Finuala Dowling

Chumminess aside

Finuala Dowling dips her toe into the Accone debate, backslapping, chumminess, madness, premarital sex, and why we should, despite our cringing, like it.

Sometimes backslapping is exactly what you need, even if it makes you cringe.  Scott Fitzgerald slapped Hemingway on the back at the Dingo Bar in Paris in 1925, told him he was the better writer, called him his new best friend, asked him if he and his wife had engaged in premarital sex, and then set to work promoting Hemingway’s career.

At the time, Hemingway cringed.  He believed the proverb that “praise to the face is open disgrace”.  He also found the premarital sex question a bit invasive.  Lucky for him he wasn’t able to tweet either the praise or his discomfort.

Recently Percy Zvomuya and Kelwyn Sole have both mentioned their disquiet about the perceived chumminess of South African writers, particularly on Book SA.  Sole deprecates “the self-congratulatory, chummy ambience that prevails in literary circles at present, as well as the accompanying celebration of whatever is published”, and Zvomuya worries that whereas “there’s no doubt rigorous debate is hosted by the website … some of it occasionally feels like friendly banter – friends gently stroking the backs of friends.”

I, too, dislike the “Like it”, thumbs-up, culture we seem to live in now, but I want to defend a relationship that may have been overlooked in our reaction against instant messaging-massaging: the profound importance to literature of deep and lasting literary friendships. Often conducted in correspondence covering years, these have produced some of the world’s most exciting and memorable letters. Many of these famous literary partnerships started with a backslap or a simple schmooze like “I love your work.

There would be no Lucky Jim if Kingsley Amis hadn’t been friends with Philip Larkin; no Frankenstein if Byron hadn’t suggested to Mary and Percy Shelley at a fireside in Geneva that they each attempt a supernatural tale; no Rainbow or Women in Love if DH Lawrence hadn’t been inspired by Katherine Mansfield’s sexuality, no “How do I love thee” if Robert Browning hadn’t set the ball rolling with a fan letter to Elizabeth Barrett; no … ah, let someone else finish this list.

South African writers are no different, in this respect, from their European and American counterparts.  Es’kia Mphahlele’s collected letters (Bury Me at the Marketplace edited by N Chabani Manganyi and David Attwell) reveal the extent of his connectedness to other writers, including Nadine Gordimer, Langston Hughes and Dora Taylor.  Ingrid de Kok’s beautiful poem “Time to Go” (in Seasonal Fires) dedicated to Antjie Krog and John Samuel, gives a sense of the lingering pleasure a literary friendship brings.

Why writers should need friends is obvious. Writing is a solitary occupation; it doesn’t pay, and it makes you vulnerable to criticism. One South African writer I know says she is forever grateful to the friend who phoned her one day to tell her not to buy the Times Literary Supplement because of the hack job they’d done on her latest book.

But even before publication, there are aspects to writing that trouble the psyche and leave you in need of a friend.  For months you live in the minds of characters you’ve created yourself; you live “out of time” because the time frame of your novel is at odds with the clocks ticking around you; you scour your memory and dreams at dangerous depths for material; you passively observe the world in order to re-imagine it; you open your veins completely to experience and to feeling in order to connect with your readers. That’s why I tell my students: “Don’t worry that you need to be mad to write – the writing will make you mad.”

I have several writers among my friends.  Sometimes I admire the writing but feel a little shy in the presence of the writer; sometimes I love the writer but shy away from the writing.  Occasionally I hit the jackpot and it’s just love. Sometimes there’s an edge of competition, but mostly there’s just that reassuring feeling of hanging out with an ally.

Writers need friends who understand the way writing bends the mind, who are sympathetic to the mood swings of the anti-social socialiser, the drinking teetotaller, the sex-mad celibate, the city-walking troglodyte – all the paradoxical positions of the artist at work.

As Isaac Disraeli put it way back in 1835 (“Literary Friendships” in Curiosities of Literature):

To feel friendship like a passion is necessary to the mind of genius, alternately elated and depressed… The qualities which constitute literary friendship, compared with those of men of the world, must render it as rare as true love itself, which it resembles in that intellectual tenderness of which both so deeply participate.  … Engaged in similar studies, if one is found to excel, he shall find in the other the protector of his fame.  In their familiar conversations, the memory of the one associates with the fancy of the other; and to such an intercourse, the world owes some of the finer effusions of genius, and some of those monuments of labour which required more than one giant hand.

Here’s to intellectual tenderness.  Like it.

You can listen to writers talk about their friendships at, courtesy of a programme entitled “Literary Friendships” hosted by Garrison Keillor.

You might also enjoy Benjamin Markovits’ essay on the topic:

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The chumminess is pretty obvious in the British literary world – a clique of the top earners all giving each other glowing reviews in the opinion-forming papers. It’s a miracle anyone new ever gets a look-in.
But I’m not bitter and twisted, really. That’s how the world is, whatever field you’re in, and it’s kind of inevitable.

PS: Hi there, and love your writing, in case you could do with a gentle stroke.

Lynda Gilfillan says:

Why that English-public-school ‘chumminess’? Rather ‘tjommie-ness’ or ‘China-ness’, ek se.