Saturday, 6 November 2010

"A sweetly vicious old lady" - writers on writers

Today I thought I would post for your delectation a favourite article of mine from the "award-winning author" Arthur T. Vanderbilt. Enjoy the bitchiness of writers on other writers...
We're all Connected

It's pretty well conceded that writing can't be taught. Nevertheless, aspiring writers-and indeed, most writers-need the help of other writers to make the publishing process work. Unfortunately, that help is rarely forthcoming.

To be sure, there are bright examples of authors who have lent a helping hand. Ezra Pound performed major surgery on T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Hemingway sat at the feet of Gertrude Stein, drinking her natural distilled liqueurs made "from purple plums, yellow plums or wild raspberries" and eating her cakes and learning "the wonderful rhythms in prose." Fitzgerald wrote to his editor, Max Perkins: "This is to tell you about a young man named Ernest Hemingway, who lives in Paris (an American), writes for the Transatlantic Review and has a brilliant future."

Malcolm Cowley, then a junior editor at The New Republic, advised the still teenaged John Cheever: "Tomorrow, write a story of one thousand words. Sunday, write another, and Monday write another, three and a half pages, and do the same thing on Tuesday. Bring them all in on Wednesday and I'll see if I can't get you some money."

Dashiell Hammett helped Lillian Hellman with her first play. Booth Tarkington sat with his friend Kenneth Roberts evening after evening, helping him edit his books rather than "playing backgammon and getting beaten most of the time." John Barth taught for forty years "out of my attachment to university life and the pleasures of coaching a small group of selected advanced apprentices." James Michener donated generously to graduate writing schools and programs that support aspiring writers.

Such examples of one writer helping another shine like beacons through the dark, dismal night of author envy. "Writers today seldom wish other writers well," Saul Bellow once noted. William Wycherly was a little more direct: "Poets, like whores, are only hated by each other."

Ah, now we're getting there! He might well have expanded his aphorism to include not just poets, but all writers. With their special talents, they often turn this curious hatred into an art form on which they lavish more attention than on their writing.

Truman Capote was an easy mark. "Truman Capote has made lying an art," mused Gore Vidal, "a minor art." Tennessee Williams opined that "I think you judge Truman a bit too charitably when you call him a child: he is more like a sweetly vicious old lady." To Katherine Anne Porter he was nothing but "the pimple on the face of American literature."

But Truman himself was a master of the cat fight, and sharpened his claws on each of his contemporaries:
  • On Saul Bellow: "I've known Saul Bellow since the very beginning of Saul Bellow and I think he's a dull man and a dull writer. Saul Bellow is a nothing writer."
  • Philip Roth: "quite funny in a living room but forget it."
  • Richard Malamud: "Unreadable."
  • James Michener: "He's never written anything that would remotely interest me. Why on earth would I be interested in reading a book called Chesapeake?"
  • Gore Vidal: "Gore has never written anything that anybody will remember. Talk about fifty years from today, they won't remember it ten years from its last paperback edition. See, Gore has literally never written a masterpiece."
  • John Updike: "I hate him. Everything about him bores me."
  • Joyce Carol Oates: "She's a joke monster who ought to be beheaded in a public auditorium or in Shea or in a field with hundreds of thousands. To see her is to loathe her. To read her is to absolutely vomit."
Truman Capote used the forum of the "The Tonight Show" to ridicule Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls; at the time it was getting as much attention as his In Cold Blood. Susann, on her next appearance, rolled out her best Truman Capote impersonation. Capote then let it be known that he believed that Susann looked "like a truck driver in drag," whereupon Susann threatened to sue him for one million dollars. "She was told she had better drop that law-suit," Capote cackled, "because all they had to is bring ten truck drivers into court and put them on the witness stand and you've lost your case. Because she did look like a truck driver in drag!"

Capote, of course, did not originate this black art form, any more than he did the non-fiction novel. The habit of insulting one's fellow writers has been practiced for centuries and has even been known to bring out a writer's best skills. Plutarch lambasted Aristophanes, whose language, he said, "reeks of his miserable quackery: it is made up of the lowest and most miserable puns; he doesn't even please the people, and to men of judgment and honor, he is intolerable; his arrogance is insufferable, and all honest men detest his malice."

Lord Byron had a few choice comments on the work of John Keats: "Such writing is mental masturbation - he is always frigging his Imagination. I don't mean he's indecent, but viciously soliciting his own ideas into a state, which is neither poetry nor anything else but a Bedlam vision produced by raw pork and opium."

George Bernard Shaw was never one to beat around the bush: "With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise William Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his."
Read the whole article on the PageOne literary newsletter website.

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