On third-class writers with second-class tickets

From Vladimir Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, in which the protagonist quotes from a response his half-brother Sebastian, a writer, sent to a publisher who urged him to rewrite a draft novel containing “an extremely comic and cruel skit upon a certain living author”:

“You seem to wonder,” he wrote in one letter, “what on earth could make me …. take a nice porcelain blue contemporary (X. does remind one, doesn’t he, of those cheap china things which tempt one at fairs to an orgy of noisy destruction) and let him drop from the tower of my prose to the gutter below. You tell me he is widely esteemed; that his sales in Germany are almost as tremendous as his sales here; that an old story of his has just been selected for Modern Masterpieces; that together with Y. and Z. he is considered one of the leading writers of the ‘post-war’ generation; and that, last but not least, he is dangerous as a critic. You seem to hint that we should all keep the dark secret of his success, which is to travel second-class with a third-class ticket — or if my simile is not sufficiently clear — to pamper the taste of the worst category of the reading public — not those who revel in detective yarns, bless their pure souls — but those who buy the worst banalities because they have been shaken up in a modern way with a dash of Freud or ‘stream of consciousness’ or whatnot — and incidentally do not and never will understand that the pretty cynics of today are Marie Corelli’s nieces and old Mrs. Grundy’s nephews. Why should we keep that shameful secret? What is this masonic bond of triteness — or indeed tritheism? Down with these shoddy gods! And then you go and tell me that my ‘literary career’ will be hopelessly handicapped from the start by my attacking an influential and esteemed writer. But even if there were such a thing as a ‘literary career’ and I were disqualified merely for riding my own horse, still I would refuse to change one single word in what I have written.


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