Issue 75, Spring 1979
Irwin Shaw was born in the South Bronx, New York, on February 27, 1913. Although he entered Brooklyn College, he was forced to withdraw when he failed freshman calculus; for a time, he held several miscellaneous jobs, including driving a truck, before being readmitted. At school Shaw played varsity football and wrote one-act plays for the college dramatic society; after graduation he began writing radio scripts while completing plays and short fiction in his spare time. At age twenty-three his antiwar play, Bury the Dead (1936), was successfully produced on Broadway. It was followed by Siege (1937), The Gentle People (1939), Quiet City (1939), Retreat to Pleasure (1940), among others.
Drafted into the army in 1942, Shaw served in North Africa and Europe. He remained in Paris after the war, joining the community of expatriate American writers. After his considerable success as a playwright, Shaw turned to novels; his first, The Young Lions, was inspired by his war experiences and was published in 1948. He has since published many other works of fiction as well as such screenplays as Act of Love (1954) and Desire Under the Elms (1958). His best-selling novels include The Troubled Air (1950), Lucy Crown (1956), Voices of a Summer Day (1965), Rich Man, Poor Man (1970), Evening in Byzantium (1973), Nightwork (1975), Beggarman, Thief (1977), and, most recently, The Top of the Hill (1979).
Shaw is the father of a son, Adam, who is also a writer, and divides his time between Klosters, Switzerland, and Southampton, New York.
The first interview with Irwin Shaw took place when The Paris Review was in its infancy, over twenty-five years ago. Shaw has remained a friend to the editors of the magazine, and so it seemed appropriate to ask him for an update.
The first interview is especially acid about critics. Have your views changed over the years?
My views naturally have mellowed. Most of the critics have been more or less kind to me, and the public has been most kind, and I reach my readers regardless of what the critics have written. So that when I get a bad review now, it doesn’t bother me as much as it once did.
Do you read the reviews of your books?
Not much anymore, no. Not often. I sometimes glance at them, but I know that all writers are the same way. They forget a thousand good reviews and remember one bad one. Therefore, an excessive amount of spleen is vented on the one critic. You have to expect the raps when you have achieved popularity as a writer, which in high literary circles is regarded as proof of venality and deliberate debasement of artistic standards. The popularity that I’ve enjoyed in the last few years has tended to soften the effect of critical blows. There was one critic I was very angry with, who came up to the party for Jim Jones’s Whistle—after Jim had died—and I was in the receiving line. I put out my hand. He said, “You really want to shake my hand?” I said, “Sure. Forget it.” But there are a couple of critics I won’t forget, from the so-called New York literary establishment, who have their own pets and standards, which I don’t understand, and who have a tendency to either snub me or downgrade me. Naturally, I have some sharp things to say about them in the privacy of my own home. But I’d rather not say anything about them here, because the real juicy throat-cutting stories I’m saving for my memoirs.
You have recently spoken of a Jewish cabal which is at the forefront of this country’s critical evaluation . . .
Well, it’s not really a Jewish cabal . . . It’s something that started in the old Partisan Review, and it just so happened that quite a few people were Jews, but it had nothing particularly to do with Jews. They were Trotskyites. Anyone who was at all political and not a Trotskyite they considered a Stalinist. Unfortunately, they all wrote well and were maliciously entertaining. Then they became violent patriots during the war, though not one of them ever served in the armed services as far as I know. They didn’t fight in the war. They didn’t ever play football. They live in a dusty atmosphere of books and intrigue, and they don’t like people like me who have entered more than they have into the mainstream of American life. And they’ve kept their lofty attitudes ever since. They and their disciples have gone out and worked for Time magazine, and Newsweek and The New York Review of Books and even now in the Sunday Times Book Review section. They have a very haughty attitude towards people like me, mostly because—at least I think—because of the fact that my books sell a lot and people in general like them. They disregard all the great writers who were enormously popular, like Dickens, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and for that matter Fitzgerald and Mark Twain and Hemingway. Anyway, I don’t let them bother me much. As I wrote somewhere when writing about James Jones, “Posterity makes the judgments, not The Saturday Review of Literature, or The New York Review of Books, or even the Sunday Times Book Review section. There are going to be a lot of surprises in store for everybody.”
Do you think writers have it easier today than when you started out?
In some ways they do, and then again they don’t. When I started out, in the early 1930s, there were a great many magazines that published short stories. And writers of fiction, when they begin, are more likely to try the short form. At that time there was a great market for it, greater interest in the short story, and the young writer had a chance to practice his craft, to get criticism and meet with editors. Since that time, unfortunately, the short-story market has dwindled to almost nothing, and that form of expression has become almost obsolete for all writers in America except those who are willing to publish in small magazines or those writers who have enough of a reputation that they can use the limited space in two or three magazines throughout the country. However, from the point of view of finances, getting started as a writer has become more feasible. Although the number of newspapers has dwindled—and that used to be a field where a lot of beginning writers could serve their apprenticeship—there are many other forms that are lucrative. The chief one is television, which devours huge amounts of the written word, as does advertising and industry. The demand for quality in the writing in magazines like Time, Newsweek, et cetera, is attractive to bright young people of talent, and the proliferation of special-interests magazines offers a multitude of opportunities for financial security. However, those are dangerous places for writers to start in with, because the money is good and the writing quickly falls into a routine and people who had started out as serious are very likely to find themselves in a financial as well as an artistic bind, since working in those mediums is an all-day, all-week job. And they are liable to find themselves artistically exhausted when they want to work on something of their own. On the other hand, in my experience I’ve found that if you’re young enough, any kind of writing you do for a short period of time—up to two years, perhaps—is a marvelous apprenticeship. I told my son, who wanted to be a writer, that his newspaper experience—he was lucky enough to get four years of newspaper experience under demanding editors on the UPI. and The Washington Post—could only help him. But you must avoid giving hostages to fortune, like getting an expensive wife, an expensive house, and a style of living that never lets you afford the time to take the chance to write what you wish. So that, while writers in general can make a living much more easily than when I first started in the 1930s, the serious writer who doesn’t want to compromise at all finds it much more difficult. Still, we’re fortunate enough. The other day I got a contract from a magazine in Budapest. To reprint a short story of mine they agreed to pay me fifty dollars, out of which there would be deducted a thirty percent tax and a ten percent agent’s fee, and furthermore I was required to send at my own expense two books to some bureaucratic organization of the Hungarian government. You can imagine how well writers are doing in Budapest.