The Woeful World of Writer’s Writers

Before I launch out on this topic, I’d like to take a moment to try and explain exactly what writer’s writer is.  A writer’s writer is a writer whom a) writes fictional books that are studied closely by other fiction writers, b) inspires readers to become writers, and c) just as frequently inspires revulsion, apathy, or confusion in many other readers.  The interesting thing is, writer’s writers aren’t a subgroup or subgenre of literature–not in the sense that historical novels, chick lit, postmodernist experiments and so on are subsumed into literature.  Writer’s writers are closer to a parallel galaxy.

Think of it this way, often when you read essays about fiction by writer’s writers, you’ll come across references to other writer’s writers, but not too frequently will you read writer’s writers who mention writers who aren’t writer’s writers.  For instance, if you read through Martin Amis’s (a true writer’s writer) book of essays The War Against Cliche, you’ll come across many references to James Joyce (writer’s writer), Norman Mailer (let’s call writer’s writer w-w from now on), John Updike (w-w), and an unfavorable review of Brian Aldiss (a science-fiction w-w).  In many ways, we’re given a vision of a world that writers know about, but as readers we’re hovering on the outside, looking through a portal or rift into this literary world.

Many readers, feeling disenfranchized, will tend to regard w-w’s not with the same pleasure they regard each other with, but with overt antipathy.   So many w-w’s receive bad reviews, bad sales, and bad reputations, while writers who don’t much appeal to other writers so much as they engender knock-offs (I won’t name names here, but you can probably figure this out) often get undue amounts of praise and sales.  How do the w-w’s cope?  By secluding themselves more and more into the appreciative world of w-ws.  It’s clear then that not only is there a class-divide in literature (which I elaborate on somewhat here), but also an aesthetic divide.  I almost feel like Pete Seeger singing “Which side are you on, boy, which side are you on?”  If you want to see for yourself life on the other world, here are a few points of egress.

Henry James.  Henry James is the poster boy for w-ws.  Contemporary readers tend to either abhor his work or avoid it altogether.  Common complaints are that he’s too long-winded, too dry, too elitist, too boring, and that he’s sexist (this last claim isn’t entirely unfounded, but at least he gave his female characters prominent roles in his books, which is something a lot of classic books can’t boast–Moby Dick anyone?).  Among writers (with the exception of Hemingway), he was highly revered.  T.S. Eliot claimed Henry James was the most intelligent man of his generation.  Edith Wharton had such great love for Henry James that she had her publisher siphon some of her own royalties and put them into James’s account, so he’d think they were his during the years where he went underappreciated.  Virginia Woolf loved his books, and many of hers show that.  Cynthia Ozick is Henry James’s biggest supporter in America at the moment, having frequently written about him, as well as included him in a novella as a character (Dictation), as well as reworked his book The Ambassodors as Foreign Bodies.

James Joyce.  Here’s another w-w that readers frequently complain is showing off how smart he is.  Even Bob Dylan in his memoir Chronicles came to the same conclusion.  Some people have gone so far as to say that literature took a turn for the worse after Stephen Dedalus (hero of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) went to college.  James Joyce would have a very substantial influence on T.S. Eliot‘s The Wasteland, which in turn helped inspire Thomas Pynchon’s V.  In looser terms, Joyce inspired Ezra Pound, Joseph Campbell, Djuna Barnes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Updike, and Martin Amis.  To some readers, those names mean nothing; to other readers, those names mean everything.  That’s the w-w world for you.

Ford Madox Ford.  I plan to write a post about him in the future.  For now, I’ll point out that he’s a w-w that’s no longer read by writers.

Thomas Pynchon.  Interesting coincidence: while attending college, Thomas Pynchon, a w-w, took a class taught by the ultimate w-w Vladimir Nabokov.  Since then, Thomas Pynchon has gone on to greatly inspire a set of other artists diverse as Don Delillo, William Gibson, Zack Smith (a visual artist who created an image for every page of Gravity’s Rainbow), Zadie Smith (compare the last page of V. to the last page of her book White Teeth), and Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons, a show that shares a similar–if tamer–sort of subversive humor).  The extent of Pynchon’s influence on David Foster Wallace is hard to say.  So many people who read Wallace point out an affinity to Pynchon, but Wallace himself has denied this, going so far as to saying that he has read Pynchon, but found only a small amount (I think he said 15%) to be good.  Many readers who pick up Gravity’s Rainbow though are likely to demand a refund with disgust.

Saul Bellow.  In my opinion, Saul Bellow might very well be the greatest American writer of the twentieth century, but for all that, he’s also the most ostracized and overlooked.  I went to college for thee years studying literature and never heard his name mentioned by any professor, but could hardly go three minutes without hearing William Faulkner or J.D. Salinger mentioned.  His reputation now is that of a racist and a sexist, but the people who avow this I doubt have read much or any of his work.  What people don’t seem to understand is that Bellow doesn’t have a Utopian conception of the human mind, i.e. he has his male characters say and think and do things that are sexist, but only because that’s how the male mind works on same base level.  Likewise, his characters are sometimes racist because people are generally more racist than they’d like to admit.  The blurring of fact and fiction though was enough to have the idea of naming a street after him shot down, and to get him excluded too much from academic consideration, which is especially irksome because he was a professor.  Nevertheless, he went on to inspire Philip Roth, Martin Amis, Cynthia Ozick and just about anyone who took the time to read The Adventures of Augie March or Herzog.

Martin Amis.  The public blackballing of Martin Amis is similar to the rough treatment Saul Bellow’s posterity received.  Amis, like Bellow, has been frequently accused of being sexist towards women, when really, his books tend to be more damaging towards men.  For example, a lot of people call The Rachel Papers sexist towards women because the narrator, Clint Hightower, says so many bad things about women and treats them cruelly.  Clint though is by no means meant to be lovable.  He follows in the long tradition of untrustworthy narrators, although Amis’s style owes more to Nabokov than it does to James (the two big practitioners of duplicitous storytellers).  Anyone who bothers to read his newest (and best) book The Pregnant Widow will see just how he’s so opposed to chauvinism, and how he is in many ways a feminist.  Contemporary British fiction would be inconceivable without him.

Virginia Woolf.  The Oscar nominated film The Hours is an example of a film that, in the long run, hurt an author’s sale more than it helped.  I don’t have any statistics on this, but I can only guess that after seeing a movie depicting Woolf (played by Nicole Kidman) berating her servants, kissing her sister on the mouth, sniping at her husband, and killing herself in a pond, readers will hardly be incensed to go anxiously hit the shelves of bookstores for Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse.  So much of modern scholarship has made Woolf a celebrity instead of a writer.  People revere her for championing women’s rights, but don’t spend enough time reading her.  Scholars have basically aired her laundry to the whole world.  We can easily find examples of controversial and reproachable things that she did, i.e. criticising James Joyce not just as having poor taste but having a poor birth (she was quick to strut around her class standing), cheating on her husband several times with women, and making all too many anti-semitic remarks (even though her husband was Jewish).  What we don’t get though are reviews and essays praising her novels, her craft, her narrative experiments and the lush beauty of so much of her prose.

Cynthia Ozick.  Of the artists I’ve listed, Cynthia Ozick is the one who is the least reproachable but the most underappreciated.  I can’t think of a single scandal to affix to her name.  Her book The Shawl published about 20 years ago garnered much acclaim and critical praise, but so many of her newer offerings went unnoticed.  As I’ve complained elsewhere on Coreysbook, I had a surprisingly hard time finding her book Foreign Bodies the week it came out.  Ozick is an important figure in the world of w-ws because in many ways she’s their biggest defender.  In her essay collections, she’s written brilliant reviews of Woolf, Bellow, Joyce, James and many other w-ws I haven’t included on the list here.  I guess you could say she’s a writer for writer’s writers.

The world of the writer’s writer is a woeful one, it seems, as I’m certain most writers want to bring in a larger audience than just their friends, as they just as likely don’t wish to preach to the choir.  Maybe what it takes to spread news of the world of writer’s writers is a reader’s reader.


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