Taking It On The Chin: Handling Literary Critics

I am amused when first time published writers, usually self published vanity authors, get all testy with me when their writing is criticized, even lambasted, by one of our reviewers on this site, or by yours truly. Having been in this game of writing for some forty years, with 25 plus books published, I have had my fair share (actually, more than my fair share) of bad reviews, put downs, and slam dunks from critics and good friends.

This last weekend I came across a wonderful collection of put downs and slam dunks by writers. The book is entitled W.O.W.: Writers On Writing,edited by Jon Winoku and published first in 1986 by Running Press Books of Philadelphia.

There are many back-and-forths about Truman Capote who really bought the acid tongues out in other writers. Everyone picked on poor Truman. Here’s a sample of some of the snide remarks that the little fella generated.

Capote should be heard, not read…Gore Vidal
A Republican housewife from Kansas with all the prejudices…Gore Vidal
Truman Capote has made lying an art. A minor art…..Gore Vidal
Truman is canny as hell, but he’s not the brightest guy in the world…Norman Mailer
I think you judge Truman a bit too charitably when you call him a child: he is more like a sweetly vicious old lady…..Tennessee Williams
He’d be all right if he took his finger out of his mouth…Harold Robbins on Truman Capote

Of course, Truman Capote could also get back at writers himself with nasty zingers.

That not writing, that’s typing…..Capote on Jack Kerouac
She looks like a truck driver in drag…Capote on Jacqueline Susann
He’s a second-rate Stephen Birmingham. And Steven Birmingham is third-rate.”  Capote on Louis Auchincloss
I knew Faulkner very well. He was a great friend of mine. Well, as much as you could be friends of his, unless you were a fourteen-year-old nymphet….Truman Capote
There was a mean man….Capote on Hemingway.
Norman Mailer thinks William Burroughs is a genius, which I think is ludicrous beyond words. I don’t think William Burroughs has an ounce of talent…..Capote

Remember that line in Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye where he talks about liking a book so much he wants to call up the writer when he is done reading it? Well, if you can’t do that, hang out in famous bars in the locales where famous writers hang out and sooner or later one of them will turn up.

Years ago in Florida I was working on a book over the winter in Key West and hanging out at the Chart Room bar in a downtown hotel and early one evening Truman Capote came in. He had just had a piece published in Esquire. It was part of his last novel, a novel that never went very far and got all the rich people in New York pissed off at him.

We fell into a brief conversation, being the only two at the bar, and we got around to writing and what I was doing in Key West. I hadn’t published much and Capote was near the end of his career. What I remember about that forty-five minutes or so was how incredibility nice Capote was to me, how he talked about how to get published and how to get an agent, and what to write, and how to go about it. All of this was informative and useful and when I read snide remarks from his friends and former friends, I recall that when I left Truman and we shook hands, he wished me good luck and he said sweetly, “Look, just go ahead and write  and don’t give a shit about what others have to say about what you have written or how you have written it.”

Now, that’s good advice for any writer to take.

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  • Thanks, John, for having good taste. Some of these so-called writers don’t even know the fundamentals of correct English, let alone stylistics. Style, of course is developed by each of us out of the mass of our reading and, to a lesser extent, out of the oral narratives of our lives. Some of these books read like a sheet of sandpaper and scratch the nervous system. Others read like tarmac, bland and flat and deadening to the brain. I love trees. When I’m cross-country skiing, I sometimes stop to meditate, with only a birch for company. Sometimes I give it a hug before I continue my journey. Other times I stop under a pine and use my pole to shake a dusting of snow onto my head and shoulders. Why should these majestic and beautiful works of art die to feed the egos of crappy, self-published writers? Lauri

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