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Master bashing

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Henry_James.jpgAn odd aspect of the writer's ego is that, despite the size, it's so, so, so easily bruised.  For reasons I don't quite understand, having another critique one's work can be excruciating - it feels a profoundly personal attack, despite all attempts at "creating distance" or remaining stoic.  And the experience can be debilitating beyond the immediate pain it causes: careless critiques can savage one's motivation to write.  A related problem is the bizarre frequency with which utter incompetents undertake to "offer their opinions" - as if the author should care - and (because of the aforementioned ready-bruising issue) cause damage disproportionate to their importance.

I was intrigued to see Colm Toíbín depict exactly such a scene (apparently, the temerity of incompetents is timeless) in The Master, his novel about Henry James.  Towards the end of The Master, Henry's brother William - an alpha-male with, nonetheless, probable good intentions (that mask probable unconscious jealousy or insecurity) - lashes into Henry about his style and his subjects:  "I believe that the English can never be your true subject.  And I believe that your style has suffered from the strain of constantly dramatizing social insipidity.  I think also that something cold and thin-blooded and oddly priggish has come to the fore in your content."  (p. 316.)  

William's prescription is for Henry to write an historical novel about the Puritan founding fathers of the United States, a project that, in William's eyes, is an appropriate antidote to the stuffy British subject matter that has hitherto occupied his brother.  In response, Henry does what all writers have to learn to do: he stands up for himself against William's incursion.  "'May I put an end to this conversation,' Henry said, 'by stating clearly to you that I view the historical novel as tainted by a fatal cheapness.'"  (p. 317.)
Gulp.  Historical novels tainted by a fatal cheapness?  But I'm in the midst of writing a historical novel.  Was it really necessary for Henry James to stand up for himself at the expense of putting me down?   How am I to carry on when as esteemed a critic as Henry James finds the endeavor "humbug"?  Wait, wait, not Henry James, but Colm Toíbín's depiction of Henry James . . . but still, Colm Toíbín is a pretty esteemed critic himself: what if he believes that historical novels are tainted by a fatal cheapness?  But, but, but Colm Toíbín wrote an historical novel: The Master!  Right.  But that doesn't mean that he doesn't think that his own historical novel isn't tainted by a fatal cheapness - authors can be tough on their own work, after all . . . merde alors: Henry James is dead; Portrait of a Lady was overwritten, Isabel's character was under-developed, and the plot was contrived; and The Master was slow, not to mention plotless.  Onward with my historical novel!

(Image of Henry James courtesy of The Guardian, image of Colm Toíbín also courtesy of The Guardian

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