Forever Saroyan Presents - Three Times Three: Introduction
Transcript prepared using Otter.Ai
Welcome to Forever Saroyan Presents: Three Times Three, with your host, Christopher J. Garcia.
In this 10-part series, we'll look at Three Times Three, William Saroyan's 1936 collection published by the Conference Press in 10 episodes, nine on the individual stories and their introductions, and this episode which will look at the book Introduction and preface, as well as how the book came to be.
To really understand Three Times Three, we have to understand where William Saroyan was in 1936, and that also requires us to look at where literature was. Let's go back to roughly 1900.
The turn of the 20th century led to growth in magazine publishing. While the short form had been popular dating back to the earliest days of American writing, by 1900, magazine publication had become much cheaper. New types of paper, printing, as well as a large number of people trained to do so, meant that publication was less expensive, meaning that smaller magazines and smaller teams could actually publish. This led to the rise of the 'littles' magazines that were usually run by one or two people on very low budgets. Since they had low budgets, they often had to rely on new and young writers. This led to some of the earliest writings of some of the major important figures in American modernism, including Hemingway and Faulkner, both published in the Double Dealer.
Modernism had flashed across first England, later, France, Russia and elsewhere, but eventually came to the US with authors such as Carl Sandburg, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway Faulkner, and of course, Sherwood Anderson, a major influence on Saroyan. The rise of magazines that were coming out at that time, both 'littles' and more traditional happened in several different phases. Literary magazines such as The Criterion and Reader's Digest gave more sources and sites for authors to publish. The American Mercury, The Atlantic, Harper's, and especially The New Yorker opened up the world to the short story which was a very popular form. The New Yorker in particular influenced a generation of magazines focused on providing a view of a specific city or region. Magazines such as Inland Topics, out of Chicago, and The Coast where Saroyan published several pieces, attempted to bring The New Yorker concept to new areas and give a regional flavor to their publication. All this meant that there were more places to publish short fiction, and when you have a greater abundance of places where things can be published, you find new writers who need to fill those gaps.
William Saroyan began writing in the 1920s, including attempting to publish a novel-length work called Follow, which wouldn't be published until almost 80 years later. He found his first publications in 1928, starting with The San Franciscan, another regional magazine based in San Francisco. He later appeared in boulevardier and then most famously, in Overland Magazine, overland had been founded by Bret Harte in the 1870s and published many of the most important writers of California. Saroyan’s most important work of that period was “Portrait of a Bum” which appeared in Overland. This established him as a rising literary star and allowed him to get more work published in more publications.
By the early 1930s, he was regularly publishing in some of the top and midstream magazines. The publication of “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” in Story Magazine, led to the most important breakthrough of his career, the publication of his first collection, The Daring You Man on the Flying Trapeze and other stories in 1934. This collection was an absolute eye-opener as to what Saroyan would be doing with the rest of his career. Here you can see the early form of what it's called ‘Saroyanesque’ writing. It is writing that is both ultimately hopeful, with a positive view of humanity at the same time as being rather cynical about the role of society. This fit in beautifully with the ideas of modernism while at the same time going against the rather dour view that most people had about modernism at the time. This was followed by his second collection, Inhale and Exhale, published by Random House. This massive collection published many of the most important works of Saroyan’s career and certainly established him as one of the biggest stars in writing. This collection was so large when it was published by Faber and Faber in the UK, it had to be broken into two parts.
When 1936 came, Saroyan was a big enough star that he could work in Hollywood, and he went to write for the pictures. It was in 1936 when the first important step towards Three Times Three would take place.
There are two origin stories that are out there about the Conference Press. This is the one that is published in Three Times Three, written by William Saroyan –
“Four young men, Edward Babigian, a countryman of mine, Gilbert Harrison, William Okie and Howie Levy from the University of California, Los Angeles came to visit me one afternoon in November 1936, at Ben Schulberg’s, in Hollywood, where I was writing stuff for possible use in motion pictures. And one of them wondered what if American publishers suddenly decided not to publish my stuff. I said, I would bust out laughing and publish the stuff myself. I said, There's nothing magic about writers or writing and nothing magic about anything else, including publishers and publishing. All you do no matter what you do, is do what you figure you want to do. This is a big world, and more than half of everything is phony. Who the hell are publishers? I'm a publisher myself. I'm in the mood. The students thought about this for a moment. Then one of them said, How about letting us publish something of yours? And I said, Fine. I'll give you a story tonight. We hemmed and hawed little, and well, we were hemming and hawing. My subconscious mind, which is one of the swiftest moving subconscious minds of our time, came to the conclusion that this was an excellent thing to do. First, we thought of printing only one piece, I kept thinking of the unpublished pieces I had lying around. Then we decided to print one fairly long piece and several shorter pieces, I thought it'd be a pity to leave out such and such a piece and then I remembered another piece and thought it would be a pity to leave it out. In less than six minutes, we decided to publish a book, we selected a color, black, for the cover. We founded a company, Conference Press, and we decided on a publication date - December 10, 1936. On and off, I wondered if I shouldn't win a prize with a book the William Saroyan Memorial Prize for 1936 $50,000, perhaps $500,000. Just for color, red. Several days later, my associates had stationery printed and wrote their fall catalog, and I found a title for the book, Three Times Three, and as much as there would probably be nine pieces in the book. Three times three is nine.”
This almost magical story is perhaps a slightly more colorful version of what was published in a 1940 prospectus from the Conference Press.
“Once upon a time there were three young college boys who liked the way Williams Saroyan wrote. One day they left the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles and drove across town to a Hollywood studio, where Saroyan was writing for pictures. Saroyan was very cordial, and for half an hour, the four young men, Saroyan was but a couple of years older than his admirers, talked about William Saroyan and writing in general and the prospects for the UCLA football team. Soon the talk switched to publishing and before anyone was quite sure what had happened, the three college boys had formed a publishing house and Saroyan had agreed to give them enough stories to make a book. The Conference Press was born and Saroyan, bored with Hollywood, was getting to have another book published. A few hectic weeks followed Saroyan as the first of four conference press vice presidents, there was no president, helped read galley proofs in the print shop, ate ice cream pie at the nearby drugstore, and sing baritone and the quartet of embryonic publishers that drove in the early mornings. The three college boy publishers starting from scratch with absolutely no knowledge of the publishing business soon found themselves learning by the fast and sometimes bitter method of firsthand first-time experience. That first meeting in Saroyan's office was on November 12. On December 12, the book was in bookstores ready to be sold. The first book was really a collegiate Lark. Now we are out of college working on our second book and planning the ones to follow.”
The basic elements of both stories are the same. The minor exceptions, of course, being Babigian completely excluded from the later note, as well as some of the back and forth that seemed to have happened with the group. Certainly, Saroyan was presented as a major part of the company, although it does not seem to have been very active after this first initial work of Three Times Three. For certain, one interesting aspect is that the 1940 prospectus, four years after the release of Three Times Three, mentioned their second book, which would be the Gertrude Stein book that they published. Four years without publishing anything isn't a great rate for most groups, but these three college boys were trying to get through In college.
The introduction largely deals with the book itself, and the contents of the book are highly important. One note is about what he wanted to include a play called Subway Circus. From the introduction -
Harrison said that's what we'd like to talk to you about. We'd prefer if you leave Subway Circus, too. You mean the play or the title, I said. The play, he said. It's a great play, I said, it's got to be in the book. I don't think it's great. He said, I think it's lousy. Everyone who's read it thinks it's lousy, I said, Are you sure? Yes. He said, I always thought it was a great play. I said, maybe it is he said, I think it's lousy. The only part in it that's great is the part where the society lady says Naples stinks. I felt pretty badly about subway circuits not being a great play to anyone who read it except me. But I am willing to be mistaken. Nevertheless, as second vice president of the firm, I demanded a vote. I voted yes. Gil Harrison voted no. Bill Okie voted no. Hal Levy said he hadn't read the play. That's all right. I said, take my word for it, It's great, vote yes. He wouldn't do it. He's only fourth vice president, but he said he wouldn't vote yes until he had read the play. I asked George Auerbach if he wouldn't vote yes. He wasn't a member of the firm and he hadn't read the play, but I thought he might say yes anyhow. The other vice presidents of the firm said that George couldn't vote because he wasn't a member of the firm. So the play was voted out of the book. Levy then mentioned that there would be a second Conference Press book entitled The Collected Worst Works of William Saroyan, which would include Subway Circus.
The introduction was about the creation of the book itself, while the preface deals with Saroyan expressing what it means to be William Saroyan. And at this point, Saroyan may see himself as more of a writer that has a person. Some have even gone so far as to think that perhaps he saw himself as one of his own characters. Strikingly postmodern if you think about it.
The goal of this preface is immediately stated by Saroyan -
In this little preface, all I want to do is explain everything to everybody.
And in a way he does.
He certainly goes into the aspects of how he writes, without going into the technicalities of how he writes, partly because he rejects the technical aspects of his writing, in order to view it as a form of play.
I have never enjoyed working, I do not believe in work. I believe no man in the world enjoys working. I believe no man in the world should work. To work meaning to do something you do not want to do. This reason, the organizing of workers internationally strikes me as being one of the most pathetic tragic and comic event in the history of man. The activities of man on Earth by nature were meant to be activities of play, of ease and improvisation. Geniuses play and man's capacity for achieving genius is infinite, and man may achieve genius only through play. To me, the activity of writing is, has been and always will be the most efficient means by which to be able to laugh at about anything.
This statement stands in stark contrast to how writing has been viewed traditionally, and even today, you're seeing writers whose writing about their works, particularly blogging, podcasting and so forth, reflects the idea that writing as a job is equal in measures to working any job and that idea is somewhat controversial still, because most writers don't spend all day lifting logs for example, but it does come across that Saroyan was more interested in writing as a way of enjoying himself on the page. This comes across very, very obviously, in most of his writing, particularly in his early writings.
Saroyan was always looking for a way to express what he felt or he saw in the world through his stories. Often this took the place of first-person narratives. This also led to one of the often asked questions about Ryan's work. Did this really happen? Is the main character William Saroyan? These questions are far more difficult to answer. In many cases, yes, the character is 100% William Saroyan, even stated to be in the stories. Other times it's a gray area. It's fair to say that many of the things he wrote happened to him in a way. The comparison between the two origin stories for the book sort of showing how Saroyan might go into slightly more narrative focus ways of telling a story that actually happened. He addresses this also in the preface.
I'm aware as anyone else in the world that what we have here is not exactly the short story, but something else. I knew this when I was writing these pieces, and I wrote them, I believed it might be all right. And if it were not all right, it would be all right. Anyway. I know also, that many of the pieces in this books are about myself, I wrote every piece in this book, and was there every minute of that time, I regret that unlike many other American producers of commodities, I cannot guarantee my product. I can guarantee, however, that what we have here is loosely speaking a book, and that the pieces of this book are written in the American version of the English tongue, I cannot guarantee that this book will not bore anybody.
That comes in a very interesting point for William Saroyan. At this point, he was still an immediately rising star who'd been in the business for roughly eight years, but really only had three years of significant success. His view is to attempt to bring voice to an idea of what he saw as the common man, who in this case was himself, to the rest of the world, always hoping to find a new way to latch on to the view of the reader, but he also realized, as with his view of Subway Circus and how it was taken by the rest of the Conference Press vice presidents, that his view was not necessarily universal. This strange back and forth between his understanding that he is writing work that is applicable to everyone in the world, while at the same time being separated from it by his own view of his own work, writes a tension that shows throughout his later writing, when he was doing memoir.
By the end of his career, Saroyan would become one of the most famous Americans, period. His writing evolved like all writing does, and at times some would say he evolved as well, but here in Three Times Three, we see a selection of stories that express a very particular time in his career. And while the stories are varied and apply varying degrees of Saroyanesque writing, they all express something that is very clear -he has much more to say, including the individual stories included.
As we go through these nine stories and their introductions, we'll be looking at how those stories tied to later stories in his career, how the moment in time that they're capturing capture something larger than the story itself, and most especially the techniques that William storing employees that at first may seem rather simple, but when viewed fully, are incredibly deep, complex and surprising.
Forever Saroyan Presents Three Times Three is written, performed and produced by Christopher J. Garcia. Forever Saroyan, LLC, was founded by Charles Janigian. Archivists are Chris Garcia, and Dori Myer. You can find more information on William Saroyan and the Saroyan-Minasian families on the Forever Saroyan website www.foreversaroyan.com.
Stay tuned for the next episode, The Man with the Heart in the Highlands. Thanks for listening.
Chris Garcia, Archivist - Forever Saroyan, LLC, September 13th, 2022, San Jose, CA