Saturday, July 4, 2009

Success and Failure

Yesterday I finished reading Ted Morgan's biography of W. Somerset Maugham. Maugham goes in and out of literary fashion (currently out) but he is one of my favorite writers. I have read three of his Big Four, but not CAKES AND ALE. (The others are OF HUMAN BONDAGE, THE RAZOR'S EDGE, and the short story "Rain.") So yesterday I picked up CAKES AND ALE at a bookstore and started it. Since it is a satire about writers, I'm enjoying it on several levels.

Maugham is a cynic, and he has a merciless eye. Here is his account of a successful writer having dinner with a less successful writer and playwright (clearly Maugham himself), long after both began their careers at the same time:

"You feel ill at ease when your friend tells you that his books don't sell and that he can't place his short stories; the managers won't even read his plays, and when he compares them with some of the stuff that's put on (here he fixes you with an accusing eye) it really does seem a bit hard. You are embarrassed and you look away. You exaggerate the failures you have had in order that he may realize that life has its hardships for you too. You refer to your work in the most disparaging way you can and are a trifle taken aback to find that your host's opinion is the same as yours. You speak of the fickleness of the public so that he may comfort himself by thinking that your own popularity cannot last.... 'I haven't read your last book,' he says, 'but I read the one before. I've forgotten its name.' "
You tell him.
'I was rather disappointed in it. I don't think it was quite as good as some of the things you've done. Of course you know which my favorite is.'
And you, having suffered at more hands than his answer at once with the name of the first book you ever wrote."

This is very funny, and exaggerated for effect -- but not untrue. I have been on both sides of this conversation, as the more successful and the less successful writer (although I promise I was never as bitchy as that dialogue). Science fiction writers are, I think, relatively generous in their acceptance of different positions among our ranks: differing sales figures, amount of advances, number of awards, popularity with fans, but we're not saints (I name no names). Maugham, in this as in so much else, sees through the polite veneer to the underlying dynamics. He's a superb satirist, and I love CAKES AND ALE so far. Recommended.

1 comment:

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Seem to recall reading about an early con. Robert Heinlein treated the newest writers just the same as he spoke to his oldest friends Asimov and De Camp.

That's what I call a gentleman.