Regrouping After the MFA: How to Find Community Postprogram

After a brief but torrential thunderstorm in mid-June, eight writers of poetry and prose, myself included, huddled around a picnic table crowded with three-buck beer and leaves of printed-out poems, stories, and essays in the concrete garden of a Brooklyn bar. It had been almost a year since I’d taken a seat at a table with other writers to talk about the stuff, the meat of our writing—inspirations, obsessions, discoveries—and the project at hand every time each of us settles in to confront the blank page. All of us had spent an intense two years together at the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College, a small liberal arts school nestled in woody Bronxville, north of New York City. Many of us had migrated to the city after graduation, and while we saw one another often enough, touching base at parties and readings, our writing lives had become privatized, with only the most dramatic aspects—I haven’t been excited by a word in three months! My thesis is moldering!—shared among us. So, about thirteen months after graduating, a group of friends and I, guided by our assiduous organizer, Hossannah Asuncion, decided to create a new program in order to reestablish the connection that the MFA experience had provided. We would get together once a month to check in with one another, warm ourselves up with a few brief free-writes, and discuss a predetermined topic on which we had all read a few essays before meeting. We could also bring works-in-progress to share, though workshop-style critiquing would not be on the agenda—our gatherings would celebrate our writing as art, and our work as artists.

Perhaps the shocking burst of rain was an apt metaphor for the two brief years we’d been ensconced in, and saturated by, a lively stream of words. The way whole days of digging in to work felt like a deluge after which the world often shone. The way words became new again in the voice of a classmate, and how the dross would be purged by the workshop process, revealing the tender bones and pulse of a piece. A creative writing program had offered to many of us an ideal experience—and then it was over. Of course, a workshop-heavy curriculum can have debilitating effects as well: Participants can tire of their work’s being scrutinized in its infancy; differences in critical approaches can stifle discussion; and the compounded anxieties of the final semester can weigh on relationships, especially as solitary time to write becomes precious and staunchly defended. I’m sure the capacity for inducing this exhaustion informs our universities’ having limited the MFA track to two or three years. After a while we’re inundated and need to move out on our own. But writing programs don’t tend to teach the skill set required to work fruitfully—and joyfully—beyond their gilt walls.

The MFA experience does not necessarily prepare us to be writers in the world. Our time as students is set apart as a sacrosanct period during which we perform the very important work of honing and polishing our craft, but little guidance is given as to how we might preserve that sacred lifestyle (as well as the more profane, yet necessary, moments of criticism and editing) once outside the bubble. On the other hand, no one could have told us then that our devotions would flag and that distractions—such as earning a living and making our way in the world—would threaten to prevent us from writing altogether.

This is not to say that constant connection to a writing community is necessary, or even entirely healthy. Once I’d successfully cast off those workshops and conferences, a momentary sense of liberation washed over me. When my thesis crossed over into the hands of my advisers, I was immediately walloped by a profound exhaustion, and there was freedom in that fatigue. I needed a break from the intensity of the MFA experience—from workshops, and even from writing. The project I had immersed myself in for two years (at times a desperate, sinking immersion) had worn me out, and I required some time to let the omnipresent criticism, however sparkling or seductively constructive, settle within me. It was like recovery after a marathon, when my legs were ripped and clunky and I needed to cross-train for a while, to teach myself how to move again. But the respite from writing and talking about writing soon devolved into a drab routine. Instead of slowly starting over, I had let myself stiffen, and the loss of my teammates—and our shared field—made the process of resuming the race profoundly difficult.

Excuses abounded. At first, no amount of time seemed long enough to sit and work, and when I’d attempt to write in short spurts, the words danced only on the surface of ideas and questions. Sometimes language simply felt inert. I often had the sense that I was playing with plastic blocks rather than textured, living things. Some pleasure had seeped out of the project of making art with words—a joy that I have discovered came from sharing both my poetry and the process of writing it. While I can’t say this perception was common to all my peers, it seems that each of us has experienced an occasion—however extended—of craving community.

In Asuncion’s experience, it has been a struggle to continue the writer’s life after leaving an MFA program. In a society that often diminishes the value of the written word, students of fine writing can find their ventures trivialized as flighty or idealistic. “More often than not, I feel like the world is telling me that doing an MFA program was a bad decision,” she says. “And more often than not, I’m like, ‘Yeah, time to start studying for the LSATs.'”

“I often feel stuck in my writing life,” fellow salon member Rena Priest recently told me. “I have long patches of time where nothing I write is satisfying to me, and I have periods where nothing I read is resonating. When I am with other writers talking about writing and all the triumphs and struggles it involves, the ennui recedes.” For Hila Ratzabi, another member of our group, connecting with other writers forces her to think about writing and to return it to the forefront of her mind where it belongs—but from which it can quietly slip as the static of the world interferes with our creative frequencies. “Thinking and talking about writing are not the same as writing, but having a community where it’s safe to say, ‘I haven’t written in months, and it sucks, but here’s who I read when I can’t write’ is a blessing,” Ratzabi says.

Without the meeting of friends and colleagues to help reframe myself in my project—and in the living portrait of us all doing this work together—writing began to feel like a secret game of limited consequence. I felt as if my contributions to anything larger than myself were nil. In fact, at our second salon, the question was posed, “To whom do you write?” For several months, I noticed, I had been writing primarily to words themselves, fiddling with language with nothing much at stake. My work on the page was reflective of my practice: scrawling on the train or for a few minutes at lunchtime, or making mental notes while running. I didn’t feel I had an audience, and, curiously, my writing had even receded from conversation with my imaginary listeners, Dickinson and Stein among them. During my time at graduate school, the writing process itself had induced an exceptional sense of accomplishment, a purposefulness that comes from knowing that one is doing the work that one is supposed to be doing.

At times, the validation that we achieve through being and acting—in this case, writing—genuinely wavers, and we are compelled to look to one another not for appraisal but for support. Asuncion, who had rounded us up with the aid of a Google group she and others had created for Sarah Lawrence MFA alums, was inspired to start the salon by a similar series of gatherings she’d been attending that had been organized by Kundiman, the Asian American poets organization, whose members began running informal salons in January. She experienced the salon format as more of a generative field than an editing session for pieces in assorted stages of existence. Asuncion herself has written several pieces this year as a result of short salon exercises. For our group, exercises have ranged from creating a portrait based on a character we frequently noticed at our meeting spot—the mustachioed fellow leaning over his Belgian ale doesn’t know how many weird narratives were spun about him—to drafting radical rewrites of work we’d each brought to the table. But most central to the salon, and for me its most vital aspect, is topical discussion.

I have always thrived in arenas that celebrate and engage ideas in all their intricacy and malleability, particularly ideas relating to perceptions of language. While not all classrooms are equally conducive to such vigorous exploration, the MFA roundtable at which I participated provided such a space and, ultimately, fed my writing. The salon reinvigorated that part of me that had been too easily neglected after leaving school, quelled by the seeming urgency of daily routines and pursuits unrelated to writing. In several of our conversations we’ve discussed how we can each create a space, physical and mental, where writing matters and can thrive after the intensity of the MFA experience. I’ve found that before establishing that room of one’s own, separate from the mesh of the world, one needs to acknowledge that each of us is not alone in our endeavor; we are part of both a tradition and a living multitude of others.

As the very act of coming together on equal terms for a salon has reminded us that we are not isolated as writers, the material of our discourse has illuminated the fact that, despite having distinct styles and drives, we share a mutual human project. For discussion during our second meeting, Asuncion chose two essays on spirituality: Federico García Lorca’s 1933 lecture “Theory and Play of the Duende” and Fanny Howe’s “A Leaf on the Half-Shadow,” published in the journal English Language Notes in 2006. These works stimulated a conversation that took off from group members’ personal accounts of having sensed attunement to the spiritual while engaged in the process of writing—feeling the pull of flow, not knowing from where words were arriving; being moored in a mind state so lush and tangible, but beyond the realm of the known; approaching meditative clarity while working. My most gratifying writing hasn’t been fed by my head, but by a universal, oceanic “something” exterior to ego. Without clear language to discuss phenomena such as this, experiences can feel ephemeral, or even inconsequential. But gathering with a group that understands and empathizes with the challenges posed by the shifting creative mind, and the elations that arise from meeting those challenges, I see that the importance of my work becomes more resonant.

In her essay “Survival in Two Worlds at Once: Federico García Lorca and Duende,” Tracy K. Smith writes, “There are two worlds that exist together, and there is one that pushes against the other, that claims the other doesn’t, or need not, exist.” She refers to the capacity of duende, or the dark spirit (which some in our salon group perceived as death itself, the palpable movement of our own mortality within us), to both pull us toward and repel us from what some might call a higher state, a vaster consciousness, a discovery. In some ways, our lives outside of writing facilitate that centrifugal pushing away, and as I and many of my compatriots have found, a community that validates the opposite—a fearless movement toward the dark other—encourages the writing to approach those uncomfortable places. Talking about the act of writing has helped each of us to realize how much that wilder world does need to exist, and to negotiate its importance in our lives.

According to that Psych 101 standard, Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, when certain basic human requirements are met, our minds are free to explore more philosophical realms. Granted, as graduate students none of us was living a plush life, but we were able to focus less on the minutiae of survival and ego-driven pursuits (notwithstanding the occasional lovesick breakdown or ravenous scavenge for leftovers after a school event) and more on larger pursuits. There was art to be served, and it was our one and only job to serve it. In some respect, many of us joined an MFA program believing that if we wanted our writing to evolve from the fruit of our labor into art, it had to enter the public realm. It had to take a place at the table and enter into discourse with all of the other works that have been and continue to be written. While submitting pieces for publication and seeking opportunities to read remain excellent means of propelling the work into the world, nothing beats offering the tiny body of a poem or story to the live hands of a reader, or feeling that your quietest, most shuttered of lives is in conversation with another. Our postprogram salon has offered us not only a lively arena for sharing our writing with others, but, more important, it’s given us a renewed opportunity to share our writing selves with a community of kindred minds each encountering distinct but similar challenges, as emerging artists in the wider world.

Send us a glimpse of your post-MFA story: your toughest—or brightest—transitioning moment, the virtues and vices of your program in retrospect, or a way you found to keep your community solid. Include “Post-MFA Story” in the subject line of an e-mail to

Jean Hartig is the editorial assistant of Poets & Writers Magazine. Her chapbook, Ave, Materia, won the Poetry Society of America’s New York City Chapbook Contest and is forthcoming in 2009.

Leave a comment

Filed under creative writing, Matt Fullerty, mfa, USA, Writing

I Think I Learned About This in Health Class

Barnes & Noble has recently announced their self-publishing service—named, rather unfortunately, “PubIt!”—which is due to launch this summer, thereby making thousands of heretofore unread self-published novels available on the vast, increasingly terrifying state (world?) fair midway that is the Internet.

Digital rights will apparently be protected via Barnes & Noble’s proprietary DRM, but no word yet on the “competitive” royalty structure that will draw market share away from other self-publishing operations, most notably Amazon’s. According to B&N, PubIt! (no, I will not stop saying it) will make content available on the Nook, as well as PCs and the entire Mac Empire line (personal computers, the iPhone, the iPad, the iDon’tKnow, &c). Interesting times, meine Autoren!

With the proliferation of e-books, Internet platforms from which to launch them, and devices with which to read them, I think the next two to five years are going to be extraordinarily interesting. If you’d asked me a few months ago, I would have told you I expected the Kindle and the iPad to assume the majority of the market share and that they would squeeze the Nook out in a couple of years; with PubIt! (ha!) now on the scene, I’m not sure that’s true anymore. It will really depend on how many people associate the brick-and-mortar brand of Barnes & Noble with 1.) book sales (relatively easy) and 2.) e-book sales (not as easy, especially with Amazon currently monopolizing that market). Given the choice, I think most people will still choose to self-publish their e-books with Amazon, since the Kindle for iPad app allows them to enjoy the best of both worlds, whereas PubIt! (okay, I’ll stop now) only allows authors access to the iPad and the Nook.

What do you think, fair readers?

Leave a comment

Filed under amazon, apple, e-publishing, i-pad, i-phone, nook, pimp my novel, POD, publishing

Top 10 Recut Movie Trailers on YouTube

Leave a comment

Filed under amelie, ferris bueller, Film, groundhog day, home alone, mary poppins, movies, office space, sleepless in seattle, the shining, toy story, trailers, youtube

Edith’s War – author interview

Below is an interview I conducted with Andrew Smith about his novel EDITH’S WAR (recently released on March 26 2010).

“EDITH’S WAR is a story of hardship, love, passion, and motherhood during Liverpool’s Blitz of World War II. In early summer of 1940 young Edith Maguire witnesses the internment of her Italian neighbours following Mussolini’s declaration of war against Britain. Edith is swept up in the unthinkable event of her Italian friends’ deportation to Canada on the Arandora Star and experiences first-hand the hardships and grief that ensue as a result of the ship’s fateful voyage…”

Andrew Smith tells how he wrote the book, his inspiration and the connections between Britain, Canada and Italy below:


EDITH’S WAR tells a little-known story about Italian internment in Britain during WWII. How did you first encounter this information (new to me), and decide it would make a good novel?

I knew I wanted to write about how WWII changed British society, how the war was the mechanism that caused people to examine the way society worked and to call into question many of the conventions that had existed for centuries. I was researching this at the Imperial War Museum in London when I stumbled across the story of Italian internment in UK. The addition of Italians to the book, who are generally viewed as easy-going and uninhibited, especially compared to the British, fulfilled a welcome contrast to the depiction of an uptight British population. Also the accounts of their internment by harmless Italian men were classic examples of the stupidity of war and also of the way normal standards can change and deteriorate during wartime. This wartime shift in morality in relation to how the British Italians were treated, so different to how they might have been treated in peacetime, appalled and fascinated me.


I greatly enjoyed your evocation of place in the book – Liverpool, Venice (I am from Warrington, a town near Liverpool). Why/how did you choose these cities in particular to tell the story?

As you know, Liverpool was one of the hardest hit cities in Britain during bombing by the Germans. Liverpudlians suffered greatly during WWII. It was also the port from which many “aliens” were shipped to Canada or Australia, including hundreds of British Italian men. And the juxtaposition of the easy-going hedonistic and sensual city of Venice with the somewhat stiff and proper character that the younger brother had become, made him seem even more inhibited. And I made Venice the original home of the Italian couple who had lived in Liverpool during the war as a device to move the plot along. And finally you tend to write about what you know. I grew up on Merseyside, in Huyton, not far from Warrington, in the 40s and 50s. And I also know Venice well having spent a lot of time there during the last twenty years.


What was the greatest struggle you faced in writing the book?

There are good struggles and bad struggles. It’s a huge struggle to write a novel like Edith’s War because I had to do so much research and then the struggle that all author’s face in developing characters, evolving a plot, etc. etc. But these are good struggles; I loved every minute of the research and writing stage. Then there is another huge struggle to get published. I tried long and hard to find an agent and a publisher and experienced many rejections along the way. This part of the process is excruciating and can be depressing if you start to take the rejections personally. One has to be strong, stick by the courage of your convictions, and realize that publishing is a business like any other.


Do you feel you are making a political point in writing this story? You decided to address the subject matter in the form of a novel. Why not non-fiction, or some other form?

If I’m making a political point it has to do with emphasizing the omnipresence and senselessness of war, and the fact that society seems unable to change in any significant way. I’ve written and published two non-fiction books, which I enjoyed writing, but I think it’s difficult to impose passion and a distinct point of view into non-fiction. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I think it’s easier to do it more effectively in fiction. I wanted to state very clearly how humankind seems unable to avoid war (witness the presence of wars constantly throughout history), yet how senseless and unfair war always is. Even WWII, which might be seen as justified from the Allies’ perspective, has hundreds if not thousands of examples of inhumanity and unnecessary suffering imposed by all sides. The novel form allowed me to portray actual events and have the reader make no mistake that I viewed them as senseless and unnecessary. I also wanted to imply how difficult it is for any of us to change, on a personal level but also on a larger scale, as a society. A non-fiction book usually only tells the story, whereas a novel can show the effects of a story and be so much more emotive in the telling.


How are you enjoying the publishing process, having your first book released? If there’s one thing you could change about publishing a novel, what would it be?

It’s very rewarding to hold the finished product of so much work in one’s hands. But, to go back to my point about publishing being a business, I don’t think many authors are prepared for the dog-eat-dog commercial side of publishing. I’m fortunate because I was somewhat prepared by my work in publishing, I’m a book designer, but even I wasn’t ready for the alarming truths of how difficult it is to get one’s book noticed and into the bookstores. If there’s one thing I could change it would be that books are sold on their merit alone, and not because a publisher paid for a prominent position in a bookstore, or because the author has a TV show, or has won a literary prize, or one of the hundred other reasons a book gets noticed other than for the quality of writing or cleverness of plot, etc. But I’m sounding cynical. I’m really not, and I do still believe that if a book is good it’ll get the readership it deserves.


A good amount of the novel is set in and about Italy. Do you feel personally connected to Italy?

Not particularly, other than I’ve spent a lot of time there since I was in my twenties and have quite a few Italian friends whom I love, and I like Italy better than almost anywhere else.


Do you remember when you first wanted to be a writer?

Yes I do, because I started writing late in life. It was 1988 and I was forty-years-old, when I took my first creative writing course. Just previous to that I had taken a bus trip over the Himalayas from Kashmir to Ladakh in Northern India and written a magazine article about it, the first piece of writing I’d ever published. The article won an award for travel writing, which inspired me to write more. So I took some courses and started writing short fiction, which I love writing. I don’t know why it took me so long. I don’t think being a writer was presented as an option at the school I went to in Liverpool so I never thought of it. So I went to art school and became a graphic designer. I’ve been lucky to have found writing, and to have another profession that allows me time to write but also keeps the wolf from the door. Because, as we know, books rarely provide much of an income.


How important are family relations in telling a good story?

I think human relations of any kind are crucial to a good story. We all need something we can relate to and human relations provide a great deal that is familiar to us all. I suppose family relations are often the most intense and usually the most influential on our lives so they hold a certain gravitas that no other relations hold, they’re what forms us. So, while not necessary to a good story, family relations are certainly wonderful additions to a story.


What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?

Once I’ve done research and am into the writing stage I tend to get up fairly early in the morning and write solidly for four to six hours. Once I actually sit down and put fingers to keyboard the time usually flies by. But I’m as bad as most writers about starting, I’ll make a cup of tea I don’t really need or thumb through a magazine I’ve already read. I don’t know why many writers find it hard to actually start writing; maybe because it’s so intense, it’s hard work to write, and it’s rather tiring. Often when I eventually stop I’m fairly drained. But once I start I rarely look up, except to check research, until I just run out of steam some half-a-dozen hours later.


What are you working on right now? A departure, or something related to historical fiction across different times and places like EDITH’S WAR?

Some months ago, at a stage when Edith’s War was out of my hands with an editor, I wrote the first two chapters of a book set in contemporary London. Unlike Edith’s War it’ll be a straight single time period narrative. The story is about a paparazzi photographer who is down on his luck having lost his business and his wife. He’s a recovering alcoholic, estranged from his family, and broke. But he has a cache of photos of celebrities that might be worth a great deal. But because of his alcoholism and past indiscretions nobody wants to know. There’s a whole plot in my head about how an opportunity to get exclusive photos of a drugged-out music star falls in his lap. Actually it’s a ploy by the recording company to get publicity, etc. etc. The idea comes from a fascination I have with the symbiotic relationship that celebrities often have with the press. Princess Di being a prime example. I’m also interested in the whole phenomenon of celebrity, especially in our society with the proliferation of shows like American Idol and with people like Paris Hilton who have no talent or skill (they don’t even model) but who have become celebrities earning millions. I’m keen to get back to writing it, but first we have to get out there and sell Edith’s War.

Thank you for your time, Andrew. You can read more about EDITH’S WAR at and on Facebook here.

I’ll also be posting this interview on and a link from my website

Andrew Smith was born in Liverpool, England. He moved to Toronto, Canada in 1974 since when he’s worked in magazines and book publishing. Andrew Smith’s writing has been included in the Journey Prize Anthology, has been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards, and has garnered a Western Magazine Award for Travel Writing. He has published two non-fiction books: Highlights, an illustrated history of cannabis (co-author) and Strangers in the Garden, the secret lives of our favorite flowers. He’s enjoyed writing fiction since 1990, which, fortunately, is when he began.

Leave a comment

Filed under andrew smith, author interview, canada, edith's war, great britain, italy, Matt Fullerty, Novels, Travel, world war two

The 50 best author vs. author put-downs of all time, Part 2

Proust: mentally defective (according to Mr.Waugh).

Missed the initial installment of the 50 best author vs. author put-downs of all time? Catch up on the first 25 highly vitriolic remarks here.

And now, on with the jollity.

26. Marcel Proust, according to Evelyn Waugh (1948)

I am reading Proust for the first time. Very poor stuff. I think he was mentally defective.

27. William Faulkner, according to Ernest Hemingway

Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes — and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he’s had his first one.

28. E.M. Forster’s Howards End, according to according to Katherine Mansfield (1915)

Putting my weakest books to the wall last night I came across a copy of ‘Howards End’ and had a look into it. Not good enough. E.M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea.

And I can never be perfectly certain whether Helen was got with child by Leonard Bast or by his fatal forgotten umbrella. All things considered, I think it must have been the umbrella.

29. Voltaire, according to Charles Baudelaire (1864)

I grow bored in France — and the main reason is that everybody here resembles Voltaire…the king of nincompoops, the prince of the superficial, the anti-artist, the spokesman of janitresses, the Father Gigone of the editors of Siecle.

30. Charles Dickens, according to George Meredith

Not much of Dickens will live, because it has so little correspondence to life…If his novels are read at all in the future, people will wonder what we saw in them, save some possible element of fun meaningless to them.

31. Jane Austen, according to Mark Twain (1898)

I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.

32. Gustave Flaubert, according to George Moore (1888)

Flaubert bores me. What nonsense has been talked about him!

33. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, according to Gore Vidal (1980)

He is a bad novelist and a fool. The combination usually makes for great popularity in the US.

Solzhenitsyn: “a bad novelist and a fool’
34. Ernest Hemingway, according to Tom Wolfe

Take Hemingway. People always think that the reason he’s easy to read is that he is concise. He isn’t. I hate conciseness — it’s too difficult. The reason Hemingway is easy to read is that he repeats himself all the time, using ‘and’ for padding.

35. James Joyce’s Ulysses, according to Virginia Woolf (1922)

I dislike ‘Ulysses’ more and more — that is I think it more and more unimportant; and don’t even trouble conscientiously to make out its meanings. Thank God, I need not write about it.

36. William Shakespeare, according to George Bernard Shaw (1896)

With the exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his. The intensity of my impatience with him occasionally reaches such a pitch, that it would positively be a relief to me to dig him up and throw stones at him, knowing as I do how incapable he and his worshippers are of understanding any less obvious form of indignity.

37. Charles Lamb, according to Thomas Carlyle

Charles Lamb I sincerely believe to be in some considerable degree insane. A more pitiful, rickety, gasping, staggering, stammering tomfool I do not know. He is witty by denying truisms and abjuring good manners. His speech wriggles hither and thither with an incessant painful fluctuation; not an opinion in it or a fact or even a phrase that you can thank him for….

38. Edith Sitwell, according to Dylan Thomas (1934)

Isn’t she a poisonous thing of a woman, lying, concealing, flipping, plagiarising, misquoting, and being as clever a crooked literary publicist as ever.

39. James Jones, according to Ernest Hemingway (1951)

To me he is an enormously skillful f#*&-up and his book will do great damage to our country. Probably I should re-read it again to give you a truer answer. But I do not have to eat an entire bowl of scabs to know they are scabs…I hope he kills himself….

40. Sir Walter Scott, according to Mark Twain (1883)

Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks…progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the silliness and emptiness, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote.

41. Jane Austen, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1861)

I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world.

42. Robert Frost, according to James Dickey (1981)

If it were thought that anything I wrote was influenced by Robert Frost, I would take that particular work of mine, shred it, and flush it down the toilet, hoping not to clog the pipes….a more sententious, holding-forth old bore, who expected every hero-worshipping adenoidal little twerp of a student-poet to hang on his every word I never saw.

43. Tom Wolfe, according to John Irving (1999)

He doesn’t know how to write fiction, he can’t create a character, he can’t create a situation…You see people reading him on airplanes, the same people who are reading John Grisham, for Christ’s sake….I’m using the argument against him that he can’t write, that his sentences are bad, that it makes you wince. It’s like reading a bad newspaper or a bad piece in a magazine….You know, if you were a good skater, could you watch someone just fall down all the time? Could you do that? I can’t do that.

Bret Harte: liar, thief, swindler, snob
44. Bret Harte, according to Mark Twain (1878)

Harte is a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward, a Jeremy Diddler, he is brim full of treachery, and he conceals his Jewish birth as carefully as if he considered it a disgrace. How do I know? By the best of all evidence, personal observation.

45. Thomas Carlyle, according to Anthony Trollope (1850)

I have read — nay, I have bought! — Carlyle’s ‘Latter Day Pamphlets,’ and look on my eight shillings as very much thrown away. To me it appears that the grain of sense is so smothered up in a sack of the sheerest trash, that the former is valueless….I look on him as a man who was always in danger of going mad in literature and who has now done so.

46. Henry James, according to Arnold Bennett

It took me years to ascertain that Henry James’s work was giving me little pleasure….In each case I asked myself: ‘What the dickens is this novel about, and where does it think it’s going to?’ Question unanswerable! I gave up. Today I have no recollection whatever of any characters or any events in either novel.

47. James Fenimore Cooper, according to Mark Twain (1895)

Cooper’s art has some defects. In one place in ‘Deerslayer,’ and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offences against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.

48. Gore Vidal, according to Martin Amis (1995)

Vidal gives the impression of believing that the entire heterosexual edifice — registry offices, ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ the disposable diaper — is just a sorry story of self-hypnosis and mass hysteria: a hoax, a racket, or sheer propaganda.

49. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, according to Edward Fitzgerald (1861)

She and her sex had better mind the kitchen and her children; and perhaps the poor; except in such things as little novels, they only devote themselves to what men do much better, leaving that which men do worse or not at all.

I did say at the start of this unending Marah that these snippets of snarkiness weren’t necessarily in order. I have, however, saved my absolute favorite for the end:

50. Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, according to Norman Mailer (1998)

The book has gas and runs out of gas, fills up again, goes dry. It is a 742-page work that reads as if it is fifteen hundred pages long….

At certain points, reading the work can even be said to resemble the act of making love to a three-hundred pound woman. Once she gets on top, it’s over. Fall in love, or be asphyxiated. So you read and you grab and you even find delight in some of these mounds of material. Yet all the while you resist — how you resist! — letting three hundred pounds take you over.

Now, that’s a non-clichéd review for you.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Alan Sillitoe: His own man

Rachel Roberts and Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

Alan Sillitoe was one of the stars of the Angry Young Men, but resisted classification throughout his prolific career. With his death last week, a strand of late 20th-century literature has come to an end.
Like many a writer who elbowed his way into public notice in the 1950s, Alan Sillitoe will probably be remembered for only a tiny fraction of his considerable output. Just as Kingsley Amis’s reputation, one suspects, will ultimately stand or fall on Lucky Jim (1954), so posterity will almost certainly end up judging Sillitoe’s long and combative career on the basis of its two opening salvoes – the novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) and the high-octane short story collection The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959). The fault is not Sillitoe’s, who wrote at least half a dozen novels ripe to be compared with his groundbreaking debut. Rather, it lies in the nature of the literary stage – a stage where TS Eliot featured as a grand panjandrum and Iris Murdoch as a promising ingénue – on which he took his bow.

The 1950s, lest we forget, was an age of literary sensation, a time when books were “news” and yet – as nearly always happens when books are news – the newsworthiness had very little to do with the literature itself. It was the era of the Angry Young Man (Osborne, Amis, Wain), of more or less radical literary politicking (see Declaration, the 1957 collection of art manifestos edited by the young Tom Maschler), of that notoriously problematic entity “the working-class writer”, of aesthetic compacts forged between novelists and grittily realist film-makers, of a fascination – at any rate at its upper level – with the fast-dissolving popular culture described in Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957).

Sillitoe operated on the inner flank of each of these movements – he was as angry, if not angrier, than John Osborne; his first two books were filmed, respectively, by Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson; the pre-war Nottingham backyards he wrote about bear natural resemblances to Richard Hoggart’s Hunslet – while always remaining, sometimes to the point of defiance, his own man. On the other hand, while his starring role in the new literary vanguard brought substantial rewards – Saturday Night was one of the first million-selling Pan paperbacks – his originality wasn’t always noticed by the critics, and the pigeonholing that characterised the early part of his career often got in the way of later attempts to extend his range.

Nowhere was this typecasting more flagrant than in Sillitoe’s instant classification as a “working-class writer”. Metropolitan journalists, summoned to pronounce on the new wave of northern novelists, many of them from comparatively humble backgrounds, tended to assume not only that they themselves were socially homogenous, but that their books reflected the same kind of backgrounds, anxieties and outlooks on life. In fact, there are at least half a dozen varieties of the 50s working-class, including the aspirational “lace-curtain working class” (Stan Barstow’s phrase) rising from foundry or production line to the solicitor’s office or the draughtsman’s shop; the provincial bohemians of Philip Callow’s Lawrence-inflected Common People (1958); the thrusting meritocrats of John Braine’s Room at the Top (1957).

As for the working-class novelist, broadly speaking the paladins of the 50s northern horde belonged to a distinctive social sub-group: first-generation grammar school boys, respectful of their origins but keen to explore the world beyond the horizon. One of the most characteristic scenes in an English novel written during the period 1954-64 is the spectacle of its hero standing proudly on the station platform as he waits for the next train to London.

Set against this upwardly mobile, meritocratic tide, Sillitoe was the outsider to end all outsiders, dyed-in-the-wool Midlands underclass, large parts of whose childhood were spent pushing a handcart containing his family’s possessions from one set of flyblown digs to another, whose earliest memories were of his mother yelling “Not on his head” as his illiterate father set about him with his fists, educated not at a grammar school but a secondary modern which disgorged its alumni at 14 to the Raleigh bicycle factory. Ted Hughes (with whom Sillitoe was friendly) once wrote in a letter to Christopher Reid that among the newcomers of the “Angry Decade”, he “had the best barbarian credentials, except for maybe Alan Sillitoe”.

All this gave Arthur Seaton, the moody, antinomian hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a distinctive status among the fictional protagonists of the Macmillan era. Unlike the “good” working-class characters of an earlier age, Arthur is an ambiguous figure: generous (when he has the money), affectionate towards women and incubating warm feelings towards the male friend he is quietly cuckolding, but untroubled by the moral implications of detaching a drunk from his wallet or plugging an air-rifle pellet into the cheek of a muck-raking neighbour.

The same ambiguity extends to the milieu in which Sillitoe frames him – the close, tightly knit badlands of back-street Nottingham, with its simmering resentments and neighbourhood quarrels that are always liable to end up in a mass brawl and a night in the cells. If nothing else, Saturday Night is a terrific antidote to the sentimentalising of working-class life, with its roaring fires and benignly shirt-sleeved patresfamilias, promoted by Orwell and the eternal decencies of the proletarian hearth observed by Hoggart. The Uses of Literacy, for example, insists that pre-war Hunslet offered “a good and comely life”, characterised by its “sacrifice, cooperation and neighbourliness”. Sillitoe thought differently. The Seatons either desert from military service or feign bad eyesight to get out of it, and sit through Churchill’s patriotic radio broadcasts with stoical indifference. There is a solidarity about them, but it is the solidarity of a rebel army, born not out of any generosity of spirit but from hate and fear.

To the middle-class critic – and the middle-class reader – Arthur’s surly self-centredness was a problem. Joe Lampton, the go-getting arriviste of Braine’s Room at the Top, may not have been a particularly pleasant character, but at least he had ambition. Sillitoe’s early work, it soon became clear, was about getting by and staying put, fighting against drift, bringing a compound of highly combustible inner resources to bear on the horrors of routine, taking refuge in daydreams: living till 90, as Arthur puts it, with a fresh piece of skirt every day. His “vitality” was his saving grace, but even this could sometimes seem horribly compromised. In John Fowles’s first novel, The Collector (1964), in which a jackpot-winning municipal clerk kidnaps an art student and keeps her prisoner in his cellar, Arthur features as a talismanic symbol of the contemporary class war. Left-leaning, CND-fancying Miranda ought theoretically to sympathise with this signifier of oppression and neglect. On the contrary, she detests him. “I think Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is disgusting,” she declares. “I think Arthur Seaton is disgusting, and I think the most disgusting thing of all is that Alan Sillitoe doesn’t show that he is disgusted by his young man.”

To Miranda, Arthur’s most blatant offence is his solipsism – “he doesn’t care about anything outside his own little life”. Worse, “because he is cheeky, hates his work and is successful with women, he is supposed to be vital”. If one of the era’s critical orthodoxies was that a writer ought not to keep his moral cards quite so close to his chest, then another was that the chief merit of Sillitoe’s early books lay in their documentary quality. At their heart, it was assumed, lurked a conventional social realism that was the literary equivalent of cinéma-vérité. All this is profoundly to underestimate the degree of sophistication that Sillitoe brought to his work and his determination to go beyond dramatised sociology into a world where the novelist of “ordinary life” had rarely set foot.

“The Match”, for example, perhaps the finest of the stories in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, is usually read as a straightforward piece of reportage, in which an embittered middle-aged man stamps home from a football game his side have lost, takes his disappointment out on his long-suffering wife and picks a quarrel that will end his marriage. Its abiding feature, though, is less its “realism” – although there is plenty of that – than the stealthiness of its psychology, the ominous prefigurations, a well-nigh determinist sense of individual destiny hanging in the air, and at the end a rather chilling attempt to weave Lennox’s fate into a wider pattern of ordinary lives ruined by bad temper and a failure to communicate. British readers admired “The Match”, (mostly) assuming that it was another utensil from the late 50s kitchen sink. Sillitoe’s French translators, on the other hand, marked him down as the heir to Camus.

In a memorable Desert Island Discs interview recorded a year or so ago, Sillitoe advanced the modest claim that all he had ever really wanted to do was to achieve enough success to enable him to, as he put it, “plod away”, writing a book a year and pleasing himself. This is exactly what he contrived to do: the bibliography of his post-1960s output runs to more than 60 items, including poetry, a shrewd and revealing autobiography (Life Without Armour, 1995) and the recent cold war travelogue, Gadfly in Russia. The novels of his maturity are a mixed bunch, differing wildly in subject-matter and approach and often bewildering fans of his early work. To his biographer Richard Bradford this is evidence of a wholesale dereliction of critical duty, in which reviewers who had misunderstood his first books either underrated his achievement or simply failed to comprehend what he was trying to do.

Certainly a trawl through some of his later fiction tends to support this view. A Start in Life (1970) retains some of the old Nottingham background while soon developing into a picaresque (Sillitoe maintained that his mentors were the Spanish novelists Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, Mateo Alemán and Francisco de Quevedo). It takes its hero, Michael Cullen, from the Midlands to a hustler’s life in Soho and concludes, amid a hail of bullets, as a skit on the idea of the existential hero. The Broken Chariot (1998), is another kind of skit, in which Sillitoe cunningly inverts the trajectory of his own early career, has an upper-class boy named Thurgarton-Strang break out of his West Country boarding-school and re-invent himself as the Seatonesque “Bert Gedling”, a boozy tail-chaser employed by the Nottingham Royal Ordnance factory and aspiring proletarian writer. Neither novel achieved the success it deserved.

Sillitoe was phlegmatic about this neglect, an attitude he brought to most aspects of his long and industrious career. He fitted into no niche, peddled no theories about the nature of his craft (“One either judges, or one writes, and I only care to do the latter,” he tersely informed a magazine symposium in 1978), succumbed to perilously few of the blandishments on offer to the successful modern practitioner (creative writing professorships, newspaper columns), and it is difficult not to believe that, with his death, a particular strand of late 20th-century English literature has ceased to exist.

In the 50 and a bit years since Saturday Night and Sunday Morning crash-landed on the weekend books pages, there have been plenty of novelists capable of seeing working-class life from the inside, but none of them was forged in quite the same kind of crucible as Sillitoe. Above all, there is the terrific air of individuation and quiddity brought to a part of the demographic that, with a few honourable exceptions, the pre-1950s novel had routinely ignored. “We all need to remember,” Hoggart once remarked, “every day and more and more, that in the last resort there is no such person as ‘the common man’.” The same can be said of the working-class novelist. Perhaps the greatest compliment one can pay Alan Sillitoe is to say that, in an age of movements and alliances, shared assumptions and mass thought – all the collectivist baggage that hangs around the writer’s neck like so many millstones – he represented no one but himself.

DJ Taylor
The Guardian, Saturday 1 May 2010 Article history

Leave a comment

Filed under alan sillitoe, author, british author, loneliness of the long-distance runner, working class writer

The 50 best author vs. author put-downs of all time, Part 1

Mark Twain, Austen Hater

One man’s Shakespeare is another man’s trash fiction.

Consider this pithy commentary on the Great Bard’s work:

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 Shakespeare….

But, of course, there must be SOME writers we can all agree on as truly great, right? Like Jane Austen. Or not:

Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.

Robert Frost?

If it were thought that anything I wrote was influenced by Robert Frost, I would take that particular work of mine, shred it, and flush it down the toilet, hoping not to clog the pipes.

John Steinbeck, surely?

I can’t read ten pages of Steinbeck without throwing up.

Oh, dear.

But don’t think these pleasantries were penned in a frolicsome hour by dilettante book critics with an unslaked thirst for a bit of author-bashing.

The Shakespearean take-down was George Bernard Shaw, the Austen shin-bone basher was Mark Twain, the anti-Frost poet was James Dickey, and the quick!-bring-me-the-bucket-it’s-Steinbeck was James Gould Cozzens.

Yes, hell hath no fury like one author gleefully savaging another author’s work.

And, lucky for us, there’s plenty to be had where that came from.

Cast your eye on these, the 50 most memorable author vs. author put-downs (in no particular order; though if you’ve got a favorite, by all means, comment on it, below).

Hemingway: writer of bells, balls, and bulls
1. Ernest Hemingway, according to Vladimir Nabokov (1972)

As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early ‘forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.

2. Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote, according to Martin Amis (1986)

Reading Don Quixote can be compared to an indefinite visit from your most impossible senior relative, with all his pranks, dirty habits, unstoppable reminiscences, and terrible cronies. When the experience is over, and the old boy checks out at last (on page 846 — the prose wedged tight, with no breaks for dialogue), you will shed tears all right; not tears of relief or regret but tears of pride. You made it, despite all that ‘Don Quixote’ could do.

3. John Keats, according to Lord Byron (1820)

Here are Johnny Keats’s p@# a-bed poetry…There is such a trash of Keats and the like upon my tables, that I am ashamed to look at them.

4. Edgar Allan Poe, according to Henry James (1876)

An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.

5. John Updike, according to Gore Vidal (2008)

I can’t stand him. Nobody will think to ask because I’m supposedly jealous; but I out-sell him. I’m more popular than he is, and I don’t take him very seriously…oh, he comes on like the worker’s son, like a modern-day D.H. Lawrence, but he’s just another boring little middle-class boy hustling his way to the top if he can do it.

6. William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, according to Samuel Pepys (1662)

…we saw ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.

7. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, according to Nathaniel Hawthorne (1851)

Bulwer nauseates me; he is the very pimple of the age’s humbug. There is no hope of the public, so long as he retains an admirer, a reader, or a publisher.

Charles Dickens writing something rotten, vulgar, and un-literary

8. Charles Dickens, according to Arnold Bennett (1898)

About a year ago, from idle curiosity, I picked up ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’, and of all the rotten vulgar un-literary writing…! Worse than George Eliot’s. If a novelist can’t write where is the beggar.

9. J.K. Rowling, according to Harold Bloom (2000)

How to read ‘Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone’? Why, very quickly, to begin with, and perhaps also to make an end. Why read it? Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do.

10. Oscar Wilde, according to Noel Coward (1946)

Am reading more of Oscar Wilde. What a tiresome, affected sod.

11. Fyodor Dostoevsky, according to Vladimir Nabokov

Dostoevky’s lack of taste, his monotonous dealings with persons suffering with pre-Freudian complexes, the way he has of wallowing in the tragic misadventures of human dignity — all this is difficult to admire.

12. John Milton’s Paradise Lost, according to Samuel Johnson

‘Paradise Lost’ is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is.

13. Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, according to Mark Twain (1897)

Also, to be fair, there is another word of praise due to this ship’s library: it contains no copy of ‘The Vicar of Wakefield’, that strange menagerie of complacent hypocrites and idiots, of theatrical cheap-john heroes and heroines, who are always showing off, of bad people who are not interesting, and good people who are fatiguing.

14. Ezra Pound, according to Conrad Aiken (1918)

For in point of style, or manner, or whatever, it is difficult to imagine anything much worse than the prose of Mr. Pound. It is ugliness and awkwardness incarnate. Did he always write so badly?

15. James Joyce’s Ulysses, according to George Bernard Shaw (1921)

I have read several fragments of ‘Ulysses’ in its serial form. It is a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilisation; but it is a truthful one; and I should like to put a cordon around Dublin; round up every male person in it between the ages of 15 and 30; force them to read it; and ask them whether on reflection they could see anything amusing in all that foul mouthed, foul minded derision and obscenity.

16. George Bernard Shaw, according to Roger Scruton (1990)

Concerning no subject would he be deterred by the minor accident of complete ignorance from penning a definitive opinion.

Goethe, author of the worst book Samuel Butler ever read

17. Jane Austen, according to Charlotte Bronte (1848)

Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say that you would rather have written ‘Pride and Prejudice’…than any of the Waverly novels? I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.

18. Goethe, according to Samuel Butler (1874)

I have been reading a translation of Goethe’s ‘Wilhelm Meister.’ Is it good? To me it seems perhaps the very worst book I ever read. No Englishman could have written such a book. I cannot remember a single good page or idea….Is it all a practical joke? If it really is Goethe’s ‘Wilhelm Meister’ that I have been reading, I am glad I have never taken the trouble to learn German.

19. John Steinbeck, according to James Gould Cozzens (1957)

I can’t read ten pages of Steinbeck without throwing up. I couldn’t read the proletariat crap that came out in the ’30s.

20. Herman Melville, according to D.H. Lawrence (1923)

Nobody can be more clownish, more clumsy and sententiously in bad taste, than Herman Melville, even in a great book like ‘Moby Dick’….One wearies of the grand serieux. There’s something false about it. And that’s Melville. Oh dear, when the solemn ass brays! brays! brays!

21. Jonathan Swift, according to Samuel Johnson (1791)

Swift has a higher reputation than he deserves…I doubt whether ‘The Tale of a Tub’ to be his; for he never owned it, and it is much above his usual manner.

22. Gertrude Stein, according to Wyndham Lewis (1927)

Gertrude Stein’s prose-song is a cold black suet-pudding. We can represent it as a cold suet-roll of fabulously reptilian length. Cut it at any point, it is the same thing; the same heavy, sticky, opaque mass all through and all along.

23. Emile Zola, according to Anatole France (1911)

His work is evil, and he is one of those unhappy beings of whom one can say that it would be better had he never been born.

24. J.D.Salinger, according to Mary McCarthy (1962)

I don’t like Salinger, not at all. That last thing isn’t a novel anyway, whatever it is. I don’t like it. Not at all. It suffers from this terrible sort of metropolitan sentimentality and it’s so narcissistic. And to me, also, it seemed so false, so calculated. Combining the plain man with an absolutely megalomaniac egotism. I simply can’t stand it.

25. Mark Twain, according to William Faulkner (1922)

A hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven sure fire literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.

Leave a comment

Filed under author, charles dickens, creative writing, ernest hemingway, goethe, poets and writers, twain, writers