Monday, October 01, 2007

Rebecca West Trashes T.S. Eliot, Somerset Maugham, and The New Yorker

I love it when a writer expresses a strong opinion about a colleague. You don't see it much now.

INTERVIEWER: Are you interested in T.S. Eliot's writing?

[REBECCA] WEST: Goodness! T. S. Eliot, whom I didn't like a bit? He was a poseur. He was married to this woman who was very pretty. My husband and I were asked to see them, and my husband roamed around the flat and there were endless photographs of T.S. Eliot and bits of his poetry done in embroidery by pious American ladies, and only one picture of his wife, and that was when she was getting married. Henry pointed it out to me and said, I don't think I like that man.

INTERVIEWER: What about the work of Somerset Maugham, whom you also knew?

WEST: He couldn't write for toffee, bless his heart. He wrote conventional short stories, much inferior to the work of other people. But they were much better than his plays, which were too frightful. He was an extremely interesting man, though, not a bit clever or cold or cynical.


INTERVIEWER: Have you ever had a close relationship with an editor, who has helped you after the books were written?

WEST: No. I never met anybody with whom I could have discussed books before or after... And I very rarely found The New Yorker editors any good.

INTERVIEWER: They have a tremendous reputation.

WEST: I don't know why.

--From pp. 259 and 261 of The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1.(Philip Gourevitch, ed.)

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J. C. said...

Can we perhaps detect a poseuse here as well? To say Maugham wrote conventional short stories is fine, if you also say Maupassant, O. Henry and Ring Lardner wrote conventional short stories. Maugham's stories go down like a Cordon Bleu dinner served by Five Star waiters, sans flatulence and acid reflux. Trashing sad Willie was au courant in Madame West's day because of his overwhelming pobularity. He never wrote a story that wasn't eminently readable and some, e.g., The Yellow Streak, Rain, TheForce of Circumstance are among the finest in the language. To discard a very great author for egotism would leave The Western Canon bare, with perhaps the exception of Franz Kafka.-- J. C.

J. C. said...

Oops. By "very great author" I was referring to Eliot; Maugham might reasonably be described, however, as a very good author.

Benjamin Chambers said...

You're right that egotism shouldn't be a bar to membership in the pantheon. But I don't think Rebecca West's that different from the rest of us in how she arrives at her aesthetic judgments. Our preferences are inevitably rooted in our personal experiences, our culture, and our temperament. West must've enjoyed sweeping dismissals -- and with Black Lamb and Grey Falcon behind her, she could afford to -- and probably saw provocation as part of her job as a British intellectual.