Adapted from my Twitter feed. Saturday. February 13, 2010.
Blogger I admire posted a quote from a novel.
That was it, the whole post, just the quote. No big deal. I do that myself. post quotes from books, poems, without comment, just because I think they’re meaningful and well-written.
Passage must have struck her as meaningful and well-written.
Struck me as fatuous, self-important, self-congratulatory, sentimental and cynical in its sentimentality, and, more to the point, just the sort of thing that asshole would write.
That asshole being the novelist not the blogger.
See, I met him.
Clearly didn’t like him.
He came to Iowa to read when he was young and I was younger and in grad school there.
At the time he’d published two collections of short stories I’d liked a whole lot and an autobiographical novel that hadn’t wowed me like the stories.
Novel required readers to like and admire the protagonist far more than he deserved to be liked and admired.
Plus, it was too obviously and heavily influenced by The Adventures of Augie March. I’ve long since learned to sympathize with writers who can’t match the great writers that have inspired them, but at the time I was a hard-case and I tended to think things like, If you can’t write as well as Bellow then don’t go out of your way to draw comparisons between yourself and Bellow.
I wasn’t a complete prig though.
The stories were excellent and I was inclined to think of the novel as a product of his youth and the stories as indicators of the great writer he would become.
The writer went out of his way to prove me wrong by being exactly like the protagonist of his novel. Self-congratulatory, self-obsessed, self-important, and nowhere near as bright as he thought he was and expected us to think he was.
Just as with the main character of his novel, he required us to like and admire him far more than he deserved.
And the reasons he was confident that we would like and admire him didn’t seem to have anything to do with the reason we’d packed the auditorium to hear him read---his talent as a writer and the excellence of his stories.
Pompous, self-congratulatory, fatuous, full of it, but his self-admiration wasn’t connected to his talent.
It wasn't as a writer he expected us to think as highly of him as he thought of himself. It was as a man of the world. He was "smart," knew how all the games were played.
Writing, literature--games he'd mastered. Proof of that wasn't his good reviews. It was his big advances. Six figures for next book.
Plus, he was "funny." All his jokes cynical or insults. Actually made fun of handicapped. Serious jerk.
Takes a lot of guts to stand in front of a crowd of young aspiring writers who've come to hear you read your fiction and spend the time bragging how you’re so much smarter, savvier, and successful than they are or can ever hope to be.
Was never able to read his fiction after that without annoyance. Finally gave up on him.
Probably unfair of me. Lots of great writers have been serious jerks. Doesn't affect my appreciation for their work. But I never met them.
Their serious jerkiness is an abstraction. Almost another fiction. The biographical Dostoevsky as much a character as Prince Myshkin.
Maybe you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned the writer’s name.
It’s like this. He was young and flush with success. He might have matured, learned some humility. I have reason to think he hasn’t, that he’s grown more pompous, more self-congratulatory, more fatuous. But I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting him again. And whatever he is or was, I don’t want my impression of him to ruin his writing for anybody, particularly that blogger.
But really his name doesn’t matter because who he is doesn’t matter as much as what he was, a famous author who turned out to be a disappointing asshole. The history of literature is full of those. A similar story could be told about any number of writers.
The details change but the moral remains the same: Avoid meeting writers whose work you admire.
In fact, I have a similar story from that very same year, about a famous poet who came to speak to a class I was in. Might not have been as big a jerk as he came across as.
He might’ve just been drunk.
Reminds me. I’ve been looking for an opportunity to link to this post by Kit Stolz, written last May around the time Blake Bailey's biography of John Cheever came out and inspired a lot of people, including me, to hold forth on what a colossal asshole Cheever could be. Kit felt we were giving Cheever a bum deal, considering all the even more colossal literary assholes whose colossal assholery seems to get easily excused, forgiven, overlooked, or explained away.
Read Kit’s post, Misreading (and Misunderstanding) Cheever.