Wilfrid Sheed

English-American novelist and essayist

Wilfrid John Joseph Sheed (born December 27 193019 January 2011) was an English-born American novelist and essayist.

Wilfrid Sheed in 1987

Quotes edit

  • Standing still as a statue in the October shadows, he looked, grotesquely, more like a patriot than anything usually seen on a baseball field. A trick of light perhaps. Yet what famous athlete last died for a cause bigger than himself? Clemente could sometimes seem like a pest, a nagging narcissist, with only his burningly serious play to deny it. Yet when that plane crashed carrying relief supplies to Nicaragua we saw what he had meant all along. It was like the old Clemente crashing into the right field wall in a losing game: the act of a totally serious man.
    By chance I met Clemente once, in the humble role of autograph-seeker. He was doing wind sprints down at the Pirate training camp in Bradenton, Florida. And although I claimed I was getting an autograph for my son (true, for a change), he looked at me with a hidalgo’s contempt – at a grown man simpering over a blunt pencil; he turned his back abruptly and did another wind sprint, then slashed his name onto my scorecard and sauntered away. To hell with you, Clemente, I thought. But on the way out, I saw him funning with three old ladies from Allentown, Pennsylvania, and I have never seen sweeter courtesy.
    • From the foreword to Clemente! (1973) by Kal Wagenheim
  • A Broadway play is so much an event, designed down to the bit parts to explode in your face on one particular night, that it is hard to judge any one of them fairly from the scrawny instructions known as a script.
  • I rail against writers who talk about the loneliness of it all — what do they want, a crowd looking over their typewriters? Or those who talk about having to stare at a blank page — do they want someone to write on it?
    • "Come on, Big Boy — Let Me See Your Manuscript," review and interview by Herbert Gold, The New York Times (1987-08-02)
  • Baseball fans are pedants, there is no other kind.
    • "Why Can't the Movies Play Ball?," The New York Times (May 14, 1989)
  • It had always been a notion of mine that sanity is like a clearing in the jungle where the humans agree to meet from time to time and behave in certain fixed ways that even a baboon could master, like Englishmen dressing for dinner in the tropics.
    • In Love with Daylight (1995)
  • Mankind has always made too much of its saints and heroes, and how the latter handle the fuss might be called their final test.
    • "Baseball Was Very, Very Good to Him," The New York Times (October 29, 2000)
  • Carmichael was, like many Americans, a divided soul, part nomad and part homebody, who seemed a little bit at home everywhere, but was probably more so someplace else, if he could just find it.
    • The House That George Built (2007)

The Good Word & Other Words (1978) edit

Penguin, 1980, ISBN 0140054979

  • When a reviewer says that Malamud is second only to Bellow, it means he really isn't thinking about either of them. When he's reading Malamud he's thinking about Bellow, and when he's reading Bellow he's thinking about Roth. This is the essence of the ratings game: distraction. Children play it all the time. "Is this the biggest bridge in the world?" "No, it's the third biggest." "Oh." They lose all interest in the bridge.
    • "The Art of Reviewing" (1973), p. 10
  • People talk about talent as though it were some neutral substance that can be applied to anything. But talent is narrow and only functions with a very few subjects, which it is up to the writer to find.
    • "Howe's Complaint" (1973), p. 15
  • What he feared most was the blind spot between us and the future, the space between identities where we could get lost forever.
  • Professor Bell, in his tortured efforts to sound fair and impersonal, arrives at an aesthetic principle too edifying for Art to bear. He says in effect that you can explore evil, drawing "on the tap roots of the demonic," but you may not approve it. But when you draw on those tap roots, who knows what you will find? Writers just back from their season in hell are likely to be covered in goat blood and tend to rave. The moralists can sort out the evidence later. But the writer with the correct attitude could not have entered hell in the first place.
  • The desire not to destroy the palace but to move into it oneself has always been the occupational curse of revolutionaries.
    • "Writers' Politics" (1971), p. 66
  • The rational man may talk a good game about suicide, but reason must give way to obsession and finally squalor before he can actually do it.
  • For now, I'm supposing that all movements are equal, which they're not, except in this respect: that none of them gives a damn about artists beyond their immediate utility. Good movements will use a writer just as ruthlessly as bad ones; since they all fancy they have better things to do than worry about one man's artistic survival.
    • "On Keeping Closets Closed" (1973), p. 76
  • Censors will try to censor a little bit more each year (because, like editors and other officious people, censors don't feel they are getting anywhere unless they are up and doing).
    • "Dirty Business" (1973), p. 83
  • Today's novelist is not only limited by the thin subject matter of personal experience, but by the pinched clinical conventions of the Health generation. Faced with Othello, say, he would have to divide the man into departments, like a liberal arts course. Race relations — that's still a subject, although of course whites can't write about blacks and vice versa; sexual politics (somehow); Othello's ultimate therapy and decision to endure. Since jealousy is now curable, like TB, we can't have people dying of it anymore. A few rap sessions, some fearless touching, and a new sense of self-worth would have Othello and Iago and Hamlet and Juliet back on their feet in no time; and Fiction struggling.
    • "A Moral Problem" (1974), p. 88
  • I myself have not met a self-confessed liberal since the late fifties (and even then it was a tacky thing to admit, like coming from the middle class or the Middle West, those two gloomy seedbeds of talent), yet hardly a day passes that I don't read another attack on the "typical liberal" — as it might be announcing a pest of dinosaurs or a plague of unicorns.
    • "Spock Mugged" (1973), p. 91
  • Unlike most wars, which make rotten fiction in themselves — all plot and no characters, or made-up characters — Vietnam seems to be the perfect mix: the characters make the war, and the war unmakes the characters. The gods, fates, furies had a relatively small hand in it. The mess was man-made, a synthetic, by think tank out of briefing session.
    • "A Fun-House Mirror" (1972), pp. 107-108
  • It's the old case against symbols: if you get them, they seem obvious and artificial, and if you don't, you miss the whole point.
  • The worse we treat people in this country, the more delicately we talk about them.
    • "Men's Women, Women's Men" (1971), p. 137
  • Happy the man with a book-length grievance — and rare. Each of these books contains one possible magazine article surrounded by more padding than an offensive lineman: every little indignity that ever happened to them, and every two-bit feud, magnified to a Horrible Example to justify a larger printing.
    • "Unnecessary Roughness" (1971), p. 150
  • The odds on any intelligent person having an unhappy childhood are better than fair, and the odds on a sad ending are practically off the board.
  • Both of them were artists with highly developed personas, and hence unreliable witnesses to their own pasts.
    • "The Wit of George S. Kaufman and Dorothy Parker," p. 160
  • In modern American style, his job, not his past, defined him.
    • "The Wit of George S. Kaufman and Dorothy Parker," p. 162
  • The best comedy is always heartless, an alternative to rational emotion.
    • "The Wit of George S. Kaufman and Dorothy Parker," p. 162
  • How does one make a movie about decadence these days? Now that we're allowed to do it, it's too late.
    • "I Am a Cabaret" (1972), p. 203
  • His interviewing self is, or was, an extra person, like the Holy Ghost, generated by self-contemplation.
    • "The Interview as Art" (1976), p. 208
    • Referring to W. H. Auden
  • It is possible that the malice of writers has been overrated (by myself among others). Reading their ruminations on their craft, one sees why this writer could not possibly like that one, would indeed consider him a menace. Literature is a battleground of conflicting faiths, and nobler passions than envy are involved.
    • "The Interview as Art," p. 209
  • Beware the fictionist writing his own life. Even candor becomes a strategy.
  • Childhood lays itself out, like a novel, he suggests, complete with central observer, fixed characters, and linear plot. Later, life disperses itself into anecdotes. At twenty-one, it no longer strictly matters whether the author went first to Ireland and then to Spain, or Spain first. And after thirty, he could stitch the pages in backward for all we care.
    • "V. S. Pritchett: Midnight Oil," p. 224
  • That is the best story he could find in his life, never mind if it's the truest: an artist's duty is always to tell the best story.
    • "V. S. Pritchett: Midnight Oil," p. 227
  • The 1930s — a Golden Age for American humor, mainly because everything else was going so badly. The wisecrack was the basic American sentence because there were so many things that could not be said any other way.
  • As enviable and unreachable as a face in a train window.
    • "James Thurber: Men, Women, and Dogs," p. 228
  • He was truly after an art in which the creator could be as intelligent as he liked, but in which intelligence must be transmuted entirely into form, so that no lumps of thinking are left showing.
  • This country is merciless to good small talents. A writer who doesn't take chances and swing for the fences (whether or not he has a prayer of reaching them) is less than a man.
  • Chicago 1968 taught one how close any civilized country is to berserkness at all times; also how terrorism, even silly terrorism, strengthens the cops more than anyone. Yet already this European-style history lesson has been watered down by consensus into something crazy we did in the sixties, just as we "did" McCarthyism in the fifties. As if a nation changes its nature completely every ten years; as if social forces were as evanescent as hula hoops or skateboards, instead of as remorseless as glaciers.
    • "Chicago on My Mind" (1973), p. 266
  • As you approach the presidency, no one seems worthy of it, since it wasn't designed for a human in the first place.
  • Unnecessary customs live a brutally short life in America.
    • "Now That Men Can Cry..." (1977), p. 290
  • As things now stand, the office is a slightly meaner battleground than the home. Male bosses seem to dominate their women underlings as they would never dominate their wives.
    • "Now That Men Can Cry...," p. 296
  • Saloons provide moments of genuine ecstasy — but only if your soul is at peace and the rest of your life bears contemplating. Otherwise, they are palaces of misery.
    • "Now That Men Can Cry...," p. 299

Essays in Disguise (1990) edit

Knopf, 1990, ISBN 0-394-55875-8

  • Not that there weren't real communists in the labor unions, and real spies in Washington, but these had nothing to do with the show that was being put on for us, which seemed entirely designed to Make Us Take This Thing Seriously. From abroad, where I was for much of the time, it looked as if the United States were trying to act like a superpower by holding its very own show trials.
    • "Program Notes," p. xiv
  • It is a fallacy to think that carping is the strongest form of criticism: the important work begins after the artist's mistakes have been pointed out, and the reviewer can't put it off indefinitely with sneers, although some neophytes might be tempted to try: "When in doubt, stick out your tongue" is a safe rule that never cost one any readers. But there's nothing strong about it, and it has nothing to do with the real business of criticism, which is to do justice to the best work of one's time, so that nothing gets lost.
    • "Program Notes," pp. xvi-xvii
  • Off she'd go to the hospital, a place I believe she secretly liked because they treat you like a child there.
  • A deadly streak of passivity of a kind that sometimes goes with perfectionism.
    • "Miss Jean Stafford," p. 71
  • Through the burgeoning university network, it was suddenly possible to think of oneself as a national poet, even if the nation turned out to consist entirely of English departments.
    • "Hard Times for Poets," p. 85
  • The one kind of society that the Church cannot adjust to is no society at all, i.e., a setup where community has become so fragmented that a communal religion is a fiction, sustained only by talk and make-news items in the press and television.
    • "Church," p. 120
  • The bad debater never knows that one explanation is better than five.
    • "The Aesthetics of Politics," p. 155
  • Of course, history is only a muddle of facts and a fuddle of professors, and anyone who thinks it is one clear voice saying "Arise, sir Knight" deserves a life sentence in Camelot.
    • "The Aesthetics of Politics," p. 156
  • Whether or not Big Brother is watching us, we certainly have to watch him, which may be even worse.
    • "The Aesthetics of Politics," p. 156

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