David Bruce: The Coolest People in Books — Critics

Critics

• The Australian novelist Shirley Hazzard is highly rated by critics, yet little known by readers. In addition to writing novels, she also has memorized much, much poetry. In fact, her knowledge of poetry led to her and her husband, Flaubert scholar Francis Steegmuller, meeting the novelist Graham Greene. In a restaurant at Capri, they overheard him trying to remember a line of poetry. Ms. Hazzard knew the line and recited it, and the three became friends. Critics do appreciate her. At the end of an interview with Ms. Hazzard, journalist Bryan Appleyard told her, “Thank you. You have written some beautiful novels.” She replied, “Pardon, what did you say?” Mr. Appleyard repeated his statement, and she admitted, “I heard you. I just wanted to hear you say it again.”

• People do make mistakes. While Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., author of Slaughterhouse-Five, was on a panel at City College, a woman asked him this question: “Why did you put exactly one hundred ‘So it goes’s’ in Slaughterhouse-Five?” Mr. Vonnegut replied that he was not aware that he had used that exact number. Also on the panel was critic John Simon, who disappeared while everyone had coffee, and then reappeared and said to Mr. Vonnegut, “One hundred and three.” Some critics have been very happy to place Mr. Vonnegut in a category in which he may or may not belong. At a party, he was introduced to cultural commissar Jason Epstein, who thought for a moment, said “Science fiction,” and then walked away. Mr. Vonnegut says, “He just had to place me, that’s all.”

• Occasionally, novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., taught creative writing, and of course he critiqued the writing of other people. A Smith undergraduate asked him to critique a short story that she described as “a heartwarming account” of the death of her grandmother. Despite its frequent humor, Mr. Vonnegut’s work is often dark, and he thought that the short story was “too gushy” and therefore suggested, “Have you ever thought about making your grandmother insane?” Most likely, the Smith undergraduate was made uncomfortable by the suggestion, just as Mr. Vonnegut felt uncomfortable because of a comment that was made after he told someone that the name “Vonnegut” was German: “Germans killed six million of my cousins.” (Of course, during World War II Mr. Vonnegut fought on the side of the Allies.)

• Jessica Morgan and Heather Cocks write a blog called GoFugYourself in which they criticize celebrities who demonstrate poor fashion sense. In 2008 they came out with a book titled Go Fug Yourself Presents: The Fug Awards. Of course, their experiences are interesting, and they have learned from them. Ms. Morgan says, “I have learned that people who write hate mail tend to have considerably worse spelling and grammar than people who write non-hate mail.” So what is in the future for the celebrity-criticizing duo? Ms. Cocks says, “I would like to say the future looks like a closet full of Louboutin shoes and designer dresses, but I keep forgetting to buy lottery tickets, so I’m guessing that will never come to pass.”

• World-class author Isaac Bashevis Singer once read a story in front of a group of 12 Jews who were too poor to pay him anything. After he had read the story, a man stood up and said that the story was not a good story because it was not a Zionist story. Therefore, the man said, “I spit on your story.” Each of the other members of the audience stood up in turn and said that the story was not good for various reasons, and each of them said that they spit on the story. One man even said he spit on the story twice — once because it was not Orthodox, and once because it was not Zionist. So, Mr. Singer said, “From 12 people I collected 13 spits.”

• Readers can impact an author. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., wrote an ending for his novel Breakfast of Champions and sent it to his publisher. He lived near his publisher and a lot of mail and messages went back and forth, and a couple of young employees in the production department met him and told him that they didn’t like the ending: “That’s not the way we thought it should end.” Mr. Vonnegut thanked them, looked at the ending, realized that they were right, and wrote another ending — the one that appeared in the published book.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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