For several years, I was a judge in nationwide self-published book contest. I was a first-tier judge, which meant I read a hundred or more books, sending one for every batch of 25 back to the next tier. Duties included ranking each on a 1-5 scale for several criterea (character development, structure, grammar, etc), and also giving a 200 to 300-word critique. (Top tip: If you’re self publishing, pay for an editor, for the love of god). I always used the “critique sandwich” approach — positive opening, the real criticism, positive ending. Example: “You obviously worked very hard on this book… to bring it up to the next level, you may want to consider… you should be proud of your accomplishment.”
Sometimes — often — it was very hard to find positive things to say. One memorable one that I struggled with was a stream of consciousness mish-mash with no attention to the rules of punctuation, spelling, sentence structure, or anything else that resembled writing. The writer responded to my critique (an option they had but, in my memory, only two writers — both male and jarringly bad — used). His reply was, basically, “James Joyce wrote like this and he was considered a genuis!”
My rule with that contest was the same as when I was a newspaper editor — if I got a ridiculous email from someone who just didn’t get it, they got one brief and to-the-point response. To this fellow, I wrote something like, “Joyce understood the rules enough to know how to break them.” (Not that this is what this is about, but another tip for aspiring writers: Know the rules in and out before you break them, and if you do, have a plan for it. Don’t just break them because you’re too lazy to write correctly.)
I knew what I spoke of regarding Joyce — one piece of my very excellent liberal arts education was a semester on Joyce from one of the top Joyce scholars of the era. I’m embarrassed to say that the professor, Ed Callahan (who I also had for Shakespeare), was awesome, but I struggled mightily to understand what I was reading and I likely got a bad grade. I plan to revisit Joyce now that I’m older, smarter and on ADHD medication.
I enjoyed being an English major. Besides critical thinking skills and all sorts of stuff about literature and writing, I also learned things that no one in high school ever told me. Thoreau thought Walt Whitman was a slob! Thoreau, while “roughing it” at Walden Pond would go to the Emerson’s for lunch every day, where Mrs. Emerson would cook him a nice hot meal! Etc. I don’t rememember learning anything like that about Joyce, though. So I was delighted to learn, when I was in Dublin and visited the fantastic (but flawed) brand-new Museum of Literature in Ireland, that Joyce was, well… kind of whiner.
The museum has an entire floor dedicated to Dublin’s favorite writer — as it should. Among the exhibits are letters he wrote to W.B. Yeats complaining about his publisher and asking for help.
In one he complains that the potential publisher refused to publish his book “The Dubliners,” then sold it back to him, but the printer destroyed all the copies. I look at this letter as just softening Yeats up, because the next letter, written on Christmas day no less, asks Yeats to help him get the book published.
The exhibits imply the two guys didn’t know each other well, but were acquainted. I can picture Yeats sitting there saying, “WTF, can’t this guy get a grip? I have my own issues to deal with!” One of the flaws of the museum — a blog post for another day — is that they have very little on Yeats. So we don’t know how he felt about Joyce.
But, as we all know, Joyce eventually got the attention he deserved, whether Yeats helped him out or not.
A week or so after my visit to Dublin, I was in England’s Lake District (it was a great trip with my sister Liz — another blog post for another day), and visited Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum. It was interesting to see that Wordsworth, too, had written whiney letters to people of influence complaining about publishers and more.
Don’t worry, I did have more takeaways about these two writers than the whininess. For instance, as I read Wordsworth’s “Boat Stealing,” part of his major work “The Prelude,” I had a strong flashback to my Introduction to Poetry Class first semester of freshman year in college 43 years ago (yes, I was an English major), and the startling revelation that A LOT of poems are about sex. Here’s an excerpt from that poem:
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again…
See? It’s not just about the boat! Something stirred in me as I read it. No, not that. It was the realization that, nearly 40 years after graduating from college and 43 years after I took the class, I was remembering and drawing on something specific I’d learned. It’s always nice to feel that the money both I and the American taxpayers spent on those four years is paying off. (Though more like two years for the taxpayers, since Reagan decimated financial aid programs when I was mid-way through).
I even looked for the textbook with “Boat Stealing” when I got home (because yes, I’m a dork who saved some of my college textbooks), but I no longer have it. I did, however, find my notes on another Wordsworth poem, which, unininspiring as they are, showed I was at least paying enough attention to know that it would be on the final.
I found it interesting that both Joyce and Wordsworth had women at their beck and call who typed, mailed, compiled, soothed, cooked, gave ideas to, allowed the guy to take snippets of their own writing as his, etc. It reminded me a little of my mother’s refrain: “I notice a lot of writers have husbands or wives who work, so they have health insurance and can take time to write…” Thanks Mom! In 2022, I don’t see getting married as a solution to finding time to write. I think the picking up dirty socks, trying to tune out the NFL or “Game of Thrones” or whatever other random thing is constantly droning on the TV, negotiating meal content, and all the other aspects of living with another person would negate any “writing time” I would gain. And the Affordable Care Act is treating me better as far as health care goes than any employer-based insurance I’ve had in the past decade. Sorry, digressing!
In Wordsworth’s defense, I shudder to think of how crowded his sweet little Dove Cottage must’ve been with his wife, sister, various friends and hangers-on, and growing brood of what eventually became five kids all crammed in. Though they moved to a bigger place after kid no. 3. Oh, and he had a bequest from a friend who’d died that allowed him to live comfortably while he wrote, with the proviso that his sister live with him and be taken care of. That sister, Dorothy Wordsworth, wasn’t a bad writer herself. And as I touched on earlier, she and Wordsworth’s wife, Mary, did a lot of his heavy lifting, including transcribing all his writing, walking four miles one-way to the post office in Ambleside to mail stuff for him, letting him use their ideas, and more. So he got the better of the deal.
But I digress again.
I knew traveling to the homes of some of the greatest writers the world has ever known would be motivating as I struggle along finishing my own book. But the best motivation was that no matter how great they were, they were people, too, with issues and insecurities of their own. And yet they got it done. A lesson for us all.
Now, if any of you guys happen to have Yeats’ mailing address, could you send it along? Just want to drop him a little note…
Early on you touch on what I believe is a real challenge for self-published and small press writers-that of access to a good editor. That’s my dilemma if I want to take things to the next level. Back in the 1960s I took a course at Arizona State called Form and Theory of Verse. It was taught by Collice Portnoff (https://www.astro.com/astro-databank/Portnoff,_Collice). She was a benevolent harridan in that she’d take your poem, stomp on it, set it on fire, tear it apart, and then rebuild it in a way that made perfect sense, while kicking your butt and sliding a thick pillow under it. Would that she were still with us.
We all need someone like that! Biggest issue I saw after reading hundreds of those books over a few years was lack of editing. And not only for the obvious things, but the more subtle issues that only a good book editor can tell you about (as opposed to the neighbor who is a retired English teacher or whoever). Most of the books I read for that contest were basically first drafts.
Love this, says a sister English major. A favorite book from several years ago is Spending, where a woman artist is giving a talk in which she asks, rhetorically, where are the muses for women in the arts and a wealthy man in the audience stands up and volunteers to be her muse. Who among us has not wished for someone to cook, file our papers, research, and oh please, do promotion so we can write?
I would love that! As long as he picked up his socks, lived somewhere else and left me alone. 🙂
Your reaction to Wordsworth’s “Boat” poem brought a smile to this English major. At eighteen, a freshman at the University of Chicago, my reaction to Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” was so naive! And I was appalled at what older students around me were saying. Yeats is now probably my favorite poet of that era. Enjoyed this blog. Thank you.
I think the professor in that poetry class wanted to scandalize us a little, too. It was a Catholic college, so as freshmen, we were even a little more naive, I think, than others. But I was delighted! A few years later I got into an argument with a younger sister of mine about the “real” meaning of a song that I thought had some serious double meaning and she disagreed and yelled, “Not everyone was an English major!” ha ha!
I do love reading your thinking…thanks for the pleasure of a peek through the eyes of a fellow English major.