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The writers we like

I have just finished reading John Irving’s memoir The Imaginary Girlfriend. It was published in 1996 when Irving was 54 years old. In the book he says he wrote the little book – 110 pages – at the behest of his wife. It is not a true summary of his life and it has little if any substantive detail. He paints with a very broad brush over anything that could truly be considered the intimate aspects of his life. If we are to believe what he wrote then he sees the world through the lens of wrestling, writing and the friends he made in those worlds. He does take pains to recognize those who mentored him and to forget the names of people who demeaned and rejected his efforts.

The part of the book I found most illustrative were the comments he made about the writers he liked and those for whom he had little to no use. He embraced many of the 19th century novelists. He had no use at all for Hemingway or Faulkner. No consideration given to Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Saul Bellow, Jim Harrison, Wallace Stegner or Bernard Malamud. He did like Kurt Vonnegut but Vonnegut lived around the block from him during his formative years and was a supporter and endorser of his work. In short, no admiration for the competition from currently read contemporaries. I am a big fan of Irving and have read a lot but not all of his work. His books are generally wonderful but take this little book as something written casually, perhaps tongue in cheek by a great writer.

Reflecting on The Imaginary Girlfriend it did provoke me to ask – why do writers like the work of certain writers but not others? Why was it that Irving could embrace Tolstoy but not Hemingway? A matter of style perhaps since Irving is given to sometimes elaborate and overwrought sentences. Still, I don’t want to pillory Irving. He is just the jumping off point.

Is it a matter of style that turns one writer away from another’s work? Is it the subject? Perhaps it is the setting of the work – too much Paris and not enough Des Moine or possibly the other way around. Maybe, although I enjoy Irving’s novels set in New England almost as much as Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises set in Spain. Jim Harrison’s Michigan books entertain me equally as much as Isaac Singer’s The Penitent set in Poland and urban America.

I have found as I have aged that I have no patience for a book with a thin storyline or one with poorly developed characters. Of late I have been giving up on books that have been written by someone who lacks the life experience to approach the subject matter. I have a stack of books I am giving away to others who may read the same book from a different perspective. I prefer to be charitable to the author and rest on the assumption that what did not work for me will work for others.

I am interested in hearing from other writers. Whose work appeals to you and whose work can you just not tolerate?

Irving had his reasons for his lists of likes and dislikes when he was 54. I am curious if he feels the same way now at 80. Time does have a way of providing a shift in perspective.

the journey continues…

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