On being intimidated by a favorite writer’s work

I’m focused on my own writing right now, thus the dearth of longer posts, slowdown in reviewing, and trickle of remainders. I feel guilty about it, if that helps.

A couple weeks ago, I was reading Rupert Thomson’s gorgeously evocative, meticulously pared-down This Party’s Got to Stop.

About a third of the way through, I had to take a break. The essay I’m writing had stalled. My verbs seemed unconscionably obvious next to his, my sentences clumsy, my narrative voice about as natural as a conversation heard through a tin horn. I was, as always, struggling with structure.

“I try to take comfort,” I told Rupert, in email, “in the knowledge that This Party is, what, your eighth or ninth book? Surely I’ll get better.”

He assured me:

[Y]es, you WILL get better. We all get better. I can definitely imagine being on my deathbed & thinking, ‘Oh, not now, please; I was just beginning to GET somewhere…’ Who was it who said that a writer’s biography is not the details of his life, but the story of his style. Nabokov maybe.


Of course this isn’t the first time I’ve been so overwhelmed with admiration for someone else’s work that I could barely stand to look at my own. I’m guessing the neurosis is a lifelong affliction — and, judging from conversations with friends, it’s a fairly common one.
Joan Didion suffered from an extreme case of awe-inspired paralysis. She told The Paris Review that, while Henry James was as formative as influence on her writing as Hemingway, she could no longer read him at all.

He wrote perfect sentences, too, but very indirect, very complicated. Sentences with sinkholes. You could drown in them. I wouldn’t dare to write one. I’m not even sure I’d dare to read James again. I loved those novels so much that I was paralyzed by them for a long time. All those possibilities. All that perfectly reconciled style. It made me afraid to put words down.

Can you imagine? The formidable Joan Didion, reduced to silence by her love of someone else’s words?
For occasions like this, for the past couple years, I’ve kept on hand a well-reviewed novel that I don’t like or respect. It’s sitting on my desk right now, in fact. I don’t re-read it in any detail, because I don’t want it to contaminate my thinking, but flicking through the book makes me feel better about my own work, however imperfect it may be.

But see Dani Shapiro’s reaction, in the Los Angeles Times this weekend, to an acquaintance who said, “So many crappy novels get published. Why not mine?”
If you can relate — or if you can’t — I’m curious about your experiences and I’ve opened up comments.


Newsletter Signup

Subscribe to my free newsletter, Ancestor Trouble.


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.