William O'Rourke: 'I'm not bothered by the success of others'

The emeritus professor of English at the University of Notre Dame upset crime writers by referring to their ‘fatal lack of talent’. Here he seeks to clarify his remarks

William O’Rourke: Everyone is a crime writer, in the largest sense

William O’Rourke: Everyone is a crime writer, in the largest sense

 

I am pleased that my “aside” prompted so many, in the main, thoughtful responses – and surprised that there are so many self-described “crime writers” at the ready. When I use the term I am, was, thinking of those formulaic, genre writers, who turn them out yearly, if not monthly. I worked in New York City publishing when I was in graduate school way back when and proof-read and copy-edited quite a few.

My remark – “He doesn’t possess the fatal lack of talent required” – is the sentence, actually the phrase, everyone seems to object to. Though, given the literate audience involved, I would have thought that such a description – “fatal lack of talent” – would alert the reader (since it is a mixture of direct statement and hyperbole) to the realisation that I might be aware of its provoking ambiguities. This particular notion – fatal lack – is a perennial hobby-horse of mine, though I have never written about it. As an old friend said to me long ago, the non-crime writer Irini Spanidou, “Genius is a gift and talent is a curse”.

Michael Collins, if one reads the phrase in context, is the one bereft of the fatal lack of talent, saddled with the curse, in other words, hampered by too much talent. Not the mob of crime writers out there. Everyone is a crime writer, in the largest sense. Shakespeare is a crime writer. I published a novel titled Criminal Tendencies; there is a crime in it. The novel I have just completed has a crime in it – adultery, though most people no longer consider adultery a crime.

Let us be reasonable here. I am too old and have published too much to be thought ignorant enough not to be aware of the objections put forward by the miffed 13

Let us be reasonable here. I am too old and have published too much to be thought ignorant enough not to be aware of the objections put forward by the miffed 13. But, I contend, writers who publish are always writing at the top of their form. No one writes down. It’s difficult, almost impossible. Writers cursed with too much “talent” are unable to stoop to conquer.

The crime writers I was thinking of are the sort whose principal object is not to get the reader to stop in his or her tracks and ponder some remarkable aperçu, or paradox of the moment, be stunned to stop and think, but to keep turning the pages.

At my university I am part of a College of Arts and Letters. Though in our age it is mainly Arts and Entertainment. I am not on the side that thinks awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan (né Zimmerman) is an appropriate thing, even though it is certainly of the moment and is the epitome of the mix of high and low culture that reigns, evidently, everywhere. But, as a Yank, in a jingoist mode, I certainly think his winning preferable to giving it to some author I’ve never heard of residing in one of the Baltic states.

The examples of writers of announced stature who write, allegedly, superior crime novels under pseudonyms, is a matter of judgment. In any case, there are a number of counter-examples. Here are three, all by happenstance female: Doris Lessing, Joyce Carol Oates and JK Rowling. All published in different genres under pen names and those books went nowhere, until the actual celebrity author was revealed. And, in Oates’ case, it was revealed pre-publication.

I must admit, I am a bit surprised so many have such a low threshold for feeling belittled by my passing remark

I am not bothered by the success of others. In fact, it’s one of my few good traits. But I am well aware of the limitations of writers and if one is addicted to metaphor, prose residing in the neighbourhood of belles lettres, it is difficult, if not impossible, to go cold turkey and write otherwise. As one of the respondents (Barbara Nadel) pointed out, I, too, categorise writing as either fiction or nonfiction and, secondarily, whether it is good or bad.

The real cause of literary success, if one wants to go there, is contained in my remarks about telling the culture what it wants to hear. That’s a subject that needs to be discussed more deeply, rather than the offence taken at the phrase “fatal lack of talent”. And, I must admit, I am a bit surprised so many have such a low threshold for feeling belittled by my passing remark.

It proves the central point of my article on Michael that there is an active and vibrant and cohesive literary community across the pond, but not in the USA. Such a display of insults and ire would never happen in America, because I am not a celebrity. The chief reaction to perceived literary rebuke by an unfamous author in the States is not to be bothered. Neglect has always been the preferred weapon of choice here.
William O’Rourke is an emeritus professor of English at the University of Notre Dame

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