Famous writers on the art of saying no

3 October 2020

9:00 AM

3 October 2020

9:00 AM

In Competition No. 3168 you were invited to compose a response on the part of a well-known writer to an inappropriate suggestion about the future direction of their work.

This Austen-inspired challenge produced a terrific entry, so high fives to you all. Dorothy Pope’s Philip Larkin, giving short shrift to the suggestion that he venture into writing for children, stood out, as did Janine Beacham, Nick McKinnon, Nick Syrett and Basil Ransome-Davies. The winners, printed below, are rewarded with £25 each.

You kindly preface your admonition (and I have no doubt that, despite your placations, I am indeed roundly admonished) with such charming encomia that it seems churlish for me here to attempt to counter your intimation that my work offers no great benison of humour. I concede at once that I have not that ebullition of spirits which made Dickens such a master of the ‘knockabout’: comedy so broad was never an arrow in my quiver. I had hoped however — ah, the poignancy of pluperfect hopes! — that I might convey to the reader my own silent amusement, the delicious inward pleasure of observing the overflowing comedic possibilities of elaborated irony. To name examples would be as fatuously otiose as explaining a joke. But I might merely ask that you re-peruse my books in the light of this declared ambition. Your suppliant, madam, Henry James.
W.J. Webster/Henry James

Mrs Christie,
At tethers end comes your letter. Congratulatory in tone, in spite of expectation. You aver that my work hits the mark. I take the contrary view, in work as life. Nevertheless. You envision my prospering in the thriller line. Cite my spareness with prose, the manipulation of suspense in Godot, the potentiality for whodunnit in Malone Dies. How these elements, deployed in pursuance of some puzzler of a plot, may yield a bestseller yet. I cannot concur, still less comply, never knowing who done what. Still less why and to whom. Even, for God’s sake, where is opaque to my protagonists. Who may (or as likely not) be me. Those wanting illusory certainties of books must consult their Bradshaws. I forgive you your suggestion; didacticism comes easily to the English. Of your own works I say nothing. Apprehend mine aright and you may discern a compliment.
Adrian Fry/Samuel Beckett

Look. I mean, I don’t mind if you think I should write bodice-rippers. I don’t. That’s what language is, mate. Seductive. Lubricious. They used to queue up for my intimate intimations, my silk-splitting tales. Hmmm. They used to… bend over backwards for them. Soft light, some Paganini, chocolate plush by Camay and Bowdler: change the bulbs, plump the pillows, plug in the bath bomb, and hava nagila, that was lust, no word of a lie. I had a cousin used to like a tickle of my short stories. Hal, he said, Hal, I’m out of juice, lend me a French novel, something with some bite. I called him Bainbridge, it was a curious affair. Bainbridge, I’d say, you’re a slapper, have a bedroom farce instead. It did the trick. But now? Not for me, not any more. I’m writing cowboy sagas, open prairies, scent of fresh bison, the lonely whippoorwill.
Bill Greenwell/Harold Pinter

Dear Father Ponsonby
How kind of you to offer such detailed suggestions. I agree that Egham would seem a less ‘pointedly exotic’ setting than Haiti or the Congo.
The priest’s entanglement with the wife of the CIA agent might indeed lead to spiritual anguish, and their unfortunate demonstration of the fallibility of the rhythm method should raise interesting doctrinal points. One wonders, however, whether your placing the CIA headquarters in Virginia Water might be based on a misapprehension.
The ‘tragic climax’ in the Bagshot library is compelling. How dreadful to be crushed to death by a full set of Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Commitment to my current work (set in Havana) must, alas, prevent my using your intriguing material, but I find it wholly admirable that in your 90th year you retain the imaginative vigour to compare the Thames at Runnymede with the ‘sinister, swirling Limpopo’.
Hugh King/Graham Greene

My dear youth-drenched Alastor, it gives this ex-convict great pleasure to have your admiration transported to me here in France. You suggest my next novel should feature life in gaol; for what with my experience and my undoubted genius there is more material to mine than in Dorian’s picture. You have read, no doubt, all I want to say on the subject in my memorable poem that will interest anthologists for centuries to come. A novel on the theme would be redundant, useless even. If however you wish to ply me with further persuasion, hearing you expound the merits of your thesis over a glass of wine would certainly delight and depending on the manner in which you press your point on me, I might rise to the occasion and come, shall we say, to a conclusion that will give pleasure to us both. Oscar.
Max Ross/Oscar Wilde

Dear Hogarth
Your suggestion that I take up the novel-writing trade was naturally pleasing to my vanity, but I must abstain. I am no Scott; I am too involved in the here and now. I am a short-winded legal sketch-writer, a sprinter rather than a stayer — to sustain a story over three volumes octavo would be, I fear, beyond me. The novelist must create rounded characters, rather than depicting his subjects in a few brushstrokes — here a quirk of dress, there a quiddity of speech, and so forth. I fear that, once indulged to write on serious topics, I would thump my points home repeatedly, in the manner of counsel addressing a somnolent jury. Also, as you know, I have a weakness for the oddities of the law and its practitioners, which the general reader would find dull beyond words. No, the cobbler will stick to his last.
Frank Upton/Charles Dickens

No. 3171: economies of scale

You are invited to submit a requiem in verse for the pangolin. Please email up to 16 lines to by midday on 14 October. We are returning to paying winners by cheque, unless you state on your entry that you would prefer to be paid by bank transfer.

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