According to yesterday’s The Globe and Mail, Charles Lamb had this to say about Percy Bysshe Shelley: “His voice was the most obnoxious squeak I ever was tormented with.” Harsh, right?
More scathing still, here’s James Dickey on Robert Frost: “If it were thought that anything I wrote were 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 twerp of a student-poet to hang on his every word, I never saw.” (The gibes get even more bilious from there. Check out the article here to see what Faulkner had to say about Twain, and which barbs Woolf had for Maugham.)
What’s going on here? These esteemed writers are acting like they’re posting in the comments section at the bottom of a CNN news story (except with correct use of adjectives and adverbs, complete sentences, and no off-topic references to President Obama’s parentage or 9/11 conspiracy theories). Certainly, literary history tells us that feuds and jealousies, petty or deep, have always existed (e.g., Plath vs. Moore). But I find it interesting that authors of such stature would think it needful or beneficial to lash out in this way. Such behavior would be simply unthinkable for a writer today.
There are a number of things about the current literary market that aren’t so great: there’s the pesky problem of publishers buying nothing lately, the confusion over print media’s role in the future, the rumors of Amazon’s gobbling up a major publishing house, and, of course, the writer’s need to do hefty self-promotional work if he or she wants to even have a shot at success. But, the hard-scrabble ahead of any writer who wants to “make it” includes a hefty dose of what’s come to be called “literary citizenship”–the practice of giving time, energy and skills back to the literary world. Of all the “platform-building” activities writers do, those that involve literary citizenship are both the most fun and most rewarding. When we as writers support others by writing reviews of their books, volunteering our time at a reading series, or even simply showing up for a reading in the neighborhood, we build connections and relationships in our industry, and we come to see other writers not as contenders for a limited slice of success, but as kindred spirits. And we learn from one another.
Are there some writers whom I do not care for? Sure. But do I hope they do poorly or lose standing? Of course not. I wish them well, even if I wish they’d write better books. I hope that Lamb-style, vengeful criticism is a thing of the past, and that writers working through today’s industry regard one another with nothing but respect when it comes to public discussion. Though I wouldn’t mind living in the Lake District like that obnoxious squeaker Shelley.