The NYT obit on Colleen McCullough, author of “The Thorn Birds,” this week was little short of brutal. It stopped short of calling her a hack, though we can be forgiven for thinking if positions were reversed she would not have hesitated.
McCullough wrote great bricks of escapist prose, one topping 900 pages. “Thorn Birds,” the Times wrote, had a “mixed” critical reception. “Reviewers took the author to task for sins ranging from stilted dialogue to the profligate use of exclamation points.” It sold more than three million copies, allowing her to give the back of her hand to them .
“I think in their heart of hearts all these people know that I’m more secure than they are, more confident than they are and smarter than they are,” she said in a 2007 interview on Australian television. Because it was TV, McCullough didn’t use the rough edge of her tongue. “In her nearly four decades in the limelight, it was one of her few printable replies on the subject,” according to the Times.
She was a writing machine on the order of Joyce Carol Oates. On a typical day, McCullough might pound out 15,000 words — double that on a very good day. On a typewriter yet. She had a lousy childhood, which seems a prerequisite for successful writers. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” her memoir quotes her father’s telling her. “Get out and get a job as a mangle hand in a laundry. That’s all you’re good for — you’ll never get a husband, you’re too big and fat and ugly.” Her mother was so cold and withholding that when McCullough returned to her native Australia she settled on a small island off the coast so as not to be on the same continent as her mother.
She got the idea of being a writer when she was studying science at Yale where Erich Segal scored a spectacular success with his inspid novel “Love Story.” McCullough interviewed Yale students to discover what they liked about it. Their answers — romance, characters, plot — resulted in “The Thorn Birds.” They’ll laugh you out of MFA programs for that.
“I loved being a neurophysiologist, but I didn’t want to be a 70-year old spinster in a cold-water walk-up flat with one 60-watt light bulb, which is what I could see as my future.” It must have taken an optimism as great as her girth to assume writing was a more secure path.
As tough as the Times was on McCullough’s work, it doesn’t compare with a book just out by a friend of Gore Vidal — I guess friend is the right word — detailing what a swine he was. I spent a day in Vidal’s company many years ago when he ran for the Senate from California. Cold, insufferable snob sums him up pretty well. Meanwhile, another new book about Leo Tolstoy’s long-suffering wife (she wrote out by hand seven drafts of War and Peace) says that the literary titan, father of eight children, had “a physical relationship” with a male member of the cult that grew up around him in his later years. This follower assumed a Rasputin-like control over Tolstoy, even telling him what to write. It reminded me of the great Dirk Bogarde movie The Servant. While on the subject, we all know now what a bastard Dickens was in private life. His wife bore him ten children, none of whom he liked, and he literally divided his house when he took a lover and forbade her to trespass on his side. In other news, John Bayley, who wrote a couple of best sellers about the decline into senile dementia of his wife the novelist Iris Murdoch, died this week at the age of 89. He had remarried and had three homes.