I’m sure you’re familiar with the old-hat writing advice, “murder your darlings,” or the variant “kill your darlings” — meaning, comb through your writing and take out all your favorite parts, because they’re probably the ones jamming the flow of your writing. That line’s always stuck in my craw. It’s the depressingly defeatist banner of Consistency Über Alles; it’s like saying, instead of making the weaker parts better, just take away all the best parts so that everything is nice and smoothly mediocre. It just takes away all the fucking fun. And then I recently read Roy Blount Jr.’s Alphabet Juice — an immensely entertaining meander through the English language — in which I came across this:
In his book On the Art of Writing (1916), Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, an eminent critic, anthologist, and adventure novelist, handed down a guideline for writers that people are still handing down. Usually people attribute it to Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell, Noël Coward, W.H. Auden, Oscar Wilde, or someone else whose fame has lasted longer than Sir Arthur’s. Here is that guideline in its original form: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it–whole-heartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press: Murder your darlings.” … Yes, well. Sir Arthur’s pen name was Q. Some frills trimmed there. But don’t you suspect that after rejecting Kill your pets as too mean and Eliminate your sweeties as ambiguous, then hitting, bingo, upon Murder your darlings–don’t you suspect that he thought to himself, Q, you are cooking? He probably didn’t think, I have just written the one thing that anybody will remember about me, if I’m lucky, ninety years from now. He probably thought he was on a roll. His next words are these:
Is it possible, Gentlemen, that you can have read one, two, three or more of the acknowledged masterpieces of literature without having it borne in on you that they are great because they are alive, and traffic not with cold celestial certainties, but with men’s hopes, aspirations, doubts, loves, hates, breakings of the heart; the glory and vanity of human endeavor, the transience of beauty, the capricious uncertain lease on which you and I hold life, the dark coast to which we inevitably steer, all that amuses or vexes, all that gladdens, saddens, maddens us men and women on this brief and mutable traject which yet must be home for a while, the anchorage of our hearts?
No darlings there?
That also reminded me of this hilarious paragraph I read once, penned by another writer now better known for telling other writers what to do than for his own fiction, John Gardner. In his overrated book On Moral Fiction — published in 1978 — he wrote this:
The generous critic might hold up numerous other writers as important artists—John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, James Purdy, William Gaddis, John Hawkes, Katherine Anne Porter, Guy Davenport, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, J.D. Salinger, Eudora Welty, and John Updike, to name a few. How many of them will outlast the century? … I suspect that what I’ve typed above is a list of inflated reputations.