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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Looking to be understood?

Brick Magazine published an interview with the important veteran American writer Thomas McGuane. In answer to a question from Alexandre Thiltges, McGuane had this to say about living in the sticks:

Significant human activity is usually considered to take place where the cultural arbiters and publishers are. But in the long run, you know, I’ve felt that they weren’t quite figuring out what it was I was trying to do. I’ve read impossible reviews of my work and I’ve thought, What are they reading? In the long run it seems to level out. You know when Faulkner was at the height of his career Newsweek magazine still referred to him as a farmer. When Melville died, his wife put on his gravestone, “Herman Melville, writer.” And everybody thought it was touching that she actually thought he was a writer! They were so moved by it, they said, “Now, that’s real loyalty!” [laughter] In the short haul, I don’t really think you can be expect to be understood. And you shouldn’t worry too much about it if you’re allowed to go on and publish. I remember Updike saying that in any case, the reviews are inexorably mixed. So it is. When you’re younger and your ego is fragile, you just get devastated. But I just reviewed a new book in the New York Times by a Norwegian writer named Per Petterson. His book is called Out Stealing Horses, and it’s a great book. It sold more than 230,000 hardcover books in Europe and he couldn’t find a publisher here. It then won the International Impac Dublin Literary Award – which is the most remunerative fiction prize in the world – won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, won a whole bunch of things, and until now everybody was saying, “Who wants to read about Scandinavia?” Now it’s out, it’s got a kind of boutique publisher, but it’s gradually been taken notice of. Categorically, it was considered as being too out of town to be of any interest, and those days are over. But anyway, it’s very tough in literature these days. When T.S. Eliot came to the U.S. in the fifties to read, they had to put him in a football stadium, that was the only thing that would hold the crowd. If he came now he couldn’t fill this room.

5 Responses to “Looking to be understood?”

  1. Jim Murdoch says:

    I’ve not read ‘Out Stealing Horses’, although Ken Armstrong did recommend it to me. I chose Petterson’s other novel ‘In the Wake’ which I’ve just finished actually. I wouldn’t say it’s an especially easy read, certainly not a laugh-a-minute, but I did appreciate it and it was definitely a worthwhile read. He’s not the only Scandinavian I’ve read either and I’m keen to investigate further.

    jb says: In the Wake was an interesting read, but if you come across Out Stealing Horses you won’t be disappointed. It’s an impressive novel.

  2. Ann says:

    Okay, I’ll read Out Stealing Horses, provincial American that I am. I take exception to books that are more an anthropology lesson than a literary work — not to say this is one — and those do seem to get published here, unfortunately. Maybe the American reader feels a bit in need of education?

    But I do think Eliot could still fill a room, even a bar, albeit with graduate students.

    jb says: Oh, goody. Do let us know what you think about the book.

  3. Donigan Merritt says:


    And thanks for directing me to “Out Stealing Horses.”

  4. Rachel Fox says:

    I have added the book in question to my ‘get and read’ list.
    Interesting quote too.
    And Eliot…I should think he could empty as many rooms as he could fill – any time, any place, anywhere…

    jb says: Hi Rachel. You’ll enjoy the Per Petterson book. Your own collection of poems is much on my mind at the moment.

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