The Cortland Review


Miriam Levine
An interview and poetry. J.M. Spalding talks with poet and writer Miriam Levine.

Douglas Thornsjo
Writers on Writing 2: Four More Authors You Should be Reading.

Douglas Thornsjo

Writers On Writing 2
Four More Authors You Should be Reading


I always cheat. Not so much in the romantic field, where I tend to be disgustingly devoted, but in just about everything else: I always exceed the requested word count; I print out long personal documents on the company LaserJet; if I’m bored with a book, I sometimes skim or even jump over pages of text. My entire participation in this column for The Cortland Review could be said to be a cheat: when J.M. Spalding asked Bruce Canwell to write a monthly column, it was Bruce who approached me to tackle the issues on alternating months, and I gleefully rode in on his coattails. Well, Bruce would say that “gleefully” isn’t anything like the right word — but then, I always cheat.

As he mentioned last month, Bruce and I agree that good writers must also be good readers. It’s a sentiment we share with the late Robertson Davies, who advises us as readers to slow down, to take pleasure in the act of reading (as opposed to the conquest of “having read” something) and, most of all, to dramatize as we read. Davies had a background in the theater and his novels play very well, thank you, in the theater of your own mind’s eye. Writing may be the ultimate power trip — we not only put words in the character’s mouths and shape their destiny, but we establish the basic parameters of their looks, we design all the sets and costumes, set the tone, pace and mood, and we play all the parts. But that’s a cheat, too, or at least a half-truth: as Davies knew, the reader is the true leading player, and only by taking on that role can a writer hope to learn his business.

Here are four writers who will offer you many hours of internal drama:



He is one of my Top Ten Reasons Why It’s Good To Be Alive. I first discovered him with the American edition of his fifth novel, Poor Things, a brilliant construction made of equal parts Mary Shelley parody, feminist treatise, social history and literary conceit, where truth and fiction swallow each other whole and nothing is quite as it seems.

The trappings of Poor Things first attracted me, but the layers held my attention. It’s been my great pleasure to have that experience repeated in all of his books, from Lanark (his first and biggest novel in which a Scottish life is examined from both sides of death) all the way through his most recent novel, A History Maker (science fiction grounded in Scotland’s bloody history). Gray frequently augments his words with a filigree of real and imagined critic’s comments, with illustration (he was trained as an artist in Glasgow, and designs and illustrates all of his own work) and anthropological articles that investigate the reality behind the fiction. It is gamesmanship, but gamesmanship of a very high and self-deprecating order. Gray, as usual, says it best himself, in a (partially fictional?) postscript to a new reprinting of Unlikely Stories, Mostly: “... all my writing is about personal imagination and social power, or (to put it more crudely) freedom and government. Variety comes from neither side being simply right or wrong. Both are essential. ... freedom and control are swapped between two individuals.”



Caustic humor is a long and noble British tradition. What sets Tom Sharpe ahead of the pack is not the depth of his perversion (which is deep enough) or the sheer volume of comic mayhem that he can squeeze into two hundred pages, but that he can make you laugh out loud at the most appalling things, and keep you coming back for more.

Part of his secret is that the stories are laced with Awful Truth. It’s hard to conceive that a writer who uses penis mutilation as a recurring motif and whose characters habitually cavort in rubber rooms and sex-toy factories might have something important to say. Sharpe is driven by a deep-seated anger at the system, and it’s the anger that powers the black extremes of his humor.

The other part of his secret is harder to express in a short recommendation: because, yes, the books are charming in a sick adult sort of way, and this charm of style seldom fails even when Sharpe is describing (in his South African series Indecent Exposure and Riotous Assembly) the efforts of white Afrikaners to eliminate black Africans by raping black women, or (in The Throwback) the efforts of a young man to hang onto his inheritance by having his dead grandfather stuffed and wired for sound. Look, I don’t expect you to believe me: read the books and find out for yourselves. Reading Tom Sharpe is a test of character — try him and see if you pass.



Almost forgotten now, in his day Joyce Cary was a giant, if not a household name. He would belong on this list even if his only achievement had been to create Gully Jimson, painter, anarchist and genius, antihero of The Horse’s Mouth. But in novel after novel, Cary wrote from inside his characters, using only subtle technique — never the pyrotechnics of writers like Faulkner and Dos Passos (both of whom are favorites — don’t get me wrong). Artists, politicians, army men, children, wives and lovers all came under his pen with equal conviction, all caught out to one degree or another at the defining (and frequently the most humiliating) moments of their lives. If writers are dramatists, directors and actors, then, more than any other writer on this list, Cary mastered the “acting” part.

Cary often wrote in the form of literary triptychs, in which the same story is examined from three different points of view, separate lives touching at a more or less vital juncture and having impact, consequences, that they could never have anticipated. Roberston Davies, who under Cary’s influence produced his famous Cornish and Deptford Trilogies, wrote the best appreciation of Cary that anyone could hope for in his book A Voice From The Attic. I won’t try to improve on it (couldn’t, given limitations of ability and space), but will only add my approval and recommendation. Flashier, more visceral novelists abound, but none better.



... makes this list on the strength of one novel: he has written others, but Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies is his first to achieve iconic status, while, cleverly enough, dealing with American icons.

Set in the world of 1930’s newspaper comics publishing, Dugan chronicles three or more affairs of various sorts: platonic/romantic, as hack writer Al Bready worries about his friendship with a married woman; platonic/creative, as Bready pairs with disagreeable, lecherous comic strip artist Walter Geebus to produce a work (the “Derby Dugan” of the book’s title) greater than either man could have accomplished on their own; and the very real love affair that America once had with newspaper comic strips.

The relationships that he writes about are difficult ones, all bound up in a four-colored thread of endurance, faith, love and aspiration. Like the relationships between characters in the best comic strips — the Kats and Mice, the orphans and billionaires, the sailors and old maids — they mean something that is not easily defined. This is not a novel about the funnies, but a novel about the people who made them, the contradictory nature of the human heart, and “the better angels of our nature” that sometimes find fruition in populist art.

Wait a minute, you say. Counting Roberston Davies (who belongs on everyone’s reading list) that’s five authors, not four.

Well, I always cheat.


Next Installment: Writers on Writing 3: Preserving Our Future


2002 The Cortland Review