      • A longer post on the topic will have to wait, because I started rereading *The Formal Principle in the Novel* and now want to wait until I’ve finished to post about it. But here’s a brief response to Lisa’s query. In the last chapter (which I reread first!) Austin stepped aside from his literary critic persona and talked about his own process as a novelist, riffing off R. S. Crane’s phrase the intuition of a form. “Thus writing seems to confirm the theory of form,” Austin wrote, because he felt when something belonged, when it didn’t, and his choices changed as he wrote, as the form became clearer in the process. It confirmed for him “the theoretical importance of the formal principle, conceived as a principle of ordering, of relevance, of interconnectedness–a principle of the first importance.” It was interesting to read that just before a discussion with my editor regarding the second draft of my current work in progress. We were talking in terms of what fits, what doesn’t, which scenes belong, which muddy the waters.

        When revising *The King’s Mistress* I told my editor that as I read through the draft I was sensing it as a musical composition, listening for the wrong key, an inappropriate tempo. I think Austin’s describing much the same thing.

        I hope this is useful!


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