M.F.A. vs Donleavy


From the Archive

John Deakin’s portrait of J. P. Donleavy in London, 1950s.

An exchange between J. P. Donleavy—who’s eighty-nine today—and John Irving, from our Spring 1988 issue. Some two years previous, in his Art of Fiction interview, Irving had disparaged Donleavy at length, speaking of their meeting at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where Irving taught in the seventies:

I like meeting other writers, and Iowa City is a good place to meet them, but I didn’t enjoy Donleavy. John Cheever and I, who were in a particularly ritualized habit of watching Monday Night Football together, while eating homemade pasta, were happy to hear that Donleavy was coming. We’d both admired The Ginger Man and we wanted to meet the author. I went to the airport to meet him; I’d written three novels—but not yet The World According to Garp; I wasn’t famous. I didn’t expect Donleavy to have read anything of mine, but I was surprised when he announced that he read no one living; then he asked if we were in Kansas. I told him a little about the Workshop, but he was one of those writers with no knowledge about writing programs and many prejudices about them: to be a student of writing was a waste of time; better to go out and suffer. He was wearing a very expensive three-piece suit, very handsome shoes, and handling a very posh walking stick at the time, and I began to get irritated. In a meeting with Workshop students, he told them that any writer who was lowering himself by teaching writing wasn’t capable of teaching them anything. And so I was quite cross by the time I had to pick up the great man and drive him to his reading. I said we would be taking Mr. Cheever with us to the reading, and that both Mr. Cheever and I were great admirers, and that although I knew Mr. Donleavy did not read anyone living, he should know that Mr. Cheever was a wonderful writer. His short stories were models of the form, I said. But when I introduced Cheever to Donleavy, Donleavy wouldn’t even look at him; he went on talking to his wife, about aspirin, as if Cheever wasn’t there. I tried to say a few things about why so many American writers turned to teaching—as a way of supporting themselves without having to place the burden of making money upon their writing; and as a way of giving themselves enough time to practice their writing, too.

But Donleavy wasn’t interested and he said so. The whole trip he was taking was tiresome; the people he met, the people everywhere, were tiresome, too. And so Cheever and I sat up front in the car, excluded from the conversation about the evils of aspirin, and driving the Donleavys about as if they were unhappy royalty in a hick town. I will say that Mrs. Donleavy appeared to suffer her husband’s rudeness, or perhaps she was just suffering her headache. Cheever tried a few times to engage Donleavy in some conversation, and as Cheever was as gifted in conversation as any man I have ever met, I grew more and more furious at Donleavy’s coldness and unresponsiveness and total discourtesy. I was thinking, frankly, that I should throw the lout in a puddle, if there was one handy, when Cheever spoke up. “Do you know, Mr. Donleavy,” Cheever said, “that no major writer of fiction was ever a shit to another writer of fiction, except Hemingway—and he was crazy?” That was all. Donleavy had no answer. Perhaps he thought Hemingway was still a living writer and therefore hadn’t read him, either. Cheever and I deposited the Donleavys at the reading, which we spontaneously decided to skip. It was many years later that I met and became friends with George Roy Hill, who told me that he’d been a roommate of “Mike” Donleavy at Trinity College, Dublin, and that “Mike” was just a touch eccentric and surely not a bad sort. But I remembered my evening with Cheever and told George that, in my opinion, Donleavy was a minor writer, a shit, or crazy—or all three. I should add that drinking wasn’t the issue of this unpleasant evening; Cheever was not drinking; Donleavy wasn’t drunk—he was simply righteous and acting the prima donna. I feel a little like I’m tattling on a fellow schoolboy to tell this story, but I felt so awful—not for myself but for Cheever. It was such an outrage; that Donleavy—this large, silly man with his walking stick—was snubbing John Cheever. I suppose it’s silly that I should still be angry, but George Plimpton told me that Donleavy has a subscription to The Paris Review [a complimentary subscription—Ed.]; this presents an apparent contradiction to Donleavy’s claim that he doesn’t read anyone living, but it gives me hope that he might read this. If the story embarrasses him, or makes him angry, I would say we’re even; the evening embarrassed Cheever and me, and made us angry, too.

Donleavy wrote the following response; the editors also published a riposte from Irving.


Co. Westmeath

28th April 1987

To the Editor:

With reference to your interview with John Irving appearing in your Winter 1987 edition in which Mr. Irving alleges I was rude and snubbed Mr. John Cheever during a visit to Iowa:

I was not carrying a cane at the time but remember a request from Mr. Irving to speak with him privately which I did and during which meeting I suggested to him, that if he had the option to leave the cosy world of teaching, it was better to go suffer and pursue a writing career outside of university. This advice he seems to have taken, and I’m told, he was heard to mention it on a radio broadcast some years ago. As for snubbing Mr. John Cheever, I distinctly recall pleasantly meeting this distinguished gentleman in his classroom during one of his teaching sessions. Also, I am informed by the friend sending me this cutting from the Paris Review that one of Mr. Cheever’s students (now a published novelist), was at the time at Iowa and was present at my talk and quotes Mr. Cheever as saying he thought the lecture and reading wonderful and that one’s tailoring was sublime. As someone who was always only dressed to keep warm and comfortable, Mr. Cheever’s reference to my tailoring comes as a surprise but clearly is not the remark of a man who has felt snubbed, and I suspect there is some other reason for Mr. Irving’s remarks.

It is true that I do not have untold sympathy for the American academic fraternity nor did I keep up with the literary scene then, nor do I now. But I note in the paragraph on page 95 preceding the present above matter, that Mr. Irving refers to the interchangeable use of “I” as a first person narrator with third person narrator. At least it is evident that this device, first used in The Ginger Man, has made an impression on Mr. Irving. All this has come to my attention not as a subscriber nor as a recipient of complimentary copies of the Paris Review and which latter I assure Mr. Plimpton I do not receive.

J. P. Donleavy


Sagaponack, New York

9 June 1987

To the Editor:

I’m sorry you had to suffer that arcane and mannered flapdoodle from Mr. Donleavy; although—as I said in the interview—“if the story embarrasses him, or makes him angry, I would say we’re even; the evening (described in the interview) embarrassed Cheever and me, and made us angry, too.” Although I do not credit my memory of 1972–75 as exact, I believe that my memory of Mr. Donleavy’s behavior in Iowa City is far more accurate than Mr. Donleavy’s recollection.

It is spurious of Mr. Donleavy to contend that I took his advice: that it was “better to go suffer and pursue a writing career outside of university.” I decided to pursue a writing career “outside of university” when I could afford not to teach; I never decided “to go suffer.” And when Mr. Donleavy gave this advice, he did not do so “privately” but in a classroom where his remarks were hugely attended; in fact (and this puts it more strongly than I did in my interview), Donleavy suggested to the students that not only were they wasting their time being students of writing—that there was surely nothing they could be taught by writers such as myself (and Mr. Cheever) who had chosen the “cosy world of teaching.”

But (as I said in the interview) my anger was for Cheever; he was snubbed, he did offer to point out to Mr. Donleavy that no major writer of fiction was ever a shit to another writer of fiction—those moments are as concrete in my memory as Mr. Donleavy’s cane or walking stick; as concrete as my memory of how proud he was not to waste his time reading anyone living. This latter remark, I suppose, might be a form of general snubbing—to all of us living and working in a writers’ community like Iowa City; we had, after all, read him.

And as for the student “(now a published author)”—the one who quotes Mr. Cheever as finding Mr. Donleavy’s tailoring “sublime,” and his reading and lecture “wonderful”—I admit to some wonderment; but Mr. Cheever, in my experience, was a polite man, or perhaps his remarks to the student (if true) were ironic … he was an ironic man, too.

To one point made by Mr. Donleavy, I must agree. As I said in my interview: I was, and remain, an admirer of The Ginger Man. The interchangeable use of a first- and third-person narrative voice indeed made an impression on me; although I thought that device called less attention to itself in The Tin Drum—which is why, in my interview, I praised Grass for handling that technique so “seamlessly.”

John Irving