“If you want better books, cancel all awards, follow no leaders. Write as well as you can; never as others tell you.”
I grew up thinking writers didn’t play well with others. They were by nature wayward, which is not always a virtue. I intend it to mean herd-defying, sometimes self-damagingly indifferent to the tyranny of fashion. Such writers may be wrong but often they are interestingly wrong and are unlikely to seek your approval. What they have to say is usually more important than that. Who am I describing? Good examples: Dr. Johnson, Lamb, Hazlitt, Beerbohm, Mencken, Guy Davenport. None is merely eccentric or an exhibitionist, and none could be mistaken for anyone else. It occurs to me that all excelled at essay-writing, and perhaps that is a defining quality of writers born to that form. Another member of the fraternity writes:
“What the essayist confronting a subject usually has to confess is that he or she is not quite like other men or women -- but then, it turns out, neither are most men and women like other men and women. That seems to me perhaps the chief value of personal essayists: by displaying their individuality, they remind readers of their own individuality.”
That would be Joseph Epstein in his introduction to The Norton Book of Personal Essays (1997). Now eighty-four, Epstein is our premiere living essayist and all-around man of letters. Last December he triggered a national tantrum when, in a brief essay for the Wall Street Journal, he gently chided the incoming First Lady for her use of “Dr.” as a title, though she is not a medical doctor. It’s a common academic vanity, worthy of a little mockery. Naturally, Epstein was accused of misogyny, among other crimes. More evidence that humorlessness is the true pandemic. I wrote about the brouhaha here.
Only this week did I learn that Epstein’s friend Frederic Raphael, author of the passage quoted at the top, addressed the silliness last March in “Public Enemy Number Whatever,” published in The Critic. Raphael is a Chicago-born novelist and screenwriter who has lived in England for most of his life. Together, he and Epstein published two collections of their email correspondence: Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet (Yale University Press, 2013) and Where Were We?: The Conversation Continues (St. Augustine’s Press, 2017). Both are funny, learned, entertaining and eminently wayward.
Raphael defends a friend and non-aligned writers in general. They, too, are an endangered species. He closes his essay like this:
“Keep up with the going buzz-words, all you once-brave individualists, or prepare to live a life of tier-six isolation. Rochefoucauld said, smartly, that there is something about the misfortunes of our friends which does not entirely displease us. Fiche-moi la paix, monsieur le duc, innit? Joe Epstein’s experience disgusts me and gives me no pleasure whatsoever.”