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31 August 2021updated 09 Sep 2021 5:32am

From the NS archive: Reflections on the literary life

12 August 1950: Gradually I came to realise that the reviews that a writer receives are less his business than anyone else’s.

By Stephen Spender

In this article written for the New Statesman in 1950, Stephen Spender reflects on his career as a poet, novelist, journalist and critic. He begins by discussing how his role as a reviewer changed his view as a reader, because “I approached it with a different attitude of mind from when I read out of simple curiosity”. He touches on being in the position where he “was not just reviewing but being reviewed”, and argues whether it is helpful for a writer to listen to critics at all. Spender also writes about the specific pressures of working within a larger group of writers, alluding to his close connections to authors including WH Auden, Christopher Isherwood, WB Yeats and TS Eliot. He notes the awkwardness of knowing writers personally and experiencing their hurt sensibilities so often” that, in reviews, “[I] found myself unwilling to criticise the work of those I knew”. Simultaneously, Spender offers insight into the pressure of working in such famous circles, that “almost every writer secretly feels that the literary career is not worthy of the writer’s vocation”.

In the ‘Thirties I got into the habit of writing reviews. I do not think I reviewed better or worse than most reviewers, and I tried to be fair. On looking back, I see that instead of considering the book as a whole often I was too ready to take up certain points I agreed or disagreed with, and make them the subject of my review. If I read a book with the idea of writing a review, I approached it with a different attitude of mind from when I read out of simple curiosity. As a reviewer, when reading I was, as it were, interrupting what the writer had to say, by the pressure of my need to write my few hundred words, and this had much the same effect as not listening to someone’s remarks because one is thinking how to answer them.

Once I had become deeply involved in the literary profession, I could not help approaching the works of all but a very few of my contemporaries, either in a spirit of rivalry, or by identifying my aims with theirs. Gone were the days when I read every new book which had been recommended to me, as it were open-mouthed, and expecting manna to fall. Now that I myself had appeared in print, I was like the owner of a race horse who watches not only the performance of his own entrant but also keeps a sharp eye on the methods of other trainers.

It never occurred to me that anything I wrote might annoy the author I was reviewing. That he or anyone else should attach importance to my opinions appeared to me so unlikely that I often overstated them. But at a later date I knew so many writers and had experienced their hurt sensibilities so often that I lost my nerve in a way, and found myself unwilling to criticise the work of those I knew personally: not that I was frightened, but because I did not see how to do so without a certain awareness of the writer’s personality entering into my own writing which would destroy its objectivity.

A part of my literary experience was not just reviewing but being reviewed. Here I showed all the vulnerability which I believed impossible with other writers. The good reviews which I received sometimes gave me a sense of being recognised with that warmth which is truly encouraging, but more often that of having scraped by the reviewer’s defences, with all my glaring faults. Adverse criticism was a terrible blow to me in my early days, and I still find adverse criticism of my poetry extremely discouraging. In fact, I think that it is more difficult for a poet than for other kinds of writer to “take” criticism. It is impossible to “prove” that a poem is good, and a refusal to enter into the illusion created by a poem, demonstrates that the poet has failed to communicate, at least with the reviewer. A poem succeeds completely or not at all.

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Gradually I came to realise that the reviews which a writer receives are less his business than anyone else’s. They are a kind of conversation which goes on behind his back. Reviewers do not address themselves to writers but to readers. To overhear conversations behind his back is more disconcerting than useful to the writer; though he can perhaps search out criticism in it which may really help him to remedy faults in style. But he should remember that the tendency of reviewers is to criticise work not for what it is but for what it fails to be, and it is not necessarily true that he should remedy this by trying to become other than he is. Thus, in my own experience, I have wasted time by paying heed to criticisms that I had no skill in employing rhyme. This led me to attempt rhyme, whereas I should have seen that the moral for me was to avoid it.

Economically, I found that there is much in common between the career of a writer and that of a gambler. A poem, “I think continually of those who were truly great,” which was refused by several literary editors to whom I sent it, was subsequently chosen to represent me in every anthology, and has made more money than any other poem I have written. On the whole, it holds true that a writer is paid best for doing his worst work; although sometimes, as in the case of the poem I have just mentioned, he may, almost accidentally, express, in a form which attracts a wide public, some idea which has great significance to him. Today, a special temptation of writers is that they can live largely by giving their views about subjects of which they know little. Because there is a popular idea that the writers are “wise,” and since the public is not interested in the particular form in which this wisdom is best expressed, they are expected to be omniscient about any subjects which interest the public, such as Higher Education, Euthanasia, and the Atom Bomb. A Brains Trust of Misapplied Brains is the prevalent idea of the function of writers, and this is encouraged by an enormous machinery for misdirecting creative energy.

I became involved in obligations to editors and publishers, accepting suggestions as to what I should write, instead of carrying out my original plans for novels, poems and stories. I began in my own mind to divide my work into three categories: poetry, my vocation; books about things which interested me, on subjects of which were sometimes suggested by publishers; journalism, often hurriedly written.

This division of labour was not really satisfactory, for the reason that a creative writer should always write out of the inner necessity of a unique occasion. Not to do this is to risk paying a price. The labour which he puts into studies not essential to his inner development, and the shoddiness of journalism, overflow into his creative work and confuse his sensibility. Or if these things do not happen, his best work becomes too obviously hedged off and separated from the rest.

Circumstances combined to make me attach too much importance to my opinions. For my views as critic, as journalistic observer, and as amateur politician, were all in demand, and sometimes the pressure to express them was not just economic, but came from events themselves, such as the need to take sides against Fascism.

I found that my own views, however strongly held, bored me as soon as they were uttered. I realised that they concerned things which other people could express better, or that they arose out of the irritation of the moment, like an angry telegram. The effect of publishing too many opinions was like an inflation of the currency of my reputation, not only for others but – which was more serious – for myself. Before I published a line I felt a kind of awe at the idea of my own writing. Later I lost a good deal of this, and only recently have I determined to act so as to regain it. My resolution was rather banal; to take much greater pains over everything, including journalism, and to publish no poems for several years, so that I could keep my poetry in a kind of isolation away from my other activities.

[See also: From the NS archive: Cool Britannia’s big chill]

There is something about the literary life which, although it offers the writer freedom and honour enjoyed by very few, at the same time brings him a cup of bitterness with every meal. There is too much betrayal, there is a general atmosphere of intellectual disgrace, writers have to make too many concessions in order to support themselves and their families, the successful acquire an air of being elevated into public figures and therefore having lost their own personalities, the unsuccessful are too spiteful and vindictive and cliquey, and even the greatest, when they are attacked, reveal themselves often as touchy and vain. I think that almost every writer secretly feels that the literary career is not worthy of the writer’s vocation. For this vocation resembles that of the religious, and yet few writers reflect this in their way of living.

Perhaps though, the writers belong to an order which is not only plunged in the world, but actually belongs to it and has to do so. Literature has its purists, both in work and life, but it would grow devitalised with more than a few of these in each generation, and some of the greatest writers (Dostoevsky, Balzac, even Yeats) have involved themselves in controversy and journalism in their time.

If success is corrupting, failure is narrowing. What a writer really needs is a success of which he then purges himself. The writer’s life should, in fact, be one of entering into external things and then withdrawing himself from them. Without entering in, he lacks experience of the world; and if he cannot withdraw, he is carried away on the impulse of literary politics, success, and the literary career.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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