Sunday, June 21, 2009

One's company, two's a tradition

I was thinking the other day about literary friendships - strikingly different writers who happen to be writing in the same place at the same time, and are friends with one another. What a lot there are!

Some cases that come to mind:

- Samuel Taylor-Coleridge and William Wordsworth
- William Wordsworth (again) and Dorothy Wordsworth
- Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift
- The Bronte Sisters
- Percy Shelley and Lord Byron
- C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams
- Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg
- T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound
- Mike Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, and Brian Aldiss
- G.K. Chesterton and G.B. Shaw

And then there are the marriages/relationships:

- Emily Barret-Browning and Robert Browning
- W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman
- Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley (again)

There are a couple of things that I find interesting about these writers - or those that I know closely, anyway: their styles are so different that most people seem to have a clear preference for one writer over another. Same here: I prefer Coleridge over Wordsworth, Lewis over Tolkien or Williams, and Aldiss over Moorcock or Ballard.

When the friendships or relationships occur across the sexes it might be interesting to see what sort of attention each writer has got: William has got a great deal more attention than Dorothy, for instance. And though Mary Shelley has garnered lasting fame through her first novel, Frankenstein, none of her other novels (she wrote several more) - or her work as editor/collater of Percy's poems for the benefit of posterity - has got as much attention.

Also, while I personally tend to look at these groups as individuals who happen to know one another, I wonder if there wasn't more to it than that? There's a passage in C S Lewis's The Four Loves, which I've just read, which observes that when, in a group of friends, one friend dies, the survivors lose not just their friend, but the part each had shared with their dead friend. (He expresses it by means of one of those weird algebraic equations: 'When C dies, A not only loses his part in C, but B's part in C as well'.) So while I greatly prefer Lewis over Tolkien, of course, one wonders what each brought out in the other, and how that showed in their books? Are each to blame for the other person's writing?

Any thoughts?


nailpolishblues said...

1) Clearly Shelleys help release brilliance.*

2) I don't think you can blame another for your writing but I think friends with a similar bent or people who are just willing to read your stuff and comment always influence you.

3) The competition has got to be a factor. Fond as you may be of your friend/s you probably want to do this thing better.

* Couldn't resist.

TimT said...

1) Clearly!
2 + 3 sound like influence working in different ways - influence and reverse influence. One of the best way of competing with someone else is by being as different from them as it is possible to be.

nailpolishblues said...

Or bettering them at their own game.

The being as different as possible is very sibling-like. Trying a little to hard so as to make comparison difficult.

Maria said...

There are also the acting friendships (oh and of course the famous marriages and divorces).

I can't help think of how many times people comment on Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and how their careers have, errh, developed.

As for friends reading your stuff ... well I can say I hav always found this difficult. I had a friend who let me read her stuff. It wasn't very good, I tried to be as nice as possible about it and critique it very gently. In fact I left out most of the stuff I really had to say about it. She still got really upset, and we're no longer friends (N.B. we were pen pals, not great soul mates).

I had another, closer friend who asked me to read her work. Her work was of a much higher standard and I felt awkward reading and trying to offer my opinion. I didn't feel very free to say what I really thought, as I was constantly thinking about the relationship and whether it would make her feel defensive and actually whether my opinion was valid (I'm not an expert writer myself) so whether I'd look just stupid and whether we'd get into an argument was that a personal remark, was that a stupid comment, ... so my remarks were just superficial and restrained.

That was sometime ago, I'm not sure if I could be more free to speak my mind now but I find critiquing friends' stuff hard!

TimT said...

Yes, that's the problem with reading over other people's writing - if you make a compliment, maybe you secretly didn't like it and you're going out of your way by being nice. If you make a criticism, maybe you secretly did like it but are being critical anyway because you want to be constructive and give them something to work with. If you make an indifferent comment - oh heavens above! - maybe you REALLY loved it and REALLY hated it, and aren't able to admit it (for reasons above).

That is why the real solution to this dilemma is not by being utterly scrupulous and honest at all times, but by saying nothing to nobody, ever!

And I realise this completely invalidates anything I've ever said about other people's writing, but there you go...

Email: timhtrain - at -

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