Bosie: The Case for the Defense

On February 26, the Wandsworth LGBTQ+ Forum hosted a theatrical event, “The Trial of Lord Alfred Douglas,” the mock trial staged at the Oscar Wilde Temple, to determine whether Douglas was guilty of the physical and artistic murder of Oscar Wilde. The case for the prosecution was handled author and activist Peter Scott-Presland, who argued that Bosie was a horrible little reckless rat and but for him Wilde would have lived to be 95, would have written things far greater than he did in his life and would have a statue on horseback. (That is my paraphrase.) Counsel for the defense Andrew Lumsden, a member of the Gay Liberation Front argued that Bosie was a gay rights pioneer and that England, not he, was guilty of Wilde’s murder. Listening I had something of the sense of what would happen if you set Richard Ellmann’s “Oscar Wilde” up against Neil McKenna’s “The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde” and the two books started to argue with each other.

The event was recorded, so you can listen for yourself and play your own part as a juror.

 

I don’t find myself in sympathy with either of these arguments. If you will indulge me, le me play the part of the defense for a moment:

As fun as it is to argue over whether Lord Alfred Douglas was a reckless little rat or admirable in his boldness for the cause of gay rights, it’s not actually all that relevant to the question of whether he is guilty of Wilde’s downfall. The question before the jury is whether Douglas knew or should have known that his actions would likely lead to Wilde’s downfall and early death.

To ask would Wilde have suffered an early death but for Douglas is to ask whether the outcome was inevitable. Looking back it sure seems that way. Looking forward, as they were, there were many possible paths.

For many reasons Wilde’s case was a-typical. Because of this, all of Wilde’s friends’ experience worked against them. As the prosecution points out, the circle of activists surrounding Wilde (Douglas was not the only champion of “the cause”) did know of the fallen martyrs, the people who were sent to jail. They also knew of many, many men who had their cases brushed under the rug because they were too publicly embarrassing. Or who paid the blackmail to the right renters and solicitors to make things go away. There were even cases of people they knew to be homosexual who sued over the libel of being called homosexual and won. It was perfectly reasonable to believe Wilde was going to win his libel suit or after that to win his criminal trials.

If we are to decide whether or not Wilde would have gone to prison but for Douglas, do we not need to also have trials for all the other “but fors” that had to line up just right to produce this historical outcome?

Douglas did urge Wilde to press on with his libel suit, and of course he had special influence, but he was not alone in this. Until years after Wilde’s death, it was common for people to talk about Wilde being urged on by his friends in the plural. None of these friends pushed him in that direction because they wanted Wilde dead, or didn’t care if he was destroyed. They believed he would triumph. Until the second day of Wilde’s libel trial, when things took a shocking turn for the worse, the press largely agreed. If there was that much public sentiment that the case would be ruinous–for Queensberry– can we expect Douglas or anyone else to be certain they were wrong?

 

 

15 Bookish Battles

There is an expression that you should never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. Writers are an emotionally sensitive lot, and the solitude and reflection necessary to the profession can just as equally give way to obsessing over perceived slights and injustices. These, in turn, poduce some of history’s most highly articulate invective. As the author of Oscar’s Ghost (just released in paperback) I explored the long and bitter feud between poet Lord Alfred Douglas and essayist and literary executor Robert Ross over Oscar Wilde’s prison manuscript De Profundis. Here are 15 more literary feuds for your consideration.

Diminishing Intellect: Virginia Woolf and Arnold Bennett

Samira Ahmed, writing for the BBC, called Arnold Bennett “the most successful British celebrity you’ve never heard of.” He wrote more than thirty novels and a dozen plays. It is estimated that he wrote half a million words a year. He had great political and cultural influence and when he died in 1931, the headlines proclaimed “History is Bound to Rank Him Among the Greatest of His Period.” So why is he so obscure today? A large part of the blame can be laid at the feet of Virginia Woolf who, along with the Bloomsbury set of modern writers, trashed him both before and after his death. Bennett is perhaps best known to day not for his own work, but for the way Virginia Woolf used him as a foil.

In her 1919 essay “Modern Novelist,” Woolf heaped scorn on the popular authors of the Edwardian era, including Bennett. Bennett came from a working class background, but had become wealthy through his popular and prolific writing. Like many a writer who counts on his work to pay his bills, his output was a mix of serious novels and middlebrow newspaper columns. He often defended the notion that a concern for the market did not make one a lesser writer.  Woolf’s snobbishness rubbed him the wrong way and he sometimes referred to her as the “Queen of the Highbrows.”

Woolf’s distaste for Bennett became more pronounced with the release of his 1920 Our Women: Chapters in the Sex Discord. Bennett considered himself to be a feminist, but his was a 1920s form of feminism. He championed women’s right to economic freedom and education and railed against the exploitation of female shop workers. On the other hand he advanced the case that men were better writers, philosophers and thinkers than women. (Women taking “men’s jobs” in the literary sphere was more of a personal threat than a woman managing a store.) “With the possible exception of Emily Bronte no woman novelist has yet produced a novel to equal the great novels of men.”

Woolf was working on Jacob’s Room when she read a review of Bennett’s book and sent a spirited letter to The New Statesman in rebuttal, “…though pessimism about the other sex is always delightful and invigorating, it seems a little sanguine of Mr. Bennett… to indulge in it with such certainty on the evidence before them.” She added that while readers might be tempted to infer that “the intellect of the male sex is steadily diminishing, it would be unwise, until they have more evidence than the great war and the great peace supply, to announce it as fact.”

Bennett’s response came in the form of a review of Jacob’s Room.

I have seldom rend a cleverer book than Virginia Woolf’s ‘Jacob’s Room,’ a novel which has made a great stir in a small world. It is packed and bursting with originality, and it is exquisitely written. But the characters do not vitally survive in the mind because the author has been obsessed by details of originality and cleverness. I regard this book as characteristic of the new novelists who have recently gained the attention of the alert and the curious, and I admit that for myself I cannot yet descry any coming big novelists.

Woolf responded with a lecture in Cambridge in 1924, which she later published under the title of Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown. The text is still an English department staple. In her lecture she claimed there had been a turning point in the history of the novel, she asserted the superiority of her own writing style and proclaimed Bennett a shallow example of the old ways of thinking. “Mrs. Woolf’s essay came loose from its context, and has been read as if it were a complete, objective statement about the differences between two writing generations. But in fact, it is neither complete nor objective: it is simply one blow stuck in a quarrel that ran for more than ten years and was far more personal than generational,” wrote Samuel Hynes. In any case, Woolf seems to have had the last word.

A Punch in the Eye: Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez

What happened between these Nobel-prize winning authors is well known because it happened in public at a 1976 film premiere.  Why it happened is a bit fuzzier. The writers had been close friends in the 1960s, According to the Guardian, Garcia Marquez went up to Vargas Llosa with open arms, said, “Mario!” and got a punch in the eye  Llosa shouted something that has mostly been reported as, “How dare you come and greet me after what you did to Patricia in Barcelona!,” Patricia was Vargas Llosa’s wife. Marquez later called a friend and told him his side of the story, claiming he had no idea why Llosa had socked him and asking to have his black eye photographed for posterity.

The Independent tells it this way:

Mario strayed. He fell in love with a beautiful Swedish air stewardess whom he met while travelling. He left his wife and moved to Stockholm.

Distraught, his wife Patricia went to see her husband’s best friend, Gabriel. After discussing the matter with his wife, Mercedes, he advised Patricia to divorce Mario. And then he consoled her. No one else quite knows what form this consolation took…. Eventually Mario returned to his wife, who told him of Gabriel’s advice to her, and of his consolation.

Vargas Llosa and Garcia Marquez had political differences as well. Llosa called Maraquez “Castro’s courtesan.” After the punch heard ’round the world the two lions of Latin American literature didn’t speak to each other for another 30 years.

Using a Club as a Club: William Thackeray and Charles Dickens

Illustration for Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

In 1858, Thackeray and Dickens were two of England’s best known writers. There had always been a certain rivalry between them, but that year it broke out into outright hostility thanks to a young journalist Edmund Yates who had written an unflattering profile of Thackeray for a small magazine called “Town Talk.” Both Thackeray and Yates were members of a gentleman’s club called The Garrick Club. Club membership was an important social distinction, and Thackeray took offense at being so mistreated by a fellow club member and he tried to get Yates expelled.

Yates believed he was outgunned by the author of Vanity Fair, so he sought the help of his mentor, Charles Dickens. Dickens was happy to intervene because not only did he think Yates had been wronged, he suspected Thackeray had been spreading rumors about his relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan. The affair had caused Dickens’ marriage to fall apart. You can read some of the letters produced by their squabble at Lapham’s Quarterly.

Yates lost the club battle, and continued to attack Thackeray in pamphlets and articles over the course of the next year. Most people assumed Dickens was behind the campaign, and when this threatened his reputation he finally convinced Yates to stop, but the relationship between Thackeray and Dickens remained sour until shortly before Thackaray’s death.

Bone of Contention: Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes

Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, two luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, met in 1925 and quickly became the greatest of friends. Although it was not a romance, their friendship had a special intensity. Alice Walker wrote of them “Each was to the other an affirming example of what black people could be like: wild, crazy, creative, spontaneous, at ease with who they are, and funny. A lot of attention has been given to their breakup … but very little to the pleasure Zora and Langston must have felt in each other’s company.”

So a collaboration on a play to be called Mule Bone seemed natural. Unfortunately, something went wrong. Scholars have debated the underlying cause for years. Langston Hughes suggested it was sparked by a kind of love triangle. Ruthe Sheffey suggested that creative differences were more to blame and that Huges changed the central conflict in Mule Bone from religious and political power to a love triangle.

Whatever set it off, the differences were irreconcilable. They each wrote their own versions and copyrighted them. Hurston refused to acknowledge any contributions from Hughes in her finished version. Lawyers were brought in. The friendship never recovered. The play was not performed until long after both writers were dead. If you’d like to know more about the friendship and its unraveling Yuval Taylor has just released a book called Zora and Langston.

Queers and Crypto-Nazis: Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley

Christopher Hitchens, a friend of Vidal’s once said there was “nothing feigned about their mutual antagonism. They really did despise each other, it comes from a deep well.” In many ways Vidal and Buckley were very much alike, two upper-class public intellectuals and authors with transatlantic accents. But they from opposite ends of the political spectrum. In respect to each other, Vidal and Buckley are best known for a series of televised political debates surrounding the 1968 political conventions. Both were brilliant and witty and they had an instant on screen anti-chemistry. As the New York Times put it:

Literary aristocrats and ideological foes, Vidal and Buckley attracted millions of viewers to what, at the time, was a highly irregular experiment: the spectacle of two brilliant minds slugging it out — once, almost literally — on live television. It was witty, erudite and ultimately vicious, an early intrusion of full-contact punditry into the staid pastures of the evening news.

The series of debates were a thrilling display of heightened discourse and low blows. They culminated in a famous moment in which Buckley was goaded into losing his temper, “Listen to me you queer,” he seethed, “stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”

The moment has been dissected by The New Yorker, Lapham’s Quarterly and in many other literary magazines.

After that appearance Buckley felt horrible about how he had lost it on television and he wrote an article for Esquire to explain what had happened from his point of view. Instead of putting it to bed, it revived it. Gore Vidal responded with his own article that strongly implied Buckley was a closeted homosexual. (He later wrote a fictional character based on Buckley who in spite of being married with children was a notorious sodomite.) Buckley sued Vidal for libel and the case dragged on in the court for years before Buckley finally dropped it. But the rancor did not end until Buckley’s death.

When Buckley died in 2008, Vidal said, “I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins forever those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred.”

The feud is the subject of a documentary film “The Best of Enemies.”

The Case of the Bitter Best Sellers: Marie Corelli and Hall Caine

il_340x270.1411831718_f6qcCorelli and Caine were two of the best selling authors of their day.  Corelli was by far the best seller with an average of 100,000 novels a year while Caine trailed with a still respectable 45,000 a year. By contrast those other writers of popular fiction, H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle sold about 15,000 novels a year each. Corelli and Caine were early examples of the type of writers who are blessed with brisk sales and mocked by poorer selling but presumably more serious artists. Their dislike of each other began before Corelli was even established. Caine was the first reader of A Romance of Two Worlds, a novel Corelli had written about the battle between evolution and the Biblical account of creation. Caine rejected it and Corelli never forgot it. George Bentley eventually published it and it became a commercial sensation surprising even its author.

Corelli and Caine “were both self-centred and supersensitive, imagining slights where none were intended,” wrote Annie S. Swan. The newspapers were quick to play up the feud, especially when Corelli published “The Master Christian” widely believed to be a commentary on Caine’s book “The Christian.” Corelli brushed off this speculation by saying she couldn’t possibly be parodying Caine as she did not read his books on principle. Corelli’s admiring biographer was forced to admit that she endorsed a story about Caine “which it would have been better perhaps to withhold.”

Battle over Betjeman: A.N. Wilson and Bevis Hiller

Imagine spending decades working on a three-volume, 1,800 word biography only to have it panned by a prolific writer who then puts out his own biography that gets more attention. Bevis Hiller didn’t have to imagine. He spent 25 years researching the poet John Betjeman. Volume 2 of his magnum opus was given to A. N. Wilson, who was known (as the New York Times put it) for the “clever sting of his insults.” He reviewed it in The Spectator calling it “a hopeless mishmash of a book.” When Hiller started to see advance publicity praising Wilson’s own forthcoming biography of Betjeman calling it “the big one,” he became furious and he got his revenge in a most creative fashion. 

After years of research Hiller had become fluent in Betjeman’s epistolary style. He crafted a steamy love letter ostensibly from Bentjeman to writer Honor Tracy. Hiller invented a cousin for Tracy,  a woman named Eve de Harben, and she wrote to Wilson saying that she had discovered this heretofore unpublished letter in a private collection. Wilson put the letter in his book without noticing an important detail. The letter was an acrostic that spelled out “A.N. Wilson is a shit.” The two writers made up in 2013, a little more than a decade after the feud began. They met for lunch and exchanged autographed books. “Dear Bevis, the best “hoax” ever!’ Wilson wrote in his gift. “Peace on earth and mercy mild, Andrew, Bevis reconciled’,” wrote Hillier

Head-Butts in the Greenroom: Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer

In December 1971 two authors came to blows in the greenroom of the Dick Cavett Show. Norman Mailer was a little bit sauced and itching for a fight with Gore Vidal over a review he had written of Mailer’s The Prisoner of Sex in The New York Review of Books. Vidal had compared Norman Mailer with Henry Miller and Charles Manson — “3M for short” —and said Mailer’s work represented “a continuum in the brutal and violent treatment of women.” Mailer actually headbutted his rival before taking the stage. I could describe what happened next, but it all took place in front of cameras. You can read Dick Cavett’s recap, or watch for yourself.

Clashing Canadians: Irving Layton and Elspeth Cameron

In 1985, The Montreal Gazette labeled this conflict “The Brawler vs. The Scholar” and “The CanLit equivalent of Norman Mailer knocking out Gore Vidal at a New York Cocktail party.” Poet Irving Layton was, according to the Los Angeles Times, “Controversial and outspoken.” He wrote “angry, gritty, romantic and erotic poems in an attempt to, in his words, ‘disturb the accumulated complacencies of people.'”  At issue was a biography written by the professorial Cameron. Although Irving had authorized it he was incensed by the result, which he thought was mean-spirited, Anti-Semitic and full of errors. From then on, according to his last wife, Anna Potter, who wrote a biography called “Good as Gone” Layton referred to Cameron as “The Whore.” He published his own competing memoirs, and his supporters made lists of what they saw as mistakes and outright fabrications in Cameron’s book. Cameron told an audience in Montreal that she had been getting hate mail from Layton every day for three months. her publisher sent a sampling of some of the most colorful to the papers. In one he insisted: “It would have profited me  more had I hung a tape recorder from a cow’s neck and tickled her to elicit an appreciative moo.” Layton claimed he’d only sent Cameron five letters and two or three post cards and none of them could be called hate mail. The public feud ran its course eventually but Patterson remained bitter about it and blamed Cameron for ruining Layton’s health. Layton passed away in 2006 at the age of 93.

Horrible, Whimsical Stuff: A A. Milne and P.G. Wodehouse

These two authors clashed, but then, according to Wodehouse at least, Milne clashed with everyone. Wodehouse once said that he had formed a “Try to Like A.A. Milne Club.” Only one man joined, but he quit a week later. “Since joining the association,” he explained, “I have met Mr. Milne.” In spite of Milne’s prickliness, in the 1920s, when they were both trying to make their names as comedy writers, he and Wodehouse got along well enough. They played on the same cricket team and they collaborated on the adaptation of Wodehouse’s A Damsel in Distress. Then war came– literally. In the lead up to the second world war, Milne, who had previously been a pacifist changed his tune in support of the war effort. Wodehouse remained apolitical. He had the misfortune of living in France with his wife when the Germans invaded in 1940 and they taken to an internment camp. Two of Wodehouse’s German friends from Hollywood were in the country at the time, working on Nazi propaganda. They gave Wodehouse the option of doing a series of lectures on German radio in exchange for his release. He agreed. He tried to make his broadcasts light and humorous, but this came across as flippancy. This did not sit at all well with the British public. Wodehouse was denounced as a traitor on the floor of the House of Commons. While he was cleared of any formal charges, his career unraveled and he fled to America never to return. No one was more critical than Milne who wrote scathing letters to the Daily Telegraph. Wodehouse, he wrote, “has encouraged in himself a natural lack of interest in ‘politics’—‘politics’ being all the things grown-ups talk about at dinner when one is hiding under the table. Things, for instance, like the last war, which found and kept him in America; and postwar taxes, which chased him back and forth across the Atlantic.” Wodehouse felt his reputation might have been preserved if Milne had not been beating the drum, “that Alan Alexander Milne should trip over a loose bootlace and break his bloody neck.”

Wodehouse poured his resentment into his writing. In 1949, he published The Mating Season and has Bertie Wooster called on to recite Milne’s poems at a village concert. “A fellow who comes on a platform and starts reciting about Christopher Robin going hoppity-hoppity-hop (or alternatively saying his prayers) does not do so from sheer wantonness but because he is a helpless victim of circumstances beyond his control.”

Later that year he became even more cutting. Milne was an author of detective fiction, but he was best known for his Winnie the Pooh stories that featured a fictional version of his son Christopher Robin even though Milne spent little time with his son in real life. In Rodney has a Relapse, the title character is a writer who stops writing detective stories in order to write poems about his young son Timothy. The narrator asks, “Do you know where Rodney is at this moment? Up in the nursery, bending over his son Timothy’s cot, gathering material for a poem about the unfortunate little rat while asleep….Horrible, whimsical stuff, that….Well, when I tell you that he refers to him throughout as ‘Timothy Bobbin,’ you will appreciate what we are up against. I am not a weak man, but I confess that I shuddered.”

That got the anger out of his system. When he learned that Milne was sick in 1954 he wrote, “Poor Milne. I was shocked to hear of his illness. I’m afraid there seems little chance of him getting any better. It is ghastly to think of anyone who wrote such gay stuff ending his life like this. He has always been about my favorite author.”

Milne never forgave Wodehouse. He died in 1956.

The Importance of Stealing Earnest: Oscar Wilde and Charles Brookfield

This was a minor, but consequential, sub-feud in the battle between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas’s father The Marquess of Queensberry. (A conflict that produced an inordinate number of sub-feuds.) Playwright and actor Charles Brookfield had always been in Oscar Wilde’s shadow. An 1893 review, for example, says of him, “Certainly no man has suffered more from popular indifference. Of this comedian, we may indeed use the phrase dear to ‘our Oscar,’ and say that in playgoers’ estimation he is ‘a man of no importance.'”

Brookfield had written and produced a spiteful burlesque of “Lady Windemere’s Fan” called “The Poet and the Puppets” in 1892. The parody paints Wilde as a poser who steals other writer’s ideas. Wilde had taken it all with good humor, which only annoyed his rival.

Brookfield became especially bitter when he read glowing reviews of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Three years before, Brookfield had written a comedy called “Godpapa,” which had been reasonably well-received. “Godpapa” starred Brookfield and an actor named Charles Hawtrey. It was the story of a young man named Reggie who relies on the made-up illness of an acquaintance named Bunbury (played by Brookfield himself) in order to do what he likes. The plot revolves around negotiating a marriage and balancing secret identities. It also had an imaginary brother named Earnest among its characters. Wilde was probably serving up a touch of parody of his own with his choice of Earnest character names. It must have been, to his mind at least, a good natured jest. Wilde, even before the play was complete, envisioned Brookfield’s friend Charles Hawtrey, star of “Godpapa,” for one of the main roles in Earnest.

Brookfield’s long simmering resentment, combined with Wilde’s sparkling triumph with a better version of his own play pushed him over the edge. His anger happened to coincide with Queensberry’s very public battle with Wilde. It just so happened that a crooked solicitor that Queensberry had hired to get dirt on Wilde was married to an actress in Hawtrey’s company. Brookfield and Hawtrey agreed to act as Queensberry’s spies and gather dirt on their nemesis, and once Wilde was arrested on a charge of “gross indecency with male persons” they went about fanning the flames out the outrage.

A Snob, A Sot and a Sponge: Mark Twain and Bret Harte

In 1876, Bret Harte was the more established of the two writers. Harte was known for novels and short stories that chronicled the lives of miners in the California gold rush. He was also editor of the Overland Monthly, a journal of which Twain was a frequent contributor. A collaboration between the two western authors seemed natural and they decided to adapt a poem of Harte’s about Chinese mine workers for a stage production called “Ah Sin.” It was an era of increasing prejudice and controversy over the immigrants. The writers clashed almost immediately over how the titular character Ah Sin should be portrayed. Should it be a commentary on these social tensions or should the character be more of a stereotype designed to illustrate life in mining towns? Along with these creative differences, there was also an argument of some sort over money. By the time the premiere of the play rolled around the two men couldn’t stand to be in the same room with each other. Harte skipped rehearsals and attended the premiere, Twain attended rehearsals and skipped the premiere. Whatever had passed between them Twain could not let it go. When he hard Harte might be in line for a diplomatic post he wrote to President Garfield to try to stop the appointment. He asked W. D. Howells to do the same, “Harte is a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward, a Jeremy Diddler, he is bring full of treachery.” Harte did not respond publicly to Twain’s frequent slanders.  He died in 1902, but Twain’s bad feelings lived on.  After Harte’s death, Twain was asked to take part in a benefit for the novelist’s cash strapped daughter. Twain refused.

The Peeved Poet: Laughton Osborn and William Leete Stone

visionofrubetaep00osbo_0171After Stone panned Osborn’s novel The Confessions of a Poet, by Himself, Osborn spent most of 1837 venting his spleen in the form of rhyming couplets. The result, in 1838, was Visions of Rubeta. Edgar Allan Poe called it the best American satire ever written, although “very censurably indecent—filthy is, perhaps, the more appropriate term.” Rubeta, “the Grand Absurd” a thinly veiled version of Stone, as editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser defends an abess who has been renting out her novitiates as prostitutes. “Tis he!” the abbess says of Rubeta, “the ass foretold me in my dream! Be bold, I see, now, now, thy triumph nigh! / I see my ass spirt fountains to the sky!”

When the real Stone started to dabble in mesmerism Osborn found the perfect subject for mockery. You can read some excerpts from Osborn’s poetic revenge at Lampham’s Quarterly.

Psychic Plagarism: Marie Darriussecq and Camille Laurens

In 2007, Marie Darrieussecq published a first-person novel called Tom est mort, which dealt with the pain a woman felt at the death of her young son. Shortly thereafter, another French author, Camille Laurens published a scathing article in La Revue littéraire accusing Darrieussecq of stealing her life story calling it “a sort of psychic plagrism.” Laurens had published a work of autobiographical fiction, Philippe, in 1995 in which she recounted the trauma of losing her own new-born son. The two authors shared an editor, and Larens felt Darrieussecq’s novel had modeled on her own story. This kicked off a very public quarrel between the two authors. Their editor felt compelled to pick sides and he released Laurens from her contract. He did it in a very public way, announcing his decision in Le Monde, the newspaper of the literary elite.

This was followed by, in the words of The Guardian, the trading of “elevated Gallic insults, to the scandalised fascination of Paris.”

Three years later, both women published responses to the events and their aftermath, Laurens in another work of thinly veiled fiction and Darrieussecq in a long and detailed study of the history of accusations of plagiarism.

“There is a moment when you have to get angry in order to survive. I wrote this book as a kind of therapy and to help future writers who are accused,” Darrieussecq told L’Express. “I am in a huge rage, and I feel that my honour as a writer has been maligned. This is the first time in my life that I have written a book without any pleasure.”

Money Changes Everything: L. Frank Baum and W.W. Denslow

copyright_page_of_the_wonderful_wizard_of_oz_1899Writer L. Frank Baum and illustrator W.W. Denslow first joined forces in the 1890s when Denslow provided drawings for Baum’s trade magazine “The Show Window.” They soon decided to team up on a  book of children’s poetry Father Goose. No publisher was willing to take a risk on the book as they wished to do it, with lavish color illustrations, so they shared the cost of printing. It went on to sell an amazing 75,000 copies. A year later they did it again for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and shared the copyright. It was an even bigger hit. Trouble began when they decided to adapt the story for the stage. They fought over whether the drawings or the text were responsible for the book’s success and how much of the theatrical royalties they should each get. That put an end to their friendship. Denslow came out OK financially. He had made so much money he was able to buy an island off the coast of Bermuda and declare himself King.

 

Stay tuned, another list of literary combattants is in the works…

 

Cathedral Thinking

Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris fire aftermath, France - 16 Apr 2019A quote in a story reported in Positive News made me happy. It comes from 16-year-old climate activist  Greta Thunberg.

It is still not too late to act. It will take a far-reaching vision, it will take courage, it will take fierce, fierce determination to act now, to lay the foundations where we may not know all the details about how to shape the ceiling. In other words, it will take cathedral thinking.

Cathedral thinking.

As you know if you’ve followed this blog, I became depressed in the wake of the fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. I’ve been giving thought to why the criticisms of repairing the cathedral had such an effect on me, and I think the answer might be found in the phrase that I found so uplifting.

When you are invested in a cause, or are enthusiastic about a political candidate, there are two ways to react when you see people pouring their energy into a different effort. You can identify with that enthusiasm and take inspiration from what they are doing right, or you can resent them and view their enthusiasm as energy that is being siphoned away from your own project.

The second version sounds like “Why are we spending money on a building when we are ignoring climate change?” The first says, “If we can rebuild the cathedral, there is nothing we can’t do if we pull together. Let me tell you about something that needs that energy.”

Cathedral thinking.

We have more means of communication than ever, and yet we have never felt so unheard. We act as though concern, compassion, empathy and respect are finite and we’re in competition for them.

There are two ways to put your issue on the same level as others. You can either lift yours up, or tear others down. Tearing down is easier than building. You can do it with a few keystrokes. You can do it with sarcasm or a sneer.

Incidentally, in the first edition of Trevor Noah’s new podcast “On Second Thought,” he and his guest David Kibuuka talked about the backlash to the effort to rebuild Notre Dame, and they suggested that the reason people responded so quickly to that cause rather than something like world hunger or climate change is because fixing a cathedral is finite. It is something that you can contribute to and see the problem solved, whereas poverty or climate change are much more complex. People like to be part of something were they can feel like they achieved something. A moon shot.

Arlo Guthrie said of the 1960s, “I came out of that time thinking I’d only met two kinds of people–people that give a damn and the people that don’t. And the truth was that you could find both of those kinds of people on every side of every issue. In the long run I thought I’d had more in common with people who cared about stuff than people that might’ve sided with me on an issue or two.”

It can be hard to find the commonality in “giving a damn.” Sometimes people’s eyes need to be opened to the way their causes rhyme. But I can tell you the worst way to persuade anyone of anything is to criticize their enthusiasm and to tell them what they ought to care about instead.

Instead of grumbling that people were not paying enough attention, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg said, “Let’s make climate our cathedral.”

That gave me hope.

 

 

 

 

 

“You Love Them Anyway”

From time to time an older post I’ve forgotten about pops up in the list of articles someone read today. Sometimes I click on it to see what it is. Back in 2011, when I was mostly writing things that related to my first novel, Angel, I posted something called Unlearning Not to Speak.

The title came from a poem I read when I was in college, which, as far as I remember, was about a woman learning not to fear her own voice. It resonated with me today because I had just finished reading an article that suggested that reduced civic engagement means that today there is “a severe lack of places where people can feel like they’ve been heard.”

With blogs and Twitter and all manner of new ways to express ourselves, we are sharing opinions left and right, but we’re not connecting, learning or solving problems together.

The premise of my old article was that we have much less to fear from speaking our minds than we believe.

You probably have friends of your own who are totally different from you. You say, “My friend is this crazy hippie,” or “My friend is kind of over-the-top about religion,” or “My friend is into all this New Age stuff,” or “My friend is obsessed with finding a man and I’m happy being single” or “He watches Fox News and I campaign for the Green Party…” You love them anyway.

Somehow this sentiment feels like it comes from a bygone era. Today differences in identity category, interest, opinion and affiliation feel like unbridgeable chasms. How did this happen? How do we fix it?

Women’s Bookshelves and Clutter

A while back Electric Lit ran an article by Hannah McGregor called “Liking Books is Not a Personality.”  It addressed a minor controversy in the book blogosphere over lifestyle guru Marie Kondo.

I don’t have strong feelings about Marie Kondo and her theories of decluttering. I know a number of people who have found her “does this object spark joy” way of relating to stuff to be meaningful and if feeling overwhelmed by too many possessions is an issue for you then it might be just what the doctor ordered. I have no problem with Kondo giving this advice, take it or leave it. (My brother, who edits the journal of the Society of American Archivists, tells me that Kondo comes up frequently in a light, humorous way when discussing the management of collections. “Should we keep this manuscript?” “Does it spark joy?”)

I did, however, have some opinions on the Electric Lit article defending Kondo and decrying “bookishness.” The background is that in an episode of Kondo’s TV series she suggested that people get rid of books that do not “spark joy” and book lovers began to write think pieces about whether or not books are clutter. Some people had strong feelings on the subject.

As it was usually framed, it was one of those ridiculous either/or arguments that are essentially meaningless. No one actually values all books. Each of us have books that we treasure and books that just take up space. If you feel as though you have too much stuff, then you might want to cull your books and you probably already do. But if you value your library above anything else you might get a bit miffed at the idea of someone else viewing your books as things that take up too much space.

When the question is framed in terms of the value of books as an abstract concept and whether they, as a category, are “clutter” then a lot of people (including me) will come down on the side of the argument that a book is more than just another material object. I agree with McGregor that the strong reactions to this idea amount to a feeling of offense at “the demotion of these objects from sacred to banal.”

My main objection to the Electric Lit article is that it is framed with the type of commentary that we have far too much of these days. Rather than address the argument itself, McGregor repeatedly talks about the type of person she believes holds the point of view, and critiques them. In this case, the type of person is the educated white woman. (You can picture the privileged suburban woman sipping white wine with her book group in a well-appointed living room.) The whiteness and femininity of people making pro-book collecting arguments is referenced repeatedly in the article. And a few examples of specific white women making ad hominem attacks on Kondo become symbolic of the feelings of the entire group.  Here is the article’s summation.

Let’s end by bringing this full circle, back to the outrage so many (white) people directed toward Marie Kondo’s suggestion that books might be things like any others. The intensity with which self-identified book lovers love books is far from “natural”: it is instead the culmination of a complex set of cultural and economic transformations over the past 300 years that anthropomorphized books while simultaneously valorizing their consumption, that made book-loving into a consumer identity so well-defined that it has birthed a thousand cross stitch patterns. So well-defined that when threatened with a competing cultural understanding of what kinds of things books are, and how you might want to relate to them, many “bookish” folks completely lost their shit.

The article gives a rather interesting history of the commercialization of book publishing– a field in which the author is an expert– in support of the premise that books are, indeed, commercial objects rather than sacred ones.

One aspect of commercial book publishing that McGregor does not explicitly address is the huge market for commercially produced Bibles. It is a highly competitive, and profitable, business. But as Timothy Beal pointed out in The Rise and Fall of the Bible, while half of all Americans agreed with the statement that “the Bible is totally accurate in all of its teaching” 28 percent of them admit to never or rarely having actually read it, “while biblical literacy is about as low as it can get, Bible sales have been booming.”

Could it be that biblical literacy is being replaced by biblical consumerism? In today’s consumer culture, we are what we buy, wear, and carry. We identify ourselves by our patterns of consumer choices, by the market niches we buy into.

Bibles are, indeed, consumer objects and a lot of people, perhaps a majority, interact with them as symbols rather than as literature. While this is true, it would be hardly surprising if Christians, in McGregor’s words, “lost their shit” if someone suggested that Bibles might be clutter. (The expression “lost their shit” rather than “took offense” is mocking.)

So we are in agreement that people are giving a kind of commercially produced object a sacred meaning. Why are they doing this? Here is where McGregor and I differ. She interprets it as status posturing. White women felt threatened by Marie Kondo because their ability to signal their superior status was being called into question.

The status of the book as object is at once denied and overburdened: the physical codex is both a stand-in for the act of reading and a trophy to demonstrate that you have the correct emotional and intellectual relationship to that act. Mere book-owners may see books as things that can be repurposed as decor or given away when they’re no longer needed, but readers know that books contain other worlds — and their book collections become status symbols, signs of their heightened sensitivity.

Of course, there is a certain amount of peacocking about reading habits. I have a particular pet peeve about that staple of book blogs “Does [fill in the blank] count as reading?” Can you count an audiobook as “reading”? Is a graphic novel a book? Who cares? Unless you’re reading to impress others. But just because some “bookishness” can be virtue signalling doesn’t mean it all is.

Let us, for the sake of argument, grant the premise that “bookishness” is a form of fandom akin to say being a Trekker or a sports fan. We do not generally assume that the fan is expressing superiority over non-fans by buying a team bobblehead or going to a Star Trek convention. We tend to interpret those activities as self-expression and trying to build a sense of identification with other fans who share an enthusiasm. If you told a sports fan that his sports memorabilia was clutter you might also expect to elicit a heated response. If you told a high-school music fan that her rock posters were clutter you might also get an emotional reaction before you ever have an opportunity to explain the finer points of Kondo’s KonMari method.

I would like to offer my own alternative explanation of why someone might be bothered by the idea of books as clutter, and then of why (white) women in particular might have had their buttons pushed by Kondo.

Let me begin with a story from Peter Hay from The Book of Business Anecdotes (one of the many books I keep on my shelves to refer to in my job as a writer). Hay was once the director of a small literary publishing company based in Vancouver. One spring, Hay and his partners had to get a loan to get them through the slow post-Christmas season. They asked a banker if they could borrow against their inventory.

“What inventory?” he asked.

“Well, we have a quarter of a million dollars worth of books.”

“So these books have printing in them?”

“Yes, that’s what we manufacture.”

At that the banker turned down the loan. “The paper would have been worth something,” he said. “but you’ve spoiled it by printing on it.”

Any writer can feel the pathos in that story. I once came across a used copy of one of my books described by an online merchant as being damaged because I had written a personal dedication in it.

Books can take years to write. One of my novels took ten years. My biography was the result of six years of research. And much of that consisted in tracking down (sometimes expensive) rare books. I have three shelves of them that represent all that work. It would never occur to me to even consider, for a moment, that my life would be improved by getting rid of them.

Even the books I have written on short deadlines with a view to being light entertainment were the result of a great deal of effort and collective enterprise. Every book that is published, good, bad, or indifferent, has a team of editors who scrutinize each word, and layout people and cover artists to make it look nice. You want to believe that effort has a special kind of value.

Ideally, a book reaches across distance and time and conveys an idea to another mind. It is  deeply human endeavor. When writers and readers write blog posts about the value of books they are, in part, aspirational. We need to assert that books are more than paper, ink and glue.

When it comes down to it, a book is an object that can be thrown away, burned, torn, pulped. The book that I, or anyone else, labored over for years, and proudly signed at an author event is someone’s clutter. I am well aware of that. How bleak it seems to care so much about something that someone can easily cast away as an annoyance.

The artist in me rebels against this reality. The artist in me must affirm that the book is a sacred object. My books, the books I love to read, your book, the books that people wrote years ago. I take as an article of faith that literature matters, in all its forms even though I know that there are a lot of books that truly are not worth the paper they are printed on.

“Telling stories, listening to them, are givens of human nature,” wrote Anthony Julius in the Times Literary Supplement. “It is what we do, as a species. They are also givens of human understanding, essential to our making sense of our world. They make us; they situate us. They are constitutive both of our species identity and our social identity. They are pleasures, for sure. But they are also needs. And needs should be self-justifying. Yet we cannot assent. We know that needs are often not accepted as self-justifying, even when accepted as needs (rather than, say, wants or desires).”

Art making, and art receiving are self-justifying human needs. When we write articles in praise of books this is what we (at least some of us) are affirming.

In any case, there are certainly worse things to value and prioritize than books. There are also worse things you could do than support the creation of new literature by buying them. (Even if you do eventually donate them to a rummage sale.)

So let’s move on and talk about why women in particular might have a strong reaction against the notion of books as clutter. McGregor writes that in the 19th century:

The bibliophile was a man, and he collected books not indiscriminately but with great attention to their status, their value, and their collectibility. But, as [Diedre] Lynch [author of Loving Literature: a Cultural History] points out, women were still engaging with book culture, just not via consumer decisions. (Women would become increasingly responsible for domestic consumption decisions in the 20th century, which is when the book market begins to swing decisively towards the female readers). So what form did women’s bibliomania take? Lynch describes a kind of literary scrapbooking effort that bears a striking resemblance to contemporary fan fiction and fan art worlds…Hold onto this contrast between a highly discriminating form of curated library collection and a highly personalized, almost fannish, engagement with books. The latter, I think, more accurately predicts the direction that bookish culture has gone in the 21st century, perhaps because book buying has become a predominantly feminized activity.

It is worth noting that not all scholars agree with Lynch on the gendered nature of 19th century book collecting. Heidi Egginton in The Journal of Victorian Culture argues:

The late-nineteenth century saw private book collecting gain a renewed respectability and cultural cachet as a leisure pursuit for the upper- and middle classes… during the 1880s and 1890s, this particular type of collecting practice was used rhetorically in a range of printed material to venerate ‘gentlemanly’ book-buying, in contrast to feminine forms of engagement with old books in particular. In spite of women’s comparative lack of advantage in the market for antiquarian editions, however, I argue that such a critique would not have been articulated so forcefully had women not been taking a determined interest in rare books. Evidence from central London booksellers during this period suggests that a variety of women were making antiquarian collections of their own. Male bibliophiles who denigrated female book-buyers in the periodical press were attempting to partially invent a homosocial tradition of collecting in order to distance their own pursuit from what they saw as the more emasculating elements of modern consumerism. This was a response not just to developments in contemporary print culture, but also to the growing appreciation of second-hand goods of all kinds among affluent female consumers with aesthetic and literary tastes shaped independently of male judgments.

Book buying, and book writing, have long been feminine activities. (By the way, if you’re interested in the history of women’s book ownership there’s a blog for that.) As I have pointed out here a number of times, in Victorian England female authors outsold their male counterparts, but their works were not deemed worthy of serious study and the memory of many once influential women has not found its way down to us. (A number of scholars are now trying to recover these “lost” works and bring them to our attention.) Books by women or which women appreciated have consistently been written off as fluffy, sentimental, non-intellectual and unimportant. If Egginton is correct, women were not only major consumers of popular literature, they were also creating “serious” libraries and archives to rival men’s, but their efforts, like their books, were denigrated.

It is interesting then to see a feminist writer contrasting the masculine “highly discriminating form of curated library collection” with the feminine “highly personalized, almost fannish, engagement with books.” Then following this with an argument that the feminized form of consumption led to the emotional engagement with middlebrow literature that book blogs now celebrate.

The bookish woman is not, she argues, the inheritor of the tradition of someone like Oscar Wilde who was broken by the loss of his carefully curated collection of first editions. Women’s claim to a love of literature is suspect because they are not discerning enough. All books are equally sacred in their eyes, and that means none of them really are.

Is it at all possible a century of being judged by the cleanliness of their homes, being told that this was more important than their intellects, and that their taste in literature is trivial might have colored their reactions to an authority suggesting their books might be clutter?

 

 

FFS Attn: NSFW

I want to take a moment for a mini-rant on my new “most hated expression.”

The fact that we’ve created an acronym for it makes us much more likely to use it and that, to choose an “I Love Lucy” word, is lousy.

This phrase is used mostly on Twitter to convey exasperation and utter contempt for someone else’s statement. But it is not usually directed at the writer of a tweet or blog post himself, rather it’s usually used when speaking about someone to an audience of presumably like-minded people. This way the audience can share outraged mockery of the person and/or their statement.

Oh FFS, is this the kind discourse we want to perpetuate?

A Lean Knife Between the Ribs of Time

To Hugo, the cathedral, with its heavy towers and its soaring spire leaping weightlessly heavenwards, was a book in which, over the course of two centuries of construction, builders and masons and architects and worshipers had inscribed their thoughts. Passersby and worshipers could read their hopes and see the spots that marked their transit from birth to oblivion. Their labor wrote sentences in the stone, paragraphs; it built a cathedral. It was not merely a sermon in stone; it was a symphony, made up of innumerable voices. Yet, as it turned out, it was not simply the act of building it that consecrated it, but that people continued to read it and inscribe stories in it…

bosieThis article, from Alexandra Petri in The Washington Post, on Notre Dame de Paris as “a great stone book” had me thinking again about art as a desire to speak across time.

It reminded me of Lord Alfred Douglas’s City of the Soul, written while Douglas was living with Oscar Wilde in Naples.

Each new hour’s passage is the acolyte

Of inarticulate song and syllable,

And every passing moment is a bell,

To mourn the death of undiscerned delight.

Where is the sun that made the noon-day bright,

And where the midnight moon? O let us tell,

In long carved line and painted parable,

How the white road curves down into the night.

Only to build one crystal barrier

Against this sea which beats upon our days ;

To ransom one lost moment with a rhyme

Or if fate cries and grudging gods demur,

To clutch Life’s hair, and thrust one naked phrase

Like a lean knife between the ribs of Time.

Naples, 1897.