Literary Odds and Ends: Aunts, Workshops, Feuds

Blogs are like Aunt Matildas—that pesky relative who won’t stop nagging you about your eternal singleness and has an overpowering scent of musky perfume, mothballs, and peppermints. Aunt Matilda simply won’t leave you alone until you make something of yourself, and blogs are never satisfied either. “Write another post!” Well, here I am, listening to Aunt Matilda, the old dear. One can stand musky perfume only so long.

Jump-Off Question of the Day: Do writers have inferiority complexes?

I am beginning to think we do. Perhaps somewhere in the world, scribbling away with pompous aplomb in caverns draped with gold, there are a few literary mammoths who (like Hercule Poirot) say, quite simply, “I am the best.” Not me. Although I can admire such sagacity from afar, I possess no such talent. I might rest easier if I did. No, my feelings run along the lines of a chicken staring up at a peacock (the peacock being a Literary Giant) and wondering if it forgot its feathers at home. Sound like a definite inferiority complex to you?

I had this sort of panicked feeling, no doubt resulting from this complex, as we began our Senior Seminar class, the capstone course for finishing the English Writing major. This was the writing class. The one full of a room of people who would read my work, critique my work, and then send it back, probably bloodied and battered. The poor little thing. I did so love it. Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.

Actually, I’ve really loved the workshop environment. Sometimes it’s painful (Did someone really just recommend taking out that beloved sentence of mine? I spent twenty minutes figuring out just the right syntax!), but all in all, it’s been incredibly helpful. There is, however, the constant wondering if one’s literary style will be appreciated for what it is, rather than held up to a standard that doesn’t really apply. This kind of wondering always brings to my mind that classic literary feud between Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, who had very different styles, and didn’t mind admitting it.

Faulkner claimed that Hemingway “ha[d] never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” Hemingway shot back rather hotly (though he, of course, would limit himself to “said” as a dialogue tag—sorry, Hemingway): “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” Personally, without reference to the literary style of either, I think Hemingway won that round of verbal jabs. Ouch. But they’re not the only ones who have taken offense to what we’d consider the work of Literary Giants.

Charles Darwin himself came to detest one of the Untouchables. He said: “I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.” Coming from someone whose primary fascination seems to have been with bird beaks, I find this comment a real hoot. Can you imagine how Shakespeare might have responded? Possibly starting with something like “Thou lily-livered knave” and ending nowhere near as polite as that… Or he might not have said anything at all. That is the worst fate—to be ignored! Even criticism is better than indifference.

(To be fair to Darwin, in context, he is actually lamenting the fact that he seems to have lost his taste for the poetry that he used to enjoy so much, for reasons that bewilder him—but that is another blog post entirely.)

Most people tend to focus on the feud part of Faulkner and Hemingway’s relationship—certainly a troublesome one. But they had respect for each other, noting that the other was the finest author of his time. If even Faulkner and Hemingway could acknowledge skills so unlike their own, surely that acknowledgement should be able to transfer over to today’s world.

But I’ve heard a lot—and worried a lot—about the fact that it seems like only a certain kind of book will sell as good writing nowadays. Especially because my writing is so far from that style. Cut adverbs and adjectives from my work, and I’m stuck with an article or two and a pencil with the end bitten off in despair.

Still… if Faulkner and Hemingway could exist in the same universe—even in the same time period—even as enormous successes—isn’t there room for a different kind of dish at the table? I’d like to think so. The thought keeps me writing, anyway.

Curse all inferiority complexes.

(And if this blog post is sort of random and discombobulated—blame Aunt Matilda! It’s always her fault.)

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