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Stories from chicken pluckers

By Marjorie CoeymanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 28, 1980

New York

In 1931, Whit Burnett, then a young American journalist posted in Vienna, decided the literary world needed a new market for the short story. To provide one, he began his own magazine.

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When he retired 40 years later he could boast that his magazine, Story, had for four decades collected, published, and encouraged material from some of the best of contemporary writers.

J. D. Salinger, Joseph Heller, William Saroyan, Norman Mailer, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Carson McCullers were among the young writers who found their first paying market in Story.

Norman Mailer, a young writer when Story was at its best and most influential , remembers Whit Burnett as "a legend."

"And his magazine, Story," Mailer writes, "was its own legend, and young writers in the late '30s and the years of the Second World War used to dream of appearing in its pages about the way a young rock group might feel transcendent in these hours with the promise of a spread in Rolling Stone."

At the same time, Burnett taught a creative writing course at Columbia University. His class rosters included such names as J. D. Salinger, Carson McCullers, and Mary O'Hara.

Recently, Whit Burnett's widow, Hallie Burnett, who served as co-editor of Story for 30 years and is a writer herself, published "The Fiction Writer's Handbook" (Harper & Row), taken from her husband's classroom notes. This handbook, intended as a guide to would-be writers, is full of reminiscences, notes on the experiences of various authors, comments on writing by writers of all eras and genres, and examples from the working lives of Hallie and Whit themselves.

"No one knows exactly what makes a writer," Hallie Burnett comments. "But often an editor or someone with experience in the field can help. A quality of belief is important, a sense that what one is doing is important. That's why writers' conferences can be useful. They can give the young writer confidence.

"I taught at Sarah Lawrence for four years, and it was interesting to watch some of the young women develop as writers. Sometimes a writer would appear quite talented when actually she was just very imitative. One can't go too far on that. And then once there was a girl who seemed to have no talent at all -- until she fell in love. After that she began writing beautiful things."

It seems that the world is full of would-be writers. "While editing Story we would get about 1,000 manuscripts a week," Hallie Burnett recollects. "Maybe a third would be really worth reading."

There was a teen-ager from Louisiana who would send Story a manuscript almost every week. Although none of these quite succeeded, Mrs. Burnett felt there was something fresh and promising about the writing, and she encouraged the boy to go on trying. Finally, he produced "This Side of the Matter," a story that Hallie liked and published, the boy's first published work. His name was Truman Capote.

"It's the infinite pains that make an author," she says. "We would see things by young people who had much talent, but were unwilling to accept criticism. They were afraid of losing their 'gem' by making changes. A writer should be tough enough to hear suggestions."

Whit Burnett never failed to confront writers with his candid reactions to their works. "Whit's total honesty made him the great editor he was," his widow and co-editor recalls. "Once I heard him critiquing something of Mary O'Hara's [author of "My Friend Flicka"], and I reprimanded him for being so harsh. Mary instantly turned around and reprimanded me,m saying that Whit's frankness was the reason she trusted him as an editor."

When J. D. Salinger, reclusive author of "Catcher in the Rye," was a student of Burnett's at Columbia, he spent most of the class time gazing out the window, but apparently heard enough to come to like and respect Burnett. He wrote Whit Burnett 65 letters while overseas as a serviceman, and sent him many stories as well.