A Few Choice Words

THERE'S a parlor game that literary folk sometimes play: How many of the abundance of titles being produced by contemporary writers, they speculate, will be remembered 50 years from now?

John Updike, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, Gore Vidal, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth -- if history is any guide, most of their words will fall away. Among the prolific Victorians, the only one with an ample number of works readily available is Dickens. But of the 17 volumes in one standard edition of Thackeray, who cares about any other than Vanity Fair? George Gissing wrote at least two dozen books, but only New Grub Street has really lasted.

Quantity, then, is no key to survival. Which brings us to Grace Paley, who seems as likely to survive as any of the big guys but who, comparatively, has published almost nothing at all.

You could take The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) and Later the Same Day (1985), her three books of fiction, combine them into one omnibus volume, and it would still be shorter than your average Vidal or Mailer novel. Yet while most books from 1985 -- to say nothing of '74 or '59 -- are already forgotten, Paley's remain in print.

"I am ambitious, but it's a long-range thing with me," says the narrator in an early story, "The Promise." "I have my confidential sights on a star, but there's half a lifetime to get to it. Meanwhile I keep my eyes open and am well dressed."

In person, Paley -- who will be reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library this Friday as part of the PEN/Faulkner series (tickets and information: 202-544-7077) -- won't even claim that much. "I don't have a professional ambition," she says over a bagel in Baltimore, where she is teaching for a semester. Writing is "something that I've done all my life, sometimes well and sometimes not so well. When I don't do it well, I don't see any need to publish it. It doesn't mean anything to me to have another book, with stories I can't stand behind."

Think how many fewer books there would be out there -- books that, in all probability, would never be missed -- if everyone had that attitude. But her lack of ambition got Paley into a bit of trouble with her parents.

"They were simply sick about my attitude. I didn't fulfill the childhood promises, as they say. There was this business of how are you going to make a living, what are you going to do? If you're going to go to business school, you've got to learn how to type. If that's what you want to do, you don't want to be a doctor, don't want to use your brain, too bad. But you've got to do something . . . Not to be married was also very bad. If you're a woman, how do you leave home if you don't get married?"

So she got hitched early, in 1942 when she was 20. "They were relieved at that." She also had two children, which determined some of the themes of her fiction -- if not its distinctive voice.

In "A Subject of Childhood," a single mother refuses to let her son lean out an apartment window: "How could I permit it? If he should fall, everyone would think I had neglected them, drinking beer in the kitchen or putting eye cream on at the vanity table behind closed doors. Besides, I would be bereaved forever. My grandmother mourned all her days for some kid who'd died of earache at the age of five. All the other children, in their own municipal-pension and federal-welfare years, gathered to complain at her deathside when she was 91 and heard her murmur, 'Oh, oh, Anita, breathe a little, try to breathe, my little baby.' "

Her first book has a subtitle, Stories of Women and Men at Love. Invariably, when people refer to this, the Men comes before the Women. When it was first put into paperback, the publisher even rearranged the order. "It's funny when people don't look when they have certain phrases or cliches in their mind. My writing it that way was unconscious feminism, and the publisher switching it was unconscious sexism on their part."

In the '60s, the feminism moved to the forefront. Much earlier, when she was a teenager during the Spanish Civil War, she had first become political and gotten involved in demonstrations. She's hard at work now protesting the Persian Gulf War. You'd think she would be a little fatigued with it all by now.

"I have an optimistic nature," she says. "Or, I wouldn't say that. I wouldn't call it hopeful, but I would call it . . . I don't know, energetic or lively. I'm not going to fall asleep at the switch, is what I mean. But I'm not stupid either. This idea that the other side isn't going to fight back is dopey."

What she also finds particularly stupid is the widespread idea that "once you're a democracy, you don't have to do anything. So you have a First Amendment, and for that reason alone you don't have to use it. It's like the end product is to get it. And then have an election every four years . . . People have to more and more understand they have to act." Prize Economics THERE ARE two ways a literary prize can be taken seriously: in prestige and in money. Since it takes a while to establish the first, it helps to bestow hefty amounts of the second.

Admittedly, this doesn't always work. The Rea Award for the Short Story, started five years ago, is taken seriously by few, even though the money is bountiful: $25,000. Yet it carries little cachet, perhaps because it seems designed to reward most of all its founder, Michael Rea.

All those involved with the newly created Lincoln Prize, for best Civil War scholarship, hope it will have more impact. On Feb. 9 at Gettysburg College, academics Robert Bruce and James McPherson and columnist/novelist Tom Wicker gave the first Lincoln to the PBS series "The Civil War."

Ironically, a $50,000 award that had been set up to reward relatively impoverished historians was won the first time out by a filmmaker who, if nothing else, is easily a millionaire by virtue of his share of royalties on the tremendously successful companion book. (Burns said he would give his prize money to the technicians on the series.)

Next year, it is probable that the Lincoln will go to a book. Then there will be a more marked contrast with the big-name awards for historians: the Pulitzer, Bancroft and Parkman. These are of great stature, but even if you won all three you wouldn't take home a fifth of what you'd get with a Lincoln.

That's the point, says award cofounder Lewis Lehrman. In his campaign against Mario Cuomo for the 1982 New York governorship, Lehrman attracted a good deal of publicity -- and nearly won the race -- as a supply-sider, an advocate of the then-fashionable economic theory that lowering taxes will free up money for investment, which in turn will increase productivity.

This time around, the financier has turned to more direct means to raise productivity: cash. "Scholars often work a lifetime to produce a great work which never receives sufficient compensation. In a commercial society, the rewards for great scholarship should be financial as well as psychic," he says, adding that he hopes the lure of a Lincoln will be an incentive in encouraging Civil War scholarship. Self-Portrait THOMAS SULLY wouldn't have been popular with today's publishers: He firmly refused to make his autobiography a kiss-and-tell. In the preface to Memoirs of the Professional Life of Thomas Sully, dated Philadelphia 1851, Sully states that his primary purpose is to offer hints to his fellow painters, although "some meagre notices of personal affairs are occasionally given."

A sample passage: "I have heard {Gilbert} Stuart say that he considered the nose as the most important feature in portrait painting. I am sorry to differ in opinion from so great {a} master, but my experience does not prove it to be so. I believe the mouth to be the most important feature."

Okay, so it's not sexy. What deserves notice is how the 70-page bound manuscript, by an artist considered the best American portrait painter of his time, suddenly reappeared nearly a century and a half after it was written.

It began with a Baltimore safe deposit box. The lease had expired, and the material inside had been unclaimed for five years. The state, as part of its regular practice, arranged for the contents to be auctioned off.

This happens to several hundred Maryland safe deposit boxes a year, sometimes after someone dies without informing his heirs as to its existence, sometimes because they move away and simply forget about the silver or the pins or the jewelry or the gold-plated cigarette case they had secured. It doesn't happen very often with a manuscript, though.

The Sully memoirs weren't disposed of in quite the normal fashion. Before an auction is set, the state runs a newspaper listing advising the box's owner as to its fate. In this case the owner -- a descendant of the painter -- stepped forward. He decided to let the material be auctioned anyway.

On Feb. 2, it was. Beforehand, Fred J. Winer, head of the auction house of the same name, was asked about the literary merits of the manuscript. "This isn't something I'd curl up with on a Saturday night," he said, "but maybe a Thursday night." The hammer went down at $5,000, with the winning bidder Delaware's Winterthur Museum. Says a pleased Richard McKinstry, manuscript librarian: "It's an important document for understanding Sully's thought and the artists of his time. Things can turn up in very unexpected places, and this is one of them." On the Road "I SURVIVE damn well without the reporters, you know? I don't need them. They intrude on me." President Nixon at his most beleaguered? No, the speaker was an eminent literary figure out on a book-promotion tour -- a writer whose two most recent books, as it happens, are largely compilations of interviews themselves.

But then V.S. Naipaul takes pleasure in going against the grain. For more than three decades, he's written novels and travel books, usually set in what used to be called the Third World. Recently his reputation has slipped a bit, partly due to the mixed reception accorded his two latest books, the just-published India: A Million Mutinies Now and A Turn in the South (1989). Perhaps this accounts for his extreme touchiness on the subject of the media.

A Turn in the South, his first full-length work set in the United States, "got very, very foolish reviews from racialist people," Naipaul says angrily.

Actually, the criticism of that book involved not so much Naipaul's treatment of race as what some perceived as its slackness, a refusal to render judgments or do much more than transcribe conversations. The old fire, which had fueled such works as Among the Believers (1981) and India: A Wounded Civilization (1977), seemed to be gone.

He's still got plenty of anger for the press, however. "Why should I see these people? Why does one want to see people who don't read one's work? One's very serious. One's spent 35 years writing this work. It isn't something you read a file and then just write rubbish about."

The reason writers submit to interviews, of course, is to help sell their books. A Turn in the South had one printing of 35,000. That's a respectable number but the book didn't sell well, and you could soon pick up copies for $6.98 on the remainder tables. It's doubtful the book earned back its advance, which is perhaps why Naipaul has a new publisher and is embarked, yes, on a publicity tour.