Literary prizes and academic postings are all very well, but a writer hasn’t truly arrived until his work is quoted by politicians on a regular basis. So hats off to Colum McCann, whose words were referenced by Maryland’s governor Martin O’Malley in his latest State of the State address last week.
O'Malley, an Irish-American politician tipped as a future Democratic Party presidential candidate, rounded off his speech by declaring: "The only things worth doing are the things that might possibly break your heart," a line from McCann's This Side of Brightness.
The intrepid Len Lazarick of the Maryland Reporter tracked O'Malley down to discover that he had not just lifted the quotation, but that McCann had actually helped him write the speech. The two first met in 2002 when they shared a table at Esquire magazine's "The Best and the Brightest" in the nation awards dinner and became friends.
McCann, who is now based in New York, said of O’Malley last year: “I have great hope for this country because we have somebody like governor O’Malley,” citing his stance on gun control. “And he can sing too. I can’t. I do, but I can’t.”
O'Malley also reminded Lazarick that he was not the first US politician to quote the author. President Barack Obama, in his speech to a Belfast audience last year, said: " 'Peace is indeed harder than war,' the Irish author Colum McCann recently wrote, 'and its constant fragility is part of its beauty. A bullet need happen only once, but for peace to work we need to be reminded of its existence again and again and again.' "
Of course, being quoted can be a bit of a back-handed compliment at times. Slate's book columnist Mark O'Connell has just published a very entertaining article, The Stunning Success of "Fail Better": How Samuel Beckett became Silicon Valley's life coach, about the absurd misappropriation as a motivational meme of a phrase from the Irish writer's work, Worstward Ho: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
O'Connell quotes in turn the novelist Ned Beauman, who tracked in the New Inquiry how Beckett's bleak and oblique meditation crops up in such unlikely tomes as Timothy Ferriss' The 4-Hour Workweek and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Great Customer Service.
“Watching a liturgy from such a gloomy and merciless author getting repurposed to cheer up mid-level executives,” he writes, “is like watching a neighbor clear out their gutters with a stick they found in the garden, not realizing the stick is in fact a human shinbone.”
Ouch. And touché.