It Takes A Certain Type to Be A Writer

by Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo

Published by Conari Press

193 pages, 2003





Poking Sacred Cows

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


No less a personage than Edna St. Vincent Millay was once quoted as saying, "A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the public with his pants down." It's this kind of pithy, truthful nugget of insight that makes this charming little book more than just a collection of dry facts.

As Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo tell us in their introduction:

The writing life is difficult and full of frustration and neurosis. It takes a special type to even try it. ... There must be something beyond rationality at work here. Call it love or obsession, a need to express or a need for attention, an ability to communicate or an inability to shut up, but writers are clearly a little bit insane.

Well, yes. The slightly crazed intensity of the writer is not so much mocked as celebrated here, with Barrett and Mingo compiling a juicy and enjoyable compendium of trivia and quotes that express all the agony and ecstasy of the craft.

In the "did you know" category, we learn that "Henry Miller worked as a branch manager for Western Union for nearly five years, a period that he said was 'comparable for me to Dostoyevsky's stay in Siberia'."

Tedious or unusual day jobs are part and parcel of the climb to fame. Speaking of men of letters, what did Anthony Trollope and William Faulkner have in common? They both worked for the post office. Before hitting the bestseller lists, novelist Amy Tan wrote horoscopes (presumably taking creative license with her forecasts). And what connection did William Saroyan have with Alvin and the Chipmunks? He co-wrote the Rosemary Clooney hit "Come On a My House" with his cousin Ross Bagdasarian, who founded the squeaky trio under the name of David Seville.

This is the kind of book you read out loud to the folks at a literary gathering (or sitting around the Christmas tree, if your family is the bookish type). There's pleasure in letting everyone know that Kurt Vonnegut and Dr. Seuss were frat brothers in college, and that Voltaire (who must have had an iron bladder) drank 70 cups of coffee a day.

The part I really savored was the section on literary criticism, in which some of our greatest writers were subjected to merciless comments by critics and (even worse) other writers. Walt Whitman is "some escaped lunatic raving in pitiable delirium; " Herman Melville's Moby Dick is "metaphysical claptrap." Virginia Woolf's writing is "no more than glamorous knitting." Lord Byron? "Mad, bad and dangerous to know." Oscar Wilde is "an ineffable dunce," and Salman Rushdie "a twit."

But it gets better. Barrett and Mingo are not above poking fun at some truly sacred cows. A whole section is devoted to reviling the works of Shakespeare ("rude, immoral, vulgar and senseless ... a vast dunghill"). This appealed to the subversive schoolgirl in me, who suffered from intractable boredom while slogging through Hamlet and Macbeth.

And imagine how you can impress your friends and relatives with factoids such as, "Wuther is an obscure word referring to the noise that wind makes blowing through trees, which is why Wuthering Heights is called that."

Beyond being highly amusing, the book has a certain therapeutic value. Letters rejecting classics are always good for a wry laugh, and can even help the aspiring novelist to put off committing suicide for one more day. Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita was sent back with, "I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years." The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer was deemed "barely publishable." About The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, one publisher wrote to another, "Oh don't read that horrid book." (Wells was also dismissed as "only a minor writer of no large promise"). My personal favorite in the boy-did-he-ever-not-get-it category is this comment received by George Orwell upon submitting the manuscript for Animal Farm: "It is impossible to sell animal stories in the U. S. A."

Even with all these quotes, I still haven't given away the best parts. This is a fun book, breezy and good-natured and full of interesting stuff, a great stocking-stuffer for the book lover on your list, or a nice reward for yourself after rewriting your first novel for the 16th time. | December 2003


Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She is the author of the novel Better Than Life, published in 2003 by NeWest Press. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.