The Godfather: Peter Corris on writers about writers
With notable exceptions – Ian Fleming’s fulsome praise (to his face) of Raymond Chandler in a 1958 BBC broadcast interview, for example – writers are not usually particularly generous to each other. It’s a competitive business with everyone, as it were, fighting for space.
Chandler, who engaged in a mutual admiration exchange with Fleming on that occasion, was not usually the most charitable of men. He wrote in a letter that he’d heard of writers who set themselves a certain numbers of words per day and that he took great care to avoid their books.
The greatest put-down of one American writer by another was Truman Capote’s judgement on Jack Kerouac’s writing of On the Road on a roll of paper rather than individual sheets: ‘That’s not writing,’ Capote said, ‘that’s typing.’
Gore Vidal’s comment on Capote’s early death through drugs and alcohol – though Capote’s work was admittedly in severe decline – could scarcely be equalled for bitchiness: ‘A good career choice,’ Vidal said.
British writers have often been severe. Samuel Johnson’s characterisation of the work of some 17th-century poets (he coined the name ‘metaphysical poets’) as ‘heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together’ was intended as a savage denunciation, whereas today it is used to point to the strength, the muscularity, as critics say, of the verse of that period.
In his The Crowning Privilege: Collected essays on poetry (1970), Robert Graves made a case for Dylan Thomas’s poem ‘If My Head Hurt a Hair’s Foot’ being gibberish, while he also demonstrated that many of Ezra Pound’s translations were childishly inaccurate.
FR Leavis’s judgement on CP Snow’s 1959 lecture ‘The Two Cultures’ in a lecture of his own in 1962 spared nothing:
Snow is, of course, no, I can’t say that he isn’t – he thinks he is a novelist … As a novelist he doesn’t exist; he doesn’t begin to exist. He can’t be said to know what a novel is.
Leavis went on to say that he believed Snow’s books were written by an electronic brain named Charlie, into which the chapter headings were fed.
Australian writers haven’t held back. Notoriously, in 1956 poet AD Hope described Patrick White’s novel of that year, The Tree of Man, as ‘verbal sludge’. In a Bulletin article in 1962, MH Ellis took historian Manning Clark to task for mistakes in dates and other details in the first volume of his A History of Australia (1962). Ellis’s review was headed ‘History Without Facts’. Both White and Clark survived the assaults.
Clive James’s witty poem ‘The Book of my Enemy Has Been Remaindered’, though probably not directed at a particular writer, perfectly captures the feeling: ‘The book of my enemy has been remaindered/And I am glad.’
It still goes on, of course. When my friend Michael Wilding and I get together for an occasional lunch, we discuss writers past and present, sometimes favourably, sometimes not. I remember remarking on a book by a well-known Australian novelist about a fairly abstract subject, ‘It’s hard to imagine,’ I began, ‘him having a deep and detailed knowledge of …’
‘Of anything,’ Wilding said.
Harsh perhaps, but all’s fair in books and writing.