Literary brawling is nothing new, and in fact we ought to wonder whether we do it as well as our predecessors. The following study of the state of literary criticism was published in the spring of 1962 by a famous American author as the introduction to the author’s latest book of short stories, published by Random House. We can learn a few things, not only about our literary past but about our literary present, by reading this remarkably funny and well-crafted piece. Just for the sport of it, I’d like to see if any of you can guess the author. I’ve blanked out a few details that might give it away, including the title of one of this author’s early successful novels. All will be revealed.
Here is the essay in it’s entirety.
The modern attacks on the novel as a moribund art form have spread out a little to take in all fiction, and they are more interesting for their vehemence than for the literary accomplishments of the people who insist that fiction is passe. Shortly after Ernest Hemingway died, a man whom I shall call Monk Lovechild declared that Hemingway and all other first-class writers of fiction might just as well abandon creative writing and turn to journalism. Mr. Lovechild almost made it appear that Hemingway shared his view. It was a very tricky performance on the part of Lovechild; the only trouble was that Hemingway was on record, about five years before his death, with an antipodally opposite statement to the effect that fiction writers ought to stay out of journalism. There was nothing equivocal about Hemingway’s statement; you could not mistake his intent. But after he was dead his characteristiclly forthright opinion was completely ignored, or rejected, by Mr. Lovechild. Abraham Lincoln, of course, is on record with a speech which can be quoted to support the thesis that he was not opposed to slavery. That’s one of the things that come back to embarrass the memory of the great, like certain well-intentioned remarks made by Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover. in this case, however, Hemingway said one thing, and Mr. Lovechild pretended that Hemingway had said something else. It so happens that on a previous occasion Mr. Lovechild had taken out of its context something I had said, and used it to hold me up to scorn, so I was familiar with the Lovechild technique. Mr. Lovechild, who I hardly need say is a journalist, not a fiction writer, once described a stroll he took on a main thoroughfare of a Western city. He told of looking at a certain building while on his walk, and the only trouble there was that you can’t see that building from that street. I suppose Mr. Lovechild would call himself a creative journalist, which still does not excuse his tin ear when he is reporting dialog.
Why bother so much about a man for whom I have no respect? Well, for two reasons: Mr. Lovechild has a good job on an important publication, and a lot of readers assume that what he says must be true; and, in spite of his proclaimed aversion to fiction, he has used a personal relationship directly to influence the awarding of a major literary prize for a novel that did not deserve it. Without proof, I nevertheless have not the slightest doubt that this fellow Lovechild has written novels that were no good good, and it is people like him that have been attacking the novel and, more recently, all fiction.
I don’t think anyone would deny at this late date that the most consistently abusive criticism of fiction books appears in the newsmagazines. Week after week, year after year, the resentfully anonymous reviewers on these publications behave like little bullies, insulting men and women of talent and discouraging men and women of promise. But who are these reviewers, and what’s the matter with them? Well, here I have special knowledge. I have worked on Time and Newsweek, and, inevitably through the years I have picked up information about the background of their book department personnel. Invariably they majored in English in college, wrote for their college literary publications, and “tried to write” after graduation. In junior year they say, in a tone of surly apprehension, “I think I’ll try to write.” And so they send their little pieces to The New Yorker and, second time around, to the literary magazines; and when they are defeated by what the call the New Yorker formula, they try the novel. In the Thirties they wrote their own versions of _________; in the Fifties their successors had a try at The Catcher in the Rye; and now, I guess, the successors of the successors are busy with the writings of John Updike. Fortunately for me, ________ had already been published; fortunately for J. D. Salinger, he had published The Catcher in the Rye; unfortunately for those young men who thought the novel looked so easy, they had to take these jobs on the newsmagazines.
If they didn’t go to work for Time or Newsweek, they got jobs on The New Yorker or in publishing houses, or they became teachers. In other words, it might be said that there is a pool of unsuccessful writers of fiction who are all too readily available for occasional book reviews. With their background it is not surprising that there is so much spiteful condescension in the pieces they write for the Sunday supplements (I never see the little magazines so I don’t know what the hell goes on there, but I can guess.)
But now they have a Cause. The exciting word is getting around that not only the novel, but all fiction, must go. Not go-go-go, just go. Mind you, there are a few favorites who can still get under the wire. Certain crude efforts of certain novelists, short story writers, and poets, which could not be put aside without politico-social repercussions, will get the nod. But the exceptions are being made for writers who in general have pretty much the same stories to tell, and they would not in any event have done much to support the cause of creative writing. The writers for whom the exceptions are being made will shortly be found in that pool I mentioned earlier.
It is not seismologically disturbing to find, among the New Enemies of Fiction, a man whom I shall call Tootsie Washburn. (You’d be amazed to learn how easy it is to make up these names.) Years ago, in my drinking days, Tootsie became a patron of a saloon that had been a favorite of mine long before Tootsie had been given a job in the lowest form of critical enterprise, namely, radio and television reviewing. Night after night, Tootsie would engage me in conversation about the novel; the novel in general, and the novel that he in particular was writing. That was about seventeen years ago, and Tootsie’s novel has yet to be published. He may have put it aside to work on the play he announced for production two or three years ago but that so far has not been produced. He may have decided to withdraw his play in order to better his chances of getting a certain drama critic’s job, but he didn’t get that either. He seems to be having more success in making a play for the Elsa Maxwell set, which is exactly where he belongs, but he still finds time to devote himself to the N. E. of F. Thirty-two years ago I wrote a radio column under the byline Franey Delaney, although I didn’t own a radio; but that didn’t keep me from admiring successful novelists, playwrights, and short story writers. I suppose it’s true that if you really adminre creative writers you’re much more tolerant of their success, and in spite of all his early humility and compliments, Tootsie Washburn never quite convinced me that he was a sincere fan. Of course I could be wrong there.
In my extremely impressionable youth, when I read everything from Miss Minerva and William Green Hill to Memories of the Kaiser Court, I came upon a squelcher that I remember without being able to recall where I saw it. A noble lady, putting some jerk in his place, said: “Your insolence can never hope to reach the height of my disdain.” It became so popular in our crowd that all one of us had to do was say “Your insolence –” and the others would finish the quotation, in chorus. When you are eighteen a crusher like that comes in handy. I bring that up now because some of my friends and others wonder why I bother to reply to my critics Well, as a rule I don’t. Apaart from the enormous work that would be involved in replying to all of them, it is usually a wasted effort. But I am neither a noble lady nor a noble anything, in spite of the ___ claims to royal ____ blood, and I haven’t got the dignity to carry off a crusher like “Your insolence, etc.” Fighting back at critics, like fighting cops, is a losing proposition from the start and I know it. I knew it on the two or three occasions when I tangled with law enforcement. But I have a long record of defeats of one sort or another, and so I cannot, even in my mellowing late fifties, resist speaking up every two or three years. It seems to me that if we novelists and short story writers and playwrights don’t speak up, we deserve to lose out to the unimaginative. if we chicken out in dignified silence we don’t even have the fun of making the dullards’ victiory just a little harder to come by. My own position is a curiously enviable one, and I make no boast of bravery, since I probably have taken more abuse than of my contemporaries and I can get is more of the same. Nor is it good enough to say that we fiction people ought to let our work speak for itself, without stooping to literary brawls What happened to all those pious protests against conformism and the climate of fear?
Come on, you fiction writers and fiction readers. Up our Cause! Have so fun — and don’t think this hasn’t been.
(Please feel free to guess who write this. I will reveal the author’s name, and the title of the novel mentioned above, in a day or two.)
Update: the answer has been posted here.