Writers About Themselves

Despite the sweeping success of the Animal Farm, George Orwell suspected his next book would become a failure. Throughout his life, he thought that each of his new undertakings was bound to fail. But Orwell’s fear was not a bad thing, since it drove him to do more and to continually struggle for success.

I am intrigued with famous writers’ lack of contentment when they describe their own successful lives. At eighty-one, Somerset Maugham said in an interview that he did not want his biography written, for his life was “bound to be dull,” and he did not want “to be associated with dullness.” But he never was. Among the most prolific and successful writers, Maugham had seen his plays simultaneously performed in London theaters; his novels, beginning with his masterpiece, Of Human Bondage, were adapted into popular films. He had traveled the world to research his fiction and early on, during the Great War, even did some spying for the British. Throughout his literary career of over six decades Maugham did what he loved, saying that writing was “the most enthralling of human activities.”

Like Charles Strickland in The Moon and the Sixpence, who abruptly changes his career to become an artist, Maugham had left medicine upon discovering his true vocation. But unlike Strickland, who died in oblivion, Maugham enjoyed fame and popular success few serious writers ever achieve. However, it’s not usual for writers to make dismissive remarks about their lives and work. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy did just that. When writing The Idiot, his most original novel, Dostoevsky was continually disappointed with its execution and complained that he was implementing only one-tenth of his poetic idea.

One of the most successful writers of all times, Tolstoy, was perennially dissatisfied with his own character, life, and literary production. Later he made his self-dissatisfaction a virtue. According to Tolstoy’s philosophy, one should perennially strive for perfection––an idea that prevented him from celebrating his achievement at any stage. He was rarely content with his writing since it did not measure up to the ideal.

Tolstoy had said that an artist invests the best of himself into his work, “hence his writing is beautiful and his life is bad.” But upon achieving celebrity, he entirely dismissed his great literature, along with his vocation as a novelist. Among writers who had been critical of their own work Tolstoy’s remarks about his novels stand out as most ruthless. Can this be fathomed? This is the topic of my next post.

This post was inspired by Michael Shelden’s biography of Orwell and by Selina Hastings’ The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham.

Writers: Rating Their Own Books

Upon completing his first great novel, Tolstoy told a friend, “I’ve stopped writing, and will never again write verbose nonsense like War and Peace… I swear I’ll never do it again.” The story repeated itself when, after finishing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy dismissed it in one sentence: “I assure you that this vile thing no longer exists for me.” While he was celebrated as the greatest living writer, Tolstoy moved on to study religion and to make his own translation of the Gospels. His refusal to take his artistic achievement for granted allowed him to move on and explore life from other angles.
Tolstoy’s scathing remarks about his fiction remind me of Somerset Maugham’s story about Marcel Proust told in the introduction to his novel Of Human Bondage. Proust decided to review his own novel (I presume it was his monumental In Search of Lost Time), thinking he could do it better than a critic. Having written the review, Proust asked a friend, a young writer, to submit it under his own name. The review was turned down: the editor said that Marcel Proust would never forgive him for publishing such an insensitive piece of criticism. Proust must have torn his own book to pieces, without realizing it. Maugham, who called Proust’s novel “the greatest fiction to date,” thought that authors alone know what they fell short of accomplishing: “Their aim is perfection and they are wretchedly aware that they have not attained it.” But if authors cannot be trusted to judge their own work, why listen to their remarks? I think that a sense of openness is essential for any writer or an artist.
Writers of today are silent about their failings. I could give examples of the opposite when, facing pressure to promote their books, some get carried away in praising them. Orlando Figes, the author of prize-winning books on Russian history, was exposed in 2010 on Amazon’s British site assessing his own book as “beautiful and necessary” and rating his competitors’ books as “rubbish” and “pretentious.”
I’m troubled by the fact that the book industry has become so commercialized that authors no longer tell the reader what they actually think about their writing.
While in the days of Tolstoy and Maugham a reader was perceived as a trusted friend, now he is treated like a customer. Writers of the past were frank with their audiences –– and I think about this when reading blurbs on the book covers describing every modern novel as fascinating and every biography as definitive.
Writers of today participate in publishers’ boot camps where they are trained to promote their own books. They learn to listen to readers’ praise and to ignore their mispraise.
I’m not suggesting that someone should be trying to match Tolstoy’s remarks about Anna Karenina, a book he described as “unbearably repulsive.” But I regret that being honest or humble is no longer an option for a writer. In the introduction to Of Human Bondage Maugham wrote apologetically, “This is a very long novel and I am ashamed to make it longer by writing a preface to it.” Today, describing one’s book as less than perfect is a costly mistake, so truth suffers as a result.