In the fictional world of television’s Richard Castle, (“Castle” ABC) a group of famous writers gather each week for a friendly poker games. They read each other’s work, offer suggestions and criticism, and generally support one another, all while they play poker.
We learn that Castle was mentored in the early days of his career, and that he himself mentors other writers. He reads manuscripts, offers cover quotes, and is pretty supportive of his peers. Sure, there’s some rivalry and the occasional mild insult but generally the relationships are as cosy as a cashmere blanket.
That, of course, is the fictional world. In real life, writers are sometimes less generous. Who am I kidding, writers can be vicious.
I got thinking about this a few days ago when I watched a series of actors doing those pre-Oscar interviews. “Oh I love him / her,” they gushed. “We have a great respect for one another’s process… He / She is such a wonderful human being…” These thoughts were expressed by just about every star about every other actor, producer, director and the director’s cat.
There are no bastards in Hollywood. At least, not outside the writing room.
Now, I didn’t just fall off a turnip truck so I know actors ain’t all that lovey-dovey. I worked in the theatre for several years, darling, and I know what jerks, divas and assholes practitioners of the second-oldest profession can be. (Not all. Some really were lovely.)
But writers aren’t actors and I have to wonder, are we genuinely nastier a profession than most, or is it just our talent for word-smithing makes our bitchiness more memorable?
Do we castigate our peers because we believe it is our job to tell the truth, rather than to deal in lies as actors do? Of course, actors would say that the lie begins with the writer and they’d have a point.
No one is safe. Some of the most famous writers in the world have been dumped on by their equally famous peers. For instance, Jack Kerouac got grief from Truman Capote:
“It’s not writing, it’s typing.”
And also from that giant of the literary world, Norman Mailer:
“He is as pretentious as a rich whore, sentimental as a lollypop.”
Give writers credit for one thing: at least our insults are worth the ink.
Capote himself wasn’t immune from disparagement. Gore Vidal called him,
“A fully-fledged housewife from Kansas with all the prejudices.”
Gore living up to his name. You can almost taste the blood. Mind you, that quote is almost friendly compared with these other words he aimed at the unfortunate “Breakfast at Tiffanies” author:
“Capote I truly loathed. The way you might loathe an animal. A filthy animal that has found its way into the house.”
William Faulkner said that Mark Twain was,
“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 colour to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.”
Nabokov hated Hemingway and said,
“I read him for the first time in the early Forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.”
That’s you off the Christmas card list, then.
Evelyn Waugh thought Proust was mentally defective. Virginia Woolf said James Joyce’s Ulysses was the “Work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.” And George Bernard Shaw longed to dig up Shakespeare in order to throw stones at him. Then again, the aforementioned Mark Twain wanted to dig up Jane Austen “and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
Twain also said of James Fenimore Cooper,
“There have been many daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English but they are all dead now.”
You wouldn’t want Oscar Wilde to hate your stuff because he’d be inclined to say things like:
“There are two ways of disliking poetry, one way is to dislike it, the other is to read (Alexander) Pope.”
Flaubert said of Balzac,
“What a man Balzac would have been if he had known how to write.”
Which is kind when you think of what he said of George Sand:
“A great cow full of ink.”
Not even the doyenne of the golden age of crime writing is free of critics. Ruth Rendell said,
“To say that Agatha Christie’s characters are cardboard cut-outs is an insult to cardboard cut-outs.”
Nor are all these critics mere readers of one another’s work. Here’s that charming lady, Charlotte Bronte on her sister, Anne:
“‘Wildfell Hall’ it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake – it was too little consonant with the character – tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring, inexperienced writer.”
Oh can you imagine the Christmas dinners!
All of this is amusing in its way but it’s a bit sad too. Why can’t writers nurture and support one another? Is it professional jealousy? Fear? Or is it because writers spend too much time spent alone and that makes us bitter and spiteful?
It doesn’t have to be this way. Some writers are real friends. The late PD James and Ruth Rendell were friends for more than forty years and highly supportive of each other’s work.
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis met at Oxford University and for many years met weekly at Inklings and supported one another. It all went a bit pear-shaped when Lewis married, alas.
D.H. Lawrence was so fond of Katherine Mansfield he even based Gudrun in “Women in Love” on her.
Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins were very close. When the former died, Collins said,
“We saw each other every day, and were as fond of each other as men could be. Nobody (my dear mother excepted, of course) felt so positively sure of the future before me in Literature, as Dickens did.”
That’s not to say writers have to be bosom buddies with one another. It doesn’t mean we cannot be critical or truthful with one another. Indeed, honest appraisals are one of the best ways we have of supporting one another.
When I sent the draft of my new novel to my writer friend Jane for her opinion, she replied with fourteen pages of notes. Fourteen. Only a friend would take that sort of time and be that honest. And only a friend will temper her criticism with support, with encouragement, and with plenty of positive feedback.
We are the writers of today. We are the writers of tomorrow. Will our comments about our peers pepper blogs and articles in years to come, serving as an example of ultimate bitchiness? Or will we be lauded as real-life Richard Castles: Someone who supports, guides and mentors other writers?
Choose your path wisely. You wouldn’t want your only remembered words to be a gibe, would you?