ac or celebrity or vieillard terrible could be put in his place. HoracenWalpole did it to David Hume in Paris on November 11,n1766. I remember—I was there. “You know, in England wenread their works, but seldom or never take notice of authors.nWe think them sufficiently paid if their books sell, and of coursenleave them in their colleges and obscurity-, by which means wenare not troubled with their vanity and impertinence.” Younshould have seen Dave’s face, but enough about the 18th century,neven though they were better days—public hangings andnall that.nMy patience with the 19th century has long been exiiausted;nthere are just too many bad examples. Shelley should havenbeen drowned in his bath, if he ever took one, and not in thenGulf of Spezia. Wordsworth (who did write some good poems,nI must admit) should have been hanged for his youthful radicalism,nand quartered for his aged pomposity. Keats and EmilynBronte could write, but the worst example was Byron, becausenhis only subject was himself He was the first writer-as-celebrityn(in our sense), and his death at Missolonghi was a good careernmove. As for the rest of this unsatisfactor)’ centur)’, I will onlynpoint out that Dickens himself is the protagonist of all his works,nand that he ended up making public appearances and readingnfrom his work. Sound familiar? As far as our own shores in thatnperiod are concerned, I have always been perplexed as to hownRalph Waldo Emerson escaped the attentions of an enragednmob. Such an intervention would have helped a lot, but whyncry about unspilled milk?nOur century began with the cult of Tolstoy, and the chiefncuUist—as far as I can tell—was Tolstoy. The whole stor)’ is asnsad as it is disgusting, but we have to remember that there hadnbeen a time when Tolstoy wrote with matchless clarity. Whennwe recall Tolstoy’s cult of his own simplicity — he was, likenRichard III and Ben Franklin, proud of his own humility—wenrealize that nothing is safe from gross corruption, and certainlynnot the vainglor)’ of authors.nThe rest of the centuiy is pretty much a loss as fiir as mentalnhealth is concerned, but I blame two greatly gifted and photogenicnwriters for setting prominently destructive examples.nWilliam Faulkner, his other virhies nohvithstanding, never saidn”no” to a photo opportunity or a chance to spout off ErnestnHemingway was even worse as far as self-absorption was concerned,ntaking more trouble with his endless portraits in Life thannhe did with his books, \1iatever their merits, these two did a lotnof damage to others who wanted “to be writers”—that is, to he inngossip columns, to drink, to blow smoke. So much for the 20thncentur)’.nI have come to think of wrihng as something like harmonicanplaying: In most cases, it is merely a painful imposition thatnshould be suppressed. Flannery O’Connor once said somethingnsimilar, but she was always an excephon. I’he queshon is,nhow can we effectively suppress writing? Well, it is too late tontell Virginia Woolf to go jump in the lake (she already did that),nbut it is not too late to discourage the young ruthlessly. Further,nwe can refuse to entertain bad writing before our eyes, or to indulgenthe vanity of authors as they blather on the tube aboutntheir creative process. We can also refuse to accept any politicalninstruction from poets and fictionists. Wlien it is too late tonsuppress writing or to nip it in the bud, as witii Vidal or evennMailer, then the advice to them must be, “Do give up your daynjob.” That ought to do the trick.
January 1975April 21, 2022By The Archive