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Irwin Shaw: “I might mistrust intellectuals, but I’d mistrust nonintellectuals even more.”

A few weeks ago I picked up a paperback of stories by Irwin Shaw, printed in the late 1950s. I love these little pocket books—but this one was a bit too disposable: after about 50 pages the spine gave out and the pages started to fall out, which was a bit irritating because then I needed to hold the book with two hands as I was reading it, which makes it harder to read on the subway.

Anyway, Irwin Shaw (originally “Irwin Gilbert Shamforoff,” according to Wikipedia) wrote zillions of short stories for the New Yorker and other publications during the mid-twentieth century. The stories in this book (“Tip on a Dead Jockey”) were pretty good.

In his New York Times obituary, Herbert Mitgang wrote, “Stylistically, Mr. Shaw’s short stories were noted for their directness of language, the quick strokes with which he established his different characters, and a strong sense of plotting.”

Shaw’s writing struck me as as being very much in the Hemingway style (The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, etc.) but with the stories pitched a bit lower in intensity, without the lions and the gunshots. It could be worth comparing to John O’Hara, who published short stories at about the same time and in the same places as Shaw. O’Hara is a bit less smooth: there’s some way in which Shaw’s descriptions of scenes and characters just slide in smoothly, like Jeeves; in contrast, when O’Hara tells us something, it often seems to drop with a thud like the suitcase falling from the hand of an exhausted traveler who enters the hotel room after a long and arduous journey.

Sorry for that last bit; I’m sure a professional writer could’ve done it better.

Anyway, to continue . . . O’Hara more than anyone else reminds me of George V. Higgins (which is backward, of course; Higgins was very openly a follower of O’Hara), while Shaw reminds me a bit of Hemingway (as noted above) and also John Updike (sorry!). Shaw and O’Hara also anticipate Updike and, for that matter, Raymond Carver, by investing day-to-day life with high drama.

Anyway, there’s something perhaps too smooth about Shaw, some way in which his writing seems to fall a bit short of “art,” and some way in which O’Hara, in his ill-fitting prose, seems more the artist.

I plan to read a bit more Shaw and see. It should be pleasant, in any case, and it’s also fun to read this sort of thing for the background, for the unquestioned assumptions that Shaw and so many others of his era believed in.

An online search turned up this 1953 interview by George Plimpton and John Phillips. The interview is a good read. It features various off-putting details (for example, Shaw liked to go to a casino and gamble—wha???) but I guess this just means that these people were men of their time. Also this bit which is a cliche but is still fun:

Interviewer: Did you like being a critic?

Shaw: Not much. It wore out the pleasure of going to the theater. There’s an almost unavoidable feeling of smugness, of self-satisfaction, of teacher’s pettishness, that sinks into a critic’s bones, and I was afraid of it. . . .

One thing this all did was lower my impressions of Norman Mailer, because he said things like this all the time. Mailer’s pseudo-Hemingway shtick is 100% anticipated by Shaw’s pseudo-Hemingway shtick, and I feel that Shaw earned it more.

But then there was this, which I just love:

Interviewer: One more question about criticism, if we may. Are you your own severest critic? Do you . . . ?

Shaw: I am forced to say that I have many fiercer critics than myself.

As a writer myself, I have to say that having any critics at all is a glorious luxury. To know that people are actually reading what you write! Of course, Shaw was writing for well-regarded mass-circulation magazines, so I guess he had no worries in that regard.

And this:

Interviewer: Do you really enjoy writing, Mr. Shaw?

Shaw: I used to enjoy it more. It’s tougher now, as one’s power dwindles.

He was only 40, for chrissake! But I guess 40 feels pretty old, when you’re 40. And the 1950s was a younger time than today, at least in the U.S. and Europe. There were young people all around, and not many old people, so I guess that 40 really felt like the downside of the curve.

And this:

Interviewer: What is thought of the writer in America, then?

Shaw: He’s a freak. People feel uncomfortable when he’s around. He has odd, inconsistent ways of making his living, and nine times out of ten he can’t earn his living by writing. He’s distrusted and maybe he’s subversive. . . . Now, attacking writers as among the most eggheaded of intellectuals is considered a good way of guaranteeing an election. I might mistrust intellectuals, but I’d mistrust nonintellectuals even more.

Good line. I like that.

From an online mini-bio:

by the 1960s his critical reputation had suffered, as his novels were unfavorably compared to his earlier short stories. His marriage had failed by 1967, but during the next decade he produced some of his most popular novels, including Rich Man, Poor Man.

By the mid 1970s, Shaw was drinking heavily and his health was deteriorating. He and Marian reconciled and remarried in 1982, but he died in May of 1984 of prostate cancer.

I believe it. You can see the incipient sadness (not the cancer, of course) in the stories and in that interview. The guy was working so hard—writing story after story, each with its own setting and cast of characters, just writing one story after another and having to come up with a new world each time. How exhausting that’s gotta be! And then he seemed to have been working all the time when not at work: working to enjoy himself, to live a full life, to gamble and box and play tennis and be a husband and a father, to be a good friend to many, and, I assume, to have affairs: He was constructing his own ideal life from scratch, and that’s a lot of work. He didn’t have a convenient set of rules to live by, it wasn’t just about getting behind the typewriter and pounding away.

Anyway, you can’t keep this sort of lifestyle going for decades and decades. At some point you have to take a break. But Shaw’s relationship with his readers and critics does not seem to have been the sort that allowed much of a break.

After thinking about guys like this, it just makes me sad to consider brand-name authors such as James Patterson who just have a factory putting their novels out there. I find something admirable and poignant about Irwin Shaw, 40 years old, on top of the world, and knowing that, once you’re on top, there’s only one direction to go.


  1. Mark Palko says:

    The brand-name author factory model is nothing new. Dumas used to joke about not having time to read all of the books he “wrote.” Of course, that factory produced, among other things, The Count of Monte Cristo, still arguably the best adventure novel ever. Patterson… not so much.

  2. Hemingway’s men don’t go in much for introspection. Shaw’s do (in what little I’ve read – some early stories, not the later novels). They’re not very good at it. It’s as though they know that something isn’t quite right in the way they are relating to the world or to women, and they’re trying to figure it out but not quite getting there. (By the way, there’s a very good film adaptation of “Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” which reads like a screenplay anyway, with Carol Kane and Jeff Bridges. It’s on YouTube – here ).

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