Tuesday, April 03, 2012

What was the point in being a second-rate writer?

Clarence listened to all this with an occasional murmur, then picked up the book she had been reading. It was one of the D.H. Lawrence novels on which Guy was lecturing that term.

"Kangaroo," he read out scornfully. "These modern novelists! Why is it that not one of them is really good enough? This stuff, for instance. . . "

"I wouldn't call Lawrence a modern novelist."

"You know what I mean." Clarence flipped impatiently through the pages. "All these dark gods, this phallic stuff, this - this fascism! I can't stand it." He threw down the book and stared accusingly at her.

She took the book up. "Supposing you skip the guff, as you call it! Supposing you read what is left, simply as writing." She read aloud one of the passages Guy had marked. It was the description of the sunset over Manly Beach: 'The long green rollers of the Pacific,' 'the star-white foam', 'the dusk-green sea glimmered over with smoky rose'.

Clarence groaned through it, appalled at what was being imposed on him. "I know!" he said, in agony, when she stopped. "All that colour stuff - it's just so many words strung together. Anyone could do it."

Harriet re-read the passage through to herself. For some reason, it did not seem so vivid and exciting as it had done before Clarence condemned it. She was inclined to blame him for that. She turned on him: "Have you ever tried to write? Do you know how difficult it is?"

Well, yes. Clarence admitted he had once wanted to be a writer. He did know it was difficult. He had given up trying because, after all, what was the point in being a second-rate writer? If one could not be a great writer - A Tolstoy, A Flaubert, a Stendhal - what was the point in being a writer at all?

Disconcerted, Harriet said lamely: "If everyone felt like that, there wouldn't be much to read."

"What is there to read, anyway? Rubbish, most of it. Myself, I read nothing but detective novels."

"I suppose you do read Tolstoy and Flaubert?"

"I did once. Years ago."

"You could read them again."

Clarence gave another moan. "Why should one bother?"

"What about Virginia Woolf?"

"I think Orlando almost the worst book of the century."

"Really! And To the Lighthouse?"

Clarence wriggled in weary exasperation. "It's all right - but all her writing is so diffused, so feminine, so sticky. It has such an odd smell about it. It's just like menstruation."

Startled by the originality of Clarence's criticism, Harriet looked at him with more respect. "And Somerset Maugham?" she ventured.

"Goodness me, Harry! He's simply the higher journalism."

No one else had ever called Harriet 'Harry' and she did not like the abbreviation. She reacted sharply, saying: "Maybe Somerset Maugham isn't very good, but the others are. So much creative effort has gone into their work - and all you can say is 'Really!' and condemn them out of hand." She rose and put on her coat and fur cap. "I think we should go," she said.

--Olivia Manning, The Great Fortune

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