«THE TANNER LECTURES HUMAN VALUES ON Delivered at Yale University February 20-21, 1991 ROBERTSON DAVIES received his B.Litt. degree from Balliol ...»
For academic projects the rules are probably different, but for the creative writer I see no possibility of accepting handouts and maintaining total freedom. Let the writer get a job, and look after himself, and be under no obligation to call anybody “Massa.” There was another reason why I thought my best course was to earn my living as I pursued my work — by no means remunerative for many years — as a writer. It kept me in touch with the world of realities. If you read the lives of writers, you will find that very few of them have been reclusive. Flaubert was so, but not Stendhal or Balzac. Dickens’s life was a whirlwind of charitable obligations. Tolstoy ran a large estate. Dostoevsky met the world at the gaming table, and Proust met it in the salons of the aristocracy. Anthony Trollope was a senior civil servant. I will not burden you with a tedious list of examples, because I am sure you know the truth of what I am saying. The worst thing that can The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 88 happen to a writer is to draw in upon himself and his work until he knows nobody except other writers; he is then reduced to the literary desperation of writing a book about a man who is writing a book, and when he does that we know he is finished. I was always glad of the association with a wide variety of people that my work, first as a journalist and then as an academic, made necessary.
I particularly valued the association with people much younger than I that the university made inescapable. It is very bad for a writer to become imprisoned in his own generation.
I have another point to make about the value of doing something in the world other than being a writer. The daily task keeps you from writing too much. You are not obliged to keep bread in your mouth, and in the mouths of your wife and children, by snatching at every occasional article, by attending political jamborees as a “special observer,” by patching other people’s work together to make a television program, or accepting commissions to write things for big corporations that look like books but are in fact a low form of hackwork. Even if you are a successful novelist, it is not in your best interest to have to bring out a book every year in order to please your public and build up an income from paperback sales. I am sure we can all think of writers who write far too much; their talent has become diseased, hypertrophied because of continual gross and indecent solicitation of the imagination. If you reply that Balzac and Dickens did it, I invite you to look at the infinitely larger number of writers who have done so to their hurt.
How the work is actually done is in part an exploration of drudgery, of daily application, of heaping up the pile of finished pages as the beaver builds his dam. But if you are really a writer, you probably like that drudgery better than anything else you could possibly be doing. It is during those hours of drudgery that you are most in touch with what is of greatest value in yourself.
You are creating something, and therefore you are to some extent an artist; you are doing it by means of the technique you have Reading and Writing [DAVIES] 89 painstakingly acquired, and perhaps mastered, and therefore you are a craftsman, and there is a special delight in plying one’s craft.
Again I recur to the questions I am asked by the people who write to me. Young people — schoolboys and girls who are put up to this kind of pestering by their teachers — often ask, with youthful bluntness, “Where do you get your ideas from?” My usual, perfectly honest reply is, “I don’t get them; they get me.” If you have to rummage around finding something to write about, perhaps your vocation is less insistent than you suppose. Often these young inquirers read a book of mine — read it once, in the desperate rush which is apparently inseparable from modern education — and then they tell me what it means. Or rather they inquire about what it means indirectly, by a form of words that fills me with the desire to kill them. They look me in the eye and declare, “What you’re trying to say is...,” and that is where I choke them off, roaring, “I’m not trying to say anything; I am saying it with all the art and skill that I have acquired in a lifetime of hard work.” But what I really ought to say is, “The book does not call for your reductive, half-baked explanation; it exists, and to you it may be a tale or a parable, or a direct revelation of reality; you will gain nothing by pulling it to pieces. It is like a clock, and if you observe it understandingly it will tell you what time it is in my life and yours, but if you pull it apart you will have nothing but a handful of junk.” I do not often go so far as to say this, because I know that these children are being taught a system of criticism which is only criticism of a low order, and which is really an escape from direct experience of a work of art.
I do not wholly blame the teachers; they are confronted with classes of students whose understanding is of the uttermost variability, and to talk about art to such a chance assembly is to embark on stormy and dangerous seas. The teacher’s job is to teach, and artistic sensibility is not to be taught, so it must be feigned.
I must say in justice that from time to time I encounter students who really do know what a book is and approach it as a work of The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 90 art, and receive from it whatever a work of art is able to give them at a time when they are still green in understanding.
About adult critics I shall not speak. They rank from sensitive and deeply intelligent writers whose opinions must be respected, even if they are not shared, on down the steep descent to the large group whom Yeats dismissed as “sciolists and opinionated bitches.” Every time a writer publishes a book he must run the gauntlet of criticism, the worst of which comes from — again I quote Yeats — A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind That never looked out of the eye of a saint Or out of a drunkard’s eye.6 I am speaking to you very personally. Whenever I meet with harsh or scornful criticism — and I assure you that I do, with each new book, encounter some of this — I reflect that my first novel came out in 1951, and it was dismissed by a majority of critics as an amusing but inconsiderable piece of work; but it is still in print, and sells pretty well, and some very intelligent people write to me who have found it much to their liking; whereas the criticism is forgotten and many of the critics are dead and rotten. The best advice I know for the writer on the matter of criticism was given by Thornton Wilder; he said that a writer should certainly read criticism of his work and give it adequate but not prolonged consideration, or else he would find that the critic had wormed into his mind and was writing his next book. To which I would add that it must always be remembered that the critic is seeking to enhance his own reputation, and may not be wholly scrupulous about the way he does it.
When reading reviews, it is necessary to consider the way in which they are written. If a critic can really write, it is probably worthy of your attention. But many critics are miserable craftsmen in the art they seek to guide.
6 William Butler Yeats, “The Seven Sages.”[DAVIES] Reading and Writing 91
Perhaps it is too much to expect the author to distinguish at all times between serious criticism and newspaper and magazine reviewing. The latter is likely to be hasty, and undertaken by someone under stress and perhaps burdened by a sense of his own peripheral relationship to literature. But there — is one to regard anything that is published as “literature”? How much of what appears every year must be dismissed as honest in intention, but trivial in attainment ?
To return to the aspiring writers of whom I spoke a few minutes ago, and who eagerly seek guidance about how to become writers, where are they to look? Not far, for there are all kinds of books that profess to teach methods of writing, fiction and nonfiction, poetry and the steamiest sort of prose. I bought one such magazine when I was thinking about what I would say to you.
From time to time I receive through the mail offers to teach me to write, by some infallible method, but I have never had time to accept them. But in preparation for today I thought I had better find out what these helpful people were offering. The cover of my magazine proclaimed “How to Write Passionate Love Scenes...
and Still Respect Your Typewriter in the Morning.” Much is suggested in that title. Is the reader to expect that he will not only learn to write passionate love scenes, but that he will himself experience them vicariously? To a certain sort of mind, the prospect is alluring. The imaginative preparation, or foreplay; the turning down of the sheets, so to speak; the actual writing, or deliciously prolonged orgasm; the sense of achievement, of having transformed erotic fantasy into art. And you can do it over and over again, without fatigue or disgust —... thus, thus, keeping endless holiday Let us together closely lie, and kiss, There is no labour, nor no shame in this;
This hath pleased, doth please, and long will please; never Can this decay, but is beginning ever.7 7 Ben Jonson’s translation of Petronius Arbiter’s poem which begins “Foeda est in coitu et brevis voluptas.” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 92 I was astonished when I read the article to find it quite sensible;
its counsel was, “Don’t overdo things.” But the title, as it appeared on the cover — that was aimed straight at the eager, desirous heart.
The magazine was full of advice, which may be good. I don’t know because little of it concerned me. I don’t particularly want to know “how to write irresistible nonfiction” nor do I want advice about computers because I do not own one and could not manage it if I did. I don’t worry about collecting from slow-paying magazines. I don’t want to know how to improve my writers’ group, because I shrink from the notion of writers’ groups; I don’t want to master the building block of poetry and don’t believe such a thing exists; nor do I seek “a playful guide to being a Southern writer.” I was grateful that at Christmas nobody gave me the foolishly suggestive “Take an Author to Bed” poster. I am interested that the magazine calls loudly for novels in which “safe sex is eroticised and characters are sensuously — and routinely — conscious of their own and their partners’ health” because this shows that the magazine really has its heart in the right place and wishes to be associated with a “caring community.” Literary aid against AIDS, in fact.
As a writer, I have my share of intuition, and as I looked through that magazine I had a strong sense of the sort of reader at whom it was aimed: a lonely person, whose youth was slipping away; a reader who will hopefully cut out the coupon that is appended to an advertisement that begins, “You Can Make Up to $9,800 in 24 Hours!” and which describes the literary life as “The Royal Road to Riches”; a reader unsophisticated enough to believe that writers live marvelous social lives, eat and drink very high on the hog, and have access to unlimited, apocalyptic sex.
A wistful reader and, I fear, an untalented one.
It is very sad. People of that sort do not, so far as I know, imagine that they could learn to write music by mastering a few easy tips, or that they could paint pictures that anybody would Redding and Writing [DAVIES] 93 want. What on earth makes them think that they can be writers?
It would be interesting to talk about that.
I should be sorry if you received the impression from anything I have said that I regard writing as being wholly remote from the ordinary concerns of life, and unheeding of what is going on in the world. The world around the writer presses upon him as it does on everybody else, and alters his way of working, although I do not think it alters what he most seriously works with, and has worked with ever since the printed book became generally available.
Ever since 1945 we have heard a great deal about the writer who is said to be engagé, meaning involved in current affairs and politics and social movements. The idea is one which many people, including some good writers, have found attractive. It seems to get the writer out of his solitary cell and into the forum. H e devotes his skills of persuasion to manifestly good causes — or causes which seem good at the time — and politicians and demagogues and leaders of all kinds like to see a few writers on their side; it suggests an intellectuality which may not otherwise be strongly apparent. Unquestionably some writers are deeply moved by political and social causes, and they write with power to support whatever they think is necessary to bring about a better world.
Every revolution has had a few writers involved in it at the beginning; by the end they are frequently either disillusioned or dead.
But it would be wrong to dispute their sincerity or their goodness of heart.
There are many more writers, however, who regard themselves as engagé because it gives them a direction they would not otherwise have. It is a truism to say that a writer writes best when he writes of something that presses deeply upon his consciousness, and demands to be heard. It is from the depths that the real inspiration rises. But there are scores of writers, sufficiently successful to attract attention from a public which knows their names The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 94 if not their works, and upon whom nothing really presses very strongly. They want a theme; they want something that gives direction to their work. They are looking for a cause, and a vast array of causes lies open to them, waiting for them to make a choice.