Thursday, July 18, 2013

"Poisoned Pens" quiz: now that's a classic one needn't bother with


Literary putdowns abound because writers are often jealous and snooty about other writers—and have the wherewithal to express said emotions vividly. See if you can match the put down with the perpetrator from the list provided below. Bonus points if you can supply the name of the author/work if not given. All quotes are from Gary Dexter's Poisoned Pens: Literary Invective from Amis to Zola, which we have in both paperback and hardback editions (above, Goethe and Poe).

Martin Amis, Arnold Bennett, Samuel Butler, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Henry James, Samuel Johnson, D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Vladimir Nabokov, Lytton Strachey, Mark Twain, Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf 
  1. The want of human interest is always felt. Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions. [Milton, right, doesn't look bovvered.]
  2. The verses, when they were written, resemble nothing so much as spoonfuls of boiling oil, ladled out by a fiendish monkey at an upstairs window upon such passers-by whom the wretch has a grudge against."
  3. Also, to be fair, there is another word of praise due to this ship's library: it contains no copy of 'The Vicar of Wakefield', that strange menagerie of complacent hypocrites and idiots, of theatrical cheap-john heroes and heroines, who are always showing off, of bad people who are not interesting, and good people who are fatiguing. A singular book. Not a sincere line in it, and not a character that invites respect; a book which is one long waste-pipe discharge of goody-goody puerilities and dreary moralities; a book which is full of pathos which revolts and humor which grieves the heart.
  4. A hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven sure fire literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.
  5. I have been reading a translation of Goethe's 'Wilhelm Meister.' Is it good? To me it seems perhaps the very worst book I ever read. No Englishman could have written such a book. I cannot remember a single good page or idea....Is it all a practical joke? If it really is Goethe's 'Wilhelm Meister' that I have been reading, I am glad I have never taken the trouble to learn German.
  6. Reading Don Quixote can be compared to an indefinite visit from your most impossible senior relative, with all his pranks, dirty habits, unstoppable reminiscences, and terrible cronies.
  7. Nobody can be more clownish, more clumsy and sententiously in bad taste, than Herman Melville, even in a great book like 'Moby Dick'....One wearies of the grand serieux. There's something false about it. And that's Melville. Oh dear, when the solemn ass brays! brays! brays!
  8. That Poe had a powerful intellect is undeniable: but it seems to me the intellect of a highly gifted person before puberty. The forms which his lively curiosity takes are those in which a pre-adolescent mentality delights: wonders of nature and of mechanics and of the supernatural, cryptograms and ciphers, puzzles and mazes, mechanical chess-players and wild flights of speculation. The variety and ardour of his curiosity delight and dazzle: yet in the end the eccentricity and lack of coherence of his interests tire.
  9. Dostoevky's lack of taste, his monotonous dealings with persons suffering with pre-Freudian complexes, the way he has of wallowing in the tragic misadventures of human dignity — all this is difficult to admire.
  10. With all due respect to the very original genius of the author of the Tales of Mystery, it seems to us that to take him with more than a certain degree of seriousness is to lack seriousness one’s self. An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.
  11. It took me years to ascertain that Henry James's work was giving me little pleasure.... In each case I asked myself: 'What the dickens is this novel about, and where does it think it's going to?' Question unanswerable! I gave up.
  12. I am reading Proust for the first time. Very poor stuff. I think he was mentally defective.
  13. E.M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. He's a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain't going to be no tea. And I can never be perfectly certain whether Helen was got with child by Leonard Bast or by his fatal forgotten umbrella. All things considered, I think it must have been the umbrella.
  14. I dislike 'Ulysses' more and more — that is I think it more and more unimportant; and don't even trouble conscientiously to make out its meanings. Thank God, I need not write about it.
  1. The want of human interest is always felt. Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions.—Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Poets (1779-81)
  2. The verses, when they were written, resemble nothing so much as spoonfuls of boiling oil, ladled out by a fiendish monkey at an upstairs window upon such passers-by whom the wretch has a grudge against."—Lytton Strachey on Alexander Pope [above left] (1925)
  3. Also, to be fair, there is another word of praise due to this ship's library: it contains no copy of 'The Vicar of Wakefield', that strange menagerie of complacent hypocrites and idiots, of theatrical cheap-john heroes and heroines, who are always showing off, of bad people who are not interesting, and good people who are fatiguing. A singular book. Not a sincere line in it, and not a character that invites respect; a book which is one long waste-pipe discharge of goody-goody puerilities and dreary moralities; a book which is full of pathos which revolts and humor which grieves the heart.—Mark Twain on Samuel Goldsmith (Following the Equator, 1997)
  4. A hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven sure fire literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.—William Faulkner on Mark Twain (1922)
  5. I have been reading a translation of Goethe's 'Wilhelm Meister.' Is it good? To me it seems perhaps the very worst book I ever read. No Englishman could have written such a book. I cannot remember a single good page or idea....Is it all a practical joke? If it really is Goethe's 'Wilhelm Meister' that I have been reading, I am glad I have never taken the trouble to learn German.—Samuel Butler (1874)
  6. Reading Don Quixote can be compared to an indefinite visit from your most impossible senior relative, with all his pranks, dirty habits, unstoppable reminiscences, and terrible cronies.—Martin Amis (1986)
  7. Nobody can be more clownish, more clumsy and sententiously in bad taste, than Herman Melville, even in a great book like 'Moby Dick'....One wearies of the grand serieux. There's something false about it. And that's Melville. Oh dear, when the solemn ass brays! brays! brays!—D.H. Lawrence (1923)
  8. That Poe had a powerful intellect is undeniable: but it seems to me the intellect of a highly gifted person before puberty. The forms which his lively curiosity takes are those in which a pre-adolescent mentality delights: wonders of nature and of mechanics and of the supernatural, cryptograms and ciphers, puzzles and mazes, mechanical chess-players and wild flights of speculation. The variety and ardour of his curiosity delight and dazzle: yet in the end the eccentricity and lack of coherence of his interests tire.—T. S. Eliot (1948)
  9. Dostoevky's lack of taste, his monotonous dealings with persons suffering with pre-Freudian complexes, the way he has of wallowing in the tragic misadventures of human dignity — all this is difficult to admire.—Vladimir Nabokov
  10. With all due respect to the very original genius of the author of the Tales of Mystery, it seems to us that to take him with more than a certain degree of seriousness is to lack seriousness one’s self. An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.—Henry James (1876)
  11. It took me years to ascertain that Henry James's work was giving me little pleasure....In each case I asked myself: 'What the dickens is this novel about, and where does it think it's going to?' Question unanswerable! I gave up.—Arnold Bennett
  12. I am reading Proust [above right] for the first time. Very poor stuff. I think he was mentally defective.—Evelyn Waugh (1948)
  13. E. M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. He's a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain't going to be no tea. And I can never be perfectly certain whether Helen was got with child by Leonard Bast or by his fatal forgotten umbrella. All things considered, I think it must have been the umbrella.— Katherine Mansfield [right] on Howard's End (1915)
  14. I dislike 'Ulysses' more and more — that is I think it more and more unimportant; and don't even trouble conscientiously to make out its meanings. Thank God, I need not write about it.—Virginia Woolf on James Joyce (1922)

17 comments:

  1. E. M. Forster described Ulysses as an "epic of grubbiness and disillusion...here..smaller mythologies swarm and pullulate, like vermin between the scales of a poisonous snake. Heaven and earth fill with infernal life, personalities melt,sexes interchange, until the whole universe, including poor, pleasure-loving Mr. Bloom,is involved in one joyless orgy."--Aspects of the Novel.

    And, of Henry James, "The only living human motives left in his novels are a certain avidity and an entirely superficial curiosity...It is like a church lit but with no congregation to distract you,..and on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg shell, a piece of string.." H.G. Wells

    "So vast is art, so narrow human wit." Alexander Pope

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  2. I smell JEALOUSY, haha. They must have been tired from hurling invectives at each other:) As interesting as it is, most were rants made by inferior writers. Faulkner going at Twain? Woolf fuming about Joyce? EVERYONE dissing Poe? Please...

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  3. Oh, and in case the latest date of 1986 makes you think this is a habit of the past, here's Ursula LeGuin on J. K. Rowling's first Harry Potter: "stylistically ordinary, imaginatively derivative, and ethically rather mean-spirited." Harold Bloom held that Rowling's "mind is..governed by cliches and dead metaphors."

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    Replies
    1. In all honesty, I've felt much the same way about Harry Potter as LeGuin, it being "imaginatively derivative." Unlike Poe, I don't think Hogwarts will weather the storm and come out the other side as Literature in the next hundred years.

      But Harold Bloom is an old-school high culture gatekeeper, whose response to any item of popular literature is almost humorously predictable. Just add an undignified "Harumph" at the end of that quote of his.

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    2. Agree with you on both points!

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  4. Poe was definitely roundly scorned, as were fans of Poe! Maybe Mr. James was upset because Poe is more fun to read than he is.

    I like Waugh on Proust. That quote made me chuckle in my cubicle.

    I just want to love you Virginia! Why do you make it so hard!?
    I love her books...but she seems like a crummy class obsessed person in real life.

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  5. Word on the street, is that during his time as a literary critic, Poe was just as harsh. Apparently, he was known as the "Tomahawk Man." Mostly directing his hater-ade at Longfellow.

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  6. I love what Nabokov said about Dostoevky's writing.

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    1. To my mind, only Victor Hugo and Dostoevsky are true novelists, able to conceive the vast symphonic architechure of a novel, unlike, say, Albert Camus or Truman Capote, who wrote busy, elongated stories, but not novels.

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  7. Some of these were almost painful to read, like literary sucker punches. That Eliot and James both essentially say that Poe is juvenile and that anyone who takes him seriously is juvenile is particularly grating. It's much the same with Faulkner calling Twain a "hack writer," appealing only to the "superficial and lazy."

    It's always interesting to see how time vindicates some of these writers, raising them to be installed in the literary canon alongside their detractors.

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    1. Your last remark has certainly raised a question--what determines whether a book is merely popular (remember Bulwer-Lytton?) or a candidate for inclusion in the great literary canon? Is it the blessing of critics like Bloom? The pressure of popular demand? Or a quality intrinsic to the work itself? Is it anything the author can control?
      And can a reader tell if a book is just good, or likely to be one of the immortals?

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  8. Such complex questions! Dealing as they are with a historical process, and a tension between cultural forces and actors, those questions would probably require a degree of omnipotence to be answered truthfully. Or a degree in Literature. As a mere dabbler, what could I possibly say? The only constant in human history is change. Culture is malleable. I like to think that the Blooms of the world have less of an influence than they think they do, though popular demand never put anyone in the canon. Perhaps where the two come together?

    And that's a very good question. Has anyone read a book lately and thought "They'll be teaching this in high schools and universities fifty years from now?"

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  9. I wouldn't have thought that of Ulysses, which I disliked, yet there it was. Why, and who thought I would benefit from it, were questions the professor wasn't interested in answering.
    It was different from most novels, because Joyce designed it to be. "Cloud Atlas", too, was given its complex structure to stand out. It's a chore to read. Will it be taught in the universities, or forgotten as a novelty that passed?

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  10. I do not understand the criticism of Forster at all. Parts of The Longest Journey and Howards End are beautifully written and humane. I don't see what tea is expected of him that he does not deliver.

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