The Dyers Hand and Other Essays

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Moreover, unlike a scientist, he is usually even more ignorant of what his colleagues are doing than is the general public. A poet over thirty may still be a voracious reader, but it is unlikely that much of what he reads is modern poetry. Very few of us can truthfully boast that we have never condemned a book or even an author on hearsay, but quite a lot of us that we have never praised one we had not read.

Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off.


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One cannot blame the reviewers themselves. Most of them, probably, would much prefer to review only those books which, whatever their faults, they believe to be worth reading but, if a regular reviewer on one of the big Sunday papers were to obey his inclination, at least one Sunday in three his column would be empty. Again, any conscientious critic who has ever had to review a new volume of poetry in a limited space knows that the only fair thing to do would be to give a series of quotations without comment but, if he did so, his editor would complain that he was not earning his money.

Reviewers may justly be blamed, however, for their habit of labeling and packaging authors. At first critics classified authors as Ancients, that is to say, Greek and Latin authors, and Moderns, that is to say, every post-Classical Author. Then they classified them by eras, the Augustans, the Victorians, etc. Very soon, it seems, they will be labeling authors, like automobiles, by the year. Already the decade classification is absurd, for it suggests that authors conveniently stopped writing at the age of thirty-five or so. Occasionally I come across a book which I feel has been written especially for me and for me only.

What is the relevance of his words fifty years after they were printed in this book? Well, to my mind every word from the above quotes is violently relevant today, perhaps even more so than in the old, pre-Internet times, when information was less accessible but genuine knowledge as opposed to sham showing off was more common.

Until not so long ago it was the latest fashion. Far too many people never could comprehend that better research does not necessarily make a better novel, or vice versa, and they are barking up the wrong tree. Nor have they often shown the common sense to judge a book within its genre. Nothing of this stupefying nonsense is a modern invention. Far from it. The chances are that the phenomenon is as old as literature itself.

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But it may be argued that today it is stronger than ever before, partly because it is relatively easy to obtain a global perspective. Nowadays we also have greater-than-ever separation into genres and subgenres, one more inane than the other, all of them as ephemeral as the morning dew. Then again, if they flourish, if there is a public big enough to support them, we deserve them. But these are fairly trivial matters or are they? As for the compelling idea about established authors and our lives, it holds true for our favourite authors and our characters as well.

Every new writer one starts exploring is an adventure of the spirit. It may just prove to be of paramount personal importance. I have allowed myself the impertinence to insert some personal remarks in square brackets, mostly referring to some at least to me interesting dis similarities with Maugham:.

The Dyers Hand And Other Essays

Lawyers and doctors can entertain each other with stories about interesting cases, about experiences, that is to say, relate to their professional interests but yet impersonal and outside themselves. Writers have no impersonal professional interests. The literary equivalent of talking shop would be writers reciting their own work at each other, an unpopular procedure for which only very young writers have the nerve.

No poet or novelist wishes he were the only one who ever lived, but most of them wish they were the only one alive, and quite a number fondly believe their wish has been granted. Every writer would rather be rich than poor, but no genuine writer cares about popularity as such.

He needs approval of his work by others in order to be reassured that the vision of life he believes he has is a true vision and not a self-delusion, but he can only be reassured by those whose judgment he respects. It would only be necessary for a writer to secure universal popularity if imagination and intelligence were equally distributed among all men.

Leaving aside, for the sake of simplicity, the profound differences between Western and Eastern cultures, even the most universally admired creative forces that the Western civilization has ever produced, together with some of their finest works, have had their merciless detractors. But since the examples can easily be multiplied, maybe there is more in them than that.

How happy the lot of the mathematician!

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He is judge solely by his peers and the standard is so high that no colleague or rival can ever win a reputation he does not deserve. No cashier writes a letter to the press complaining about the incomprehensibility of Modern Mathematics and comparing it unfavorably with the good old days when mathematicians were content to paper irregularly shaped rooms and fill bathtubs without closing the waste pipe. Among those works which are failures because their initial conceptions were false or inadequate, the number of self-commissioned works may well be greater than the number commissioned by patrons.

The degree of excitement which a writer feels during the process of composition is as much an indication of the value of the final result as the excitement felt by a worshiper is an indication of the value of his devotions, that is to say, very little indication.


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  8. It is true that when he is writing a poem, it seems to a poet as if there were two people involved, his conscious self and a Muse whom he has to woo or an Angel with whom he has to wrestle, but, as in an ordinary wooing or wrestling match, his role is as important as Hers. The Muse, like Beatrice in Much Ado , is a spirited girl who has as little use for an abject suitor as she has for a vulgar brute.

    Only a man fully immersed in the Bard can make it.

    I really mean like

    We should be grateful. To keep his errors down to minimum, the internal Censor to whom a poet submits his work in progress should be Censorate. It should include, for instance, a sensitive only child, a practical housewife, a logician, a monk, an irreverent buffoon, and even, perhaps, hated by all others and returning their dislike, a brutal, foul-mouthed drill sergeant who considers all poetry rubbish.

    The intellect of man is forced to choose. Perfection of the life or of the work.


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    5. This is untrue; perfection is possible in neither. All one can say is that a writer who, like all men, has his personal weaknesses and limitations, should be aware of them and try his best to keep them out of his work. For every writer, there are certain subjects which, because of defects of his character and his talent, he should never touch. One is that though the whole world, with everyone in it and all its sights and events, is your material, you yourself can only deal with what corresponds to some secret spring in your own nature.

      The mine is incalculably rich, but each one of us can get from it only a definite amount of ore. Thus in the midst of plenty the writer may starve to death. His material fails him and we say that he has written himself out. I think there are few writers who are not haunted by the fear of this. I discovered my limitations and it seemed to me that the only sensible thing was to aim at what excellence I could within them. The integrity of a writer is more threatened by appeals to his social conscience, his political or religious convictions, than by appeals to his cupidity.

      It is morally less confusing to be goosed by a traveling salesman than by a bishop. He has said a good many wise things as indeed a sage should but this was a very silly one; for the reader has nothing to do with the motive for which the author writes. He is only concerned with the result. Many writers need the spur of necessity to write at all Samuel Johnson was one of them , but they do not write for money. It would be foolish of them if they did, for there are few avocations in which with equal ability and industry you cannot earn more money than by writing.

      Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about. There is certain kind of person who is so dominated by the desire to be loved for himself alone that he has constantly to test those around him by tiresome behavior; what he says and does must be admired, not because it is intrinsically admirable, but because it is his remark, his act. Does not this explain a good deal of avant-garde art?

      It's like originality: no one can be original by trying. The original artist is only being himself; he puts things in what seems to him a perfectly normal and obvious way: because it's fresh and new to you you say he's original.