Writers, Backscratchers, and Truth Tellers

“Woman writing,” Edouard Monet

“Oh my God, I’d forgotten I ever knew X,” I said the other day when I was sorting through old letters.   X was a brilliant, little-known writer who encouraged his/her writing students.

I laughed when I read the letter, not because it was comical, but because it reminded me of the years when people said what they thought. I had sent X my review of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but (s)he did not like Morrison’s work, which (s)he thought was influenced by Garcia Marquez, whose work (s)he thought overwritten.

X also asked if I’d seen a  letter to The New York Times about Morrison. Forty-eight black writers and critics had signed a letter saying it was disgraceful that Toni Morrison had not won a National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize, which they said was  due to “oversight and harmful whimsy.”

X was impatient with such protests. (S)he wrote, “Too bad she didn’t think to head those backscratchers off.  Don’t they know, firstly, that awards kill; secondly, they don’t mean a damned thing; thirdly, it’s reverse racism; fourthly, she’s gotten plenty of awards, so what are they talking about?”

Trust me, X was not racist. (S)he liked only European writers!  American contemporary fiction did not interest him/her.

Reading X’s letter, which was perfectly acceptable in the context of knowing X,  a hyper-critical reader known for honesty, made me realize that (s)he could not express such opinions today.  (S)he  would  (a) be driven out of the Twittersphere, or whatever it is; (b)  be suspended from or lose his/her  job;  (c) have his/her work and legacy wiped out; and (d) have to apologize on Twitter after all that.

May I say that I love the writing of both Toni Morrison and X?   I once flew to Bloomington to hear Morrison speak!  And I think I’ll reread Beloved this weekend.

In every age there are backscratchers–it is how people get ahead–but there are also people who are honest at the wrong time.   And this is the wrong time!

Thank God we have our writers.  But you know we’re in trouble when everybody raves about the TV show The Handmaid’s Tale but then hisses Margaret Atwood on Twitter for talking about “due process.”  And so they prefer TV to writing?

I think I shall spend the weekend reading Morrison, X., and Atwood.   I need to get back to words that matter.  Words that make sense.

The Habit of Living Indoors: Are Narcissists the Best Writers?

Do you have to be a narcissist to be a good writer? Or a bad writer, for that matter.

For many years I eked out a living as a freelance writer. I scribbled book reviews, features, and PR at a rapid rate. I bubbled over with thousands of words a week, enjoying writing frivolous, fun pieces.  Alas, most of the articles were ephemera, and  I have hung on mostly to the reviews and pieces about writers.  But reviews are not lucrative:   I had to fund my habit of living indoors.

Books were my life and still are, but I have never written seriously about books. If only I’d been prettier, more charming, more political, perhaps I’d have been more successful…but I suppose I would not have liked that prettier, more charming, more political person. In that respect, I am narcissistic.   I often felt like Jo in Little Women, enjoying my blood-and-thunder stories but haunted by money worries and patriarchal disapproval–Jo/Kat’s not a serious writer! I stopped writing in my free time.   All I really wanted to do was read.

When I was 18 or 19 I was sure I’d write a novel someday–when I felt like it!  The first novelist I met, outside of a fiction writing class, was a friend’s handsome, pretentious boyfriend. I was awed that he had  finished a novel, and eagerly started to read his manuscript. He was very smart… but his prose was bombastic and unpublishable.   One sentence has stayed with me: “Even the crack of dawn made him horny.”

At that age, I had more talent than I have now.  Words unselfconsciously flowed from my pen in my free time, between classes, work, and a late dinner with my boyfriend.   One evening, when a friend and I were studying for an exam for a core psychology class we’d rarely attended and bought lecture notes for at the Union, she took time off from reading about lab rats to riffle through my desk drawers.  Why didn’t I finish my brilliant novel? she demanded after half an hour.  (There wasn’t much there.)   “Well, it’s not a novel,” I tried to explain. Fiction was not my forte.  If it was, I’d have written it.  I specialized in short ephemeral articles, and now in a blog that is really just a journal of my reading!

I did write one novellla, at a rapid pace. To show how little writers know themselves,  I was not aware of the kind of book it was till I finished.   I had aimed for literary fiction, but it turned out to be women’s fiction.  One day I may go back and revise, tighten the plot, lengthen the book, and make the characters more likable.   But the project doesn’t interest me that much.  I would rather read…

 I have recently mused about the writer characters in Pamela Hansford Johnson’s superb novels.   In her books, writers are divided between the sane and sensible camp and the narcissists.   In The Last Resort (which I wrote about here), the lovely narrator, Christine, is a successful novelist, a happy wife and mother.  At weekends spent writing at a hotel, she sees a friend made very unhappy by an affair with a married man.  And after the man’s wife dies, he marries someone else.  It is a shattering scene.

And in Johnson’s brilliant Helena trilogy, her masterpiece, which I last wrote about here, the narrator, Claud Pickering, is a writer and an art historian with a deep understanding of his dysfunctional family, especially of his narcissistic stepmother, Helena.  He is one of the sanest and most responsible of characters, a cross between Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Nick Jenkins in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.  Claud is the kind of guy you want to spend time with.

But in Johnson’s hilarious Dorothy Merlin trilogy, which I chortled over last weekend, the writers are all ridiculously narcissistic. In the first book in the trilogy, The Unspeakable Skipton, we learn that the hero Daniel Skipton believes he is the best writer of his generation. He hustles a bare living in Bruges by  exploiting tourists with various scams, but his life is writing his new novel, his masterpiece, in an attic in a mouldering house.  Unfortunately, he libels so many people that the book is unpublishable.  And he has so little sense that he even satirizes his publisher, who kindly sends advances money on books they both know Daniel will never write.

But, narcissistic and malicious as Daniel is, he genuinely loves writing.  Johnson describes his touching enjoyment of the routine.

Having had his lunch and rinsed out a pair of socks (he had only two pairs and always kept one in the wash), he took his manuscript from the table drawer, ranged before him his three pens, one with black ink, one with green and one with red, and sat down to the hypnotic delight of polishing. The first draft of this book had been completed a year ago. Since then he had worked upon it every day, using the black pen for the correction of simple verbal or grammatical slips, the green pen for the burnishing style, the red for the marginal comment and suggestions for additional matter….  It was not only a great book, it was the greatest book in the English language, it would make his reputation all over the world and keep him in comfort, more than comfort, for the rest of his life.

Daniel Skipton is not the only narcissist in the trade. His rival, Dorothy Merlin, a poet/playwright who visits Bruges with her husband, Cosmo Hines, and two friends, has an inflated opinion of her own drama in verse about wombs and motherhood, which was staged as a multi-media production in London.  When she informs Daniel that her plays have to be read “on two levels,”  he is very annoyed, because he believes his own work is deeper and  should be read on seven levels!  She says,”You see, the womb in my verse is not just my womb.  It is the womb of everyone.”  And she compares herself to the Flemish painters who add scenes of domestic life behind the Madonna.

This is the kind of narcissism we love to laugh about.  Are  writers like this in real life?  Well, perhaps I’ve  met one or two, but the majority are very kind and generous.  Writers are no more alike than, say, lion tamers or Wal-Mart cashiers. Yes, they tame the lions or punch the cash register keys, but it is their bookishness that unites them at any party in a room full of geeks scanning bookshelves.

Workshop Woes & Reading K. M. Peyton’s Flambards

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop

In Bleak House, a satire of the judicial system, Dickens warns us to be wary of time-and-soul-wasting cases and complaints.

Although it is not quite Dickens, I was fascinated by an article in the Iowa City Press Citizen about a rejected writer.   Sixty-eight-year-old Dan Thomson has filed a federal complaint accusing the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop of age discrimination.

Although there are hundreds of MFA programs, Thomson applied only to Iowa, where  800 to 1,000 people apply for the 25 slots every year.  Graduates of the program include award-winning writers T. C. Boyle,  Jane Smiley, Michael Cunningham, Denis Johnson, Jorie Graham, Rita Dove, Eleanor Catton, Donald Justice, and A. M. Homes.  Thomson believes he should have been accepted.

The university says age is not a factor: the applications  go directly to the Graduate School, while the Workshop receives only the writing samples.

But the statistics do favor the young: most of the graduate students are in their twenties (but then that is always true). Between 2013 and 2017,  approximately half of those accepted  were between the ages of 18 and 25.  In the last five years, no applicants age 51 or older were accepted. The  median age for all applicants was 36, and the median age for accepted applicants was 34½.  (Read The Iowa City Press Citizen article for more information.)

Well, I thought: perhaps there is age discrimination. But the real question is:  does Thomson have talent?

I checked out the Amazon sample of Thomson’s self-published novel, The Candidate. Uh oh.  He is writing genre fiction, which is not a good fit for the very literary Iowa.

And the book could use some work.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Chapter 2:

The beautiful young blond with a face like Ingrid Bergman was a two thousand dollar a day call girl. She was flown to Norman Telos’ yacht anchored in Mobile bay by helicopter.  At 4 in the afternoon Norman and Jane Gray were lying relaxed and naked in Norman’s king size bed sipping Martinis.  Jane asked, “So what is next for you, Norman?”

Norman, “Two hours of latency recovery and then either my 65 year old penis will rise on its own for more loving, or I will give it more chemical inducements.”

The writing is clunky and cliche-ridden.  I am not saying nobody would read it, but I would not.   Phrases like “a face like Ingrid Bergman” must go.  A few hyphens would not be amiss.

Iowa is not for everybody. So why not pursue another program?  Studying al fresco is by far the most fun:  Thomson could  pick up as much at a  summer writers’ conference as in two years of critiques by Millennial students.   Writers of literary and genre fiction of all ages are treated with equal respect at these conferences.

Let me add here that I took a couple of great fiction writing classes as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa.  Anybody could sign up!

Great Bedtime Reading:  Flambards

So what’s on my bedstand?  K. M. Peyton’s award-winning Flambards trilogy.  I decided to reread it after watching the stunning TV series on DVD.

The trilogy is set in the early 20th century, before, during, and after World War I.   In Flambards, the first book, the  heroine, Christina Parsons, an orphaned heiress, goes to Flambards to live with her equine-obsessed uncle. He is crippled and lives vicariously through his oldest son, Mark, a keen horseman.  He hopes Christina will marry Mark, so the money will go into the estate, but she shrewdly realizes Mark is a womanizer and a bully

But she prefers his witty, kind, aviation-mad second son, Will, who  falls off his horse and breaks his leg and then deliberately walks on it before it heals to avoid the hated riding (he fears horses) so he can become a pilot. Ironically, he becomes (slightly) crippled like his cruel father,  though not as badly, and his stiff leg does interfere with flying.  But Will adjusts.

Christina and Will

In the second novel, The Edge of the Cloud, Christina and Will move to London and marry.  Christina works as a receptionist at a hotel, and Will is a  mechanic, engineer, and stunt-flier.  Then World War I breaks out and Will, a pilot, crashes.

The third novel, Flambards in Summer, describes Christina’s return as a widow to Flambards, where she is determined to succeed as a farmer.  Christina is self-reliant but devastated by the loss of Will, irritated by the class snobbery at Flambards,  and determined to succeed though the men are at war and she has trouble finding farm laborers. When she finds out she is pregnant, she is more determined than ever to renovate the estate. And she loves horses, so one of the first things she does is buy a horse no one else will take a chance on.

And then at a farm sale, the past fuses with the present.  She sees a car for sale, and vividly flashes back to driving with Will.

Someday I shall drive to sales in my own motor-car,” Christina said to the smart Ford. It would not be for preference, only to show status, and her success with wheat. Will had taught her to drive a motor-car. A picture of Will, leaning out of Sandy’s Model-T with his arm stretched out to pull her up, his dark eyes laughing, cap on back to front, came into her mind very suddenly, very vividly. For a brief instant Will was as near and as real as he once had been in fact. Christina gripped the horse’s halter and shut her eyes, but the dream was past almost before it had come. Her mind reached to recall the vision, but it was irrevocable, dissolved like thistledown.

I love all three of these books.  A fourth, Flambards Divided, was published in 1981 after the TV series was filmed.  I will have to find my copy.

Ms. Mirabile on The London Box & Do We Like Writers?


The London box:  Dickens’ Mrs. Lirriper, Jane Bowles’ Everything Is Nice, a D. J. Taylor omnibus, Compton Mackenzie’s The Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett, and Mavis Cheek’s The Lovers of Pound Hill.

The London box arrived.

Yes, I FedExed a box of books to myself from London.

Another stack from the London box:  Platanov's The Foundation Pit, Mishima's The Temple of Dawn, Penelope Fitzgerald's The Means of Escape, Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, Dicken's The Pickwick Papers, Robert Graves' The Golden Fleece & L. P. Hartley's My Fellow Devils

More from the London box: Platonov’s The Foundation Pit, Mishima’s The Temple of Dawn, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Means of Escape, Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, Dicken’s The Pickwick Papers, Robert Graves’ The Golden Fleece & L. P. Hartley’s My Fellow Devils

I wasn’t home to sign for it, so I begged my husband to take me to the FedEx store to pick it up.

“Couldn’t we get it on our bikes?”

“It’s huge.”

And in my mind it really WAS huge.

When he saw it, he couldn’t stop laughing.  It was the size of a slightly oversized Amazon box.

“We could have biked.”

“But it weighs 9 pounds.”

All I know is it was a struggle to lug a laptop bag and a tote bag of books into the taxi.

It’s satisfying to receive a box of books.  My husband wants Platonov’s The Foundation Pit.  We both are fans of Russian literature.

It is ridiculous that I bought a copy of The Pickwick Papers at the Dickens Museum, when I could have found it at home.

It was something about being in the Dickens Museum.  I wanted books I had bought at the Dickens Museum.

I also bought a copy of Dickens’ Mrs. Lirriper, which I have never seen anywhere except at the Dickens Museum.

And below is a scene from Hereafter, one of my favorite movies, in which Matt Damon visits the Dickens Museum.  Unfortunately there’s no sound, but you can see the museum.


Although I’m patting myself on the back for traveling cheaply, I am also relieved that my husband understands why I bought my Dickens at the Dickens Museum.

He is disappointed I didn’t go to the Sherlock Holmes Museum.

It didn’t occur to me because I was burning out, but next time.

I will return to London after I’ve read all my London books.

And I have a couple of more boxes coming, because at the end I was madly paying money for the bookstores to ship books to me.

I spent almost nothing!  Everything I did except the Dickens Museum was free.

My husband looked askance at my food bills from Tesco Express and Waitrose.  Five pounds?  All I can say is, it was a great deal cheaper than eating out.  And everything cost at least five pounds, except coffee!

Free things to do in London?  There are so many.


Storied Life of A. J. FikryI have just finished one of the most charming novels I’ve ever read, Gabrielle Zevins’ The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. I couldn’t resist a novel about a bookseller, and it is very, very funny and smoothly written.

The main character, A. J., is a rather cranky bookstore owner.  He is lonely.  He is a widower.  He misses his wife.  He has poor social skills, so he doesn’t have a particularly strong customer base. It was his wife who did the PR and who sponsored the Vampire Ball.

Every chapter begins with a brief journal entry by A. J. about a short story, and he  loves short stories more than novels.

There are many things he doesn’t like, among them Y.A. vampire books.

He doesn’t like writers.

And the only writer event he hosts in the book is something of a bust from his point of view, but the customers love it.

A. J. says about writers:

Despite the fact that he loves books and owns a bookstore, A.J. does not particularly care for writers.  He finds them to be unkempt, narcissistic, silly, and generally unpleasant people.  He tries to avoid meeting the ones who’ve written books he loves for fear that they will ruin the books for him.

This made me burst out laughing, because I organized a series of readings for various bookstores and schools years ago.  (I was a fanatic about books, and did this pro bono.)  Most of the writers were very kind and charming, and some wanted to hang out with me.  (I was MUCH younger then, and I read their books.)  Very few people at these events have read the books.

There were a few difficult writers.  I won’t pretend there weren’t.  You want to stay away from prima donnas, if you know they’re prima donnas.  They are not better writers than the non-prima donnas, but they are picky about everything:  their flights, their food, their escorts, professors putting their arms around them (these particular professors put their arms around everyone, male or female), they want juice instead of water, they can’t eat anything at the restaurant, because they’re on a special diet of beef, and they make fun of the people at the reading.  Sometimes it really puts you off a writer.  In general, though, I found them to be very easy-going people.  Book touring is part of the job.  And they were getting paid an honorarium.

So overall, though I love books, I don’t need to meet writers, even if I would like to. I do wish I’d attended something at the Oxford Literary Festival, because their standards must be high (it’s Oxford!).

There are, however, a lot of readings in Iowa City, if I want to attend.  For instance, on Saturday Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers, will be in Iowa City for two events.  And she has been longlisted for the Bailey Women’s Prize.  I’m still jet-lagged, so I won’t be there.  But someone will be thrilled.

Usually attending readings makes me want to read more of the writers’ books.  It is very unusual for it to put me off.  If you don’t have to deal personally with the writers, it’s always a breeze.

But how do you feel about writers?  Do you like writers?  Do you want to meet them?  I’m sure some of you go to readings, and some do not.    Let us know your impressions!  What’s the best event you ever attended?

Wouldn’t you like to meet Dickens?