I’m a fan of polemical writing, whatever the subject-matter. In fact, my reading of Joyce’s letters and biographies has tipped me off to a future project: reading more Ezra Pound, those excerpts which have been included having been so creatively acerbic. Pound’s is a name I’ve heard here and there but I don’t really know that much about him.
As I was reading through Joyce’s letters of 1916, I found an exchange included by the editors, between Pound and a publisher’s reader asked for his thoughts on Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Pound’s vitriol is satisfying nearly a century later.
For context, here’s the publisher’s reader’s letter, to which Pound’s letter (second below) is a reply. – It’s written by one Edward Garnett of Duckworth and Company, London:
James Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ wants going through carefully from start to finish. There are many ‘longueurs’. Passages which, though the publisher’s reader may find them entertaining, will be tedious to the ordinary man among the reading public. That public will call the book, as it stands at present, realistic, unprepossessing, unattractive. We call it ably written. The picture is ‘curious’, it arouses interest and attention. But the author must revise it and let us see it again. It is too discursive, formless, unrestrained, and ugly things, ugly words, are too prominent; indeed at times they seem to be shoved in one’s face, on purpose, unnecessarily. The point of view will be voted ‘a little sordid’. The picture of life is good; the period well brought to the reader’s eye, and the types and characters are well drawn, but it is too ‘unconventional’. This would stand against it in normal times. At the present time, though the old conventions are in the background, we can only see a chance for it if it is pulled into shape and made more definite.
In the earlier portion of the MS. as submitted to us, a good deal of pruning can be done. Unless the author will use restraint and proportion he will not gain readers. His pen and his thoughts seem to have run away with him sometimes.
At the end of the book there is a complete falling to bits; the piece of writing and the thoughts are all in pieces and the fall like damp, ineffective rockets.
The author shows us he has art, strength and originality, but this MS. wants time and trouble spent on it, to make it a more finished piece of work, to shape it more carefully as the product of the craftsmanship, mind and imagination of an artist.
Here’s Pound’s reply [all apparent typos are his].
Dear Mr Pinker,
I have read the effusion of Mr Duckworth’s reader with not inconsiderable disgust. These vermin crawl over and beslime our literature with their pulings, and nothing but the day of judgement can, I suppose, exterminate ’em. Thank god one need not, under ordinary circumstances, touch them.
Hark to his puling squeak: too ‘unconventional’. What in hell do we want but some change from the unbearable monotony of the weekly six shilling pears soap annual novel; … the dungminded dungbearded, penny a line, please-the-mediocre-at-all-cost doctrine. You English will get no prose till you enterminate this breed … to say nothing of the abominable insolence of the tone…
Canting, supercilious, blockhead… I always supposed from report that Duckworth was an educated man, but I can not reconcile this opinion with his retention of the author of the missive you send me. If you have to spend your life in contact with such minds, God help you,
do accept my good will and sympathy in spite of the tone of htis note.
God! ‘a more finished piece of work’.
Really, Mr Pinker, it is too insulting, even to be forwarded to Joyce’s friend, let alone to Joyce.
And the end… also found fault with… again, O God, O Montreal!
Why can’t you send the publisher’s reader to the serbian front, and get some good out of the war…
Serious writers will certainly give up the use of english altogether unless you can improve the process of publication.
In conclusion, you have given me a very unpleasant quarter of an hour, my disgust flows over, though I suppose there is no use in spreading it over this paper. If there is any phrase or form of contempt that you care to convey from me to the reeking Malebolge of the Duckworthian slum, pray, consider yourself at liberty to draw on my account (unlimited credit) and transmit it.
Please, if you have occasion to write again either in regard to this book or any other, please do not enclose the publisher’s readers opinions. Sincerely yours,
P.S. … as for altering Joyce to suit Duckworth’s readers – I would like trying to fit the Venus de Milo into a piss-pot …. a few changes required.