once declared that "the gods visit the sins of the fathers
upon the children." Aside from the fear this statement ought
to strike in our president's heart, I imagine the notion making
one or two writers squirm in their ergonomic seats. As early as
the first century BC, when Juvenal
lamented that "many suffer from the incurable disease of
writing, and it becomes chronic in their sick minds," writers
have been describing their profession in the imagery of pain and
pathology. When he wasn't betraying Héloise, Abelard
instructed his twelfth century readers to "take special precautions
against the disease of writing, since it is dangerous and contagious."
In the eighteenth century Montesquieu
"suffer[ed] from the disease of writing." And though
in the past century the number of people writing seriously has
steadily increased, the pleasure it brings has, apparently, not.
To dour George
Orwell "writing a book [was] a horrible, exhausting struggle,
like a long bout of some painful illness," and for hapless
Simenon writing was "not a profession, but a vocation
of unhappiness." Poor dears.
What's worse, despite first hand experience of their fathers'
suffering, far too many children of writers have willingly submitted
to this "abominable torture" (Emile
Zola). Apparently, the disorder is hereditary. But fortunately,
quite a few of these second generation writers actually have talent.
Novelist and journalist Auberon
Waugh, son of Evelyn,
cut an imposing figure in British literary circles until his untimely
death last year. Mark Vonnegut's sadly out of print memoir, The
Eden Express, is one of the best personal accounts of schizophrenia
ever written. James
Jones's daughter Kaylie
is also a gifted novelist. And
John Cheever and Paul
Theroux have fathered two successful writers each (Benjamin
Cheever, and Alexander
But though talented, for each of these writers the father nonetheless
cast the longer shadow. Just as sequels tend to be but diminished
versions of the original, most second generation authors pale
in comparison to their fathers. Why bother with the mediocrity
of The Two Jakes when you could simply re-watch the perfection
Every once in a while, though, a first class author sires a true
heir, a son who takes up where the father left off, who inspires
controversy over who is better, whose reputation stands alone.
It doesn't happen often, but every once in a while a Godfather
II comes along. Since producing an heir worthy of the throne
is purportedly the deepest goal of fatherhood (Freud's blood-soaked
theories notwithstanding) it seems fitting to honor father's day
with a short (okay, very short) list of famous writers whose children
have come closest to matching their achievements.
One recent example of the phenomenon is Andre
Dubus and his son Andre
Dubus III. Most readers are familiar with Andre junior from
his powerful 1999 novel House
of Sand and Fog, which was both a finalist for the National
Book Award and a national bestseller. This gripping, lyrical
novel about the clash of culture and desire in the California
hills elicits a tremendous response from readers, best summed
up by James
Lee Burke who called House of Sand and Fog "one
of the best American novels I've ever read." For me, that
makes Andre junior and his father Andre senior a nice set, for
Dubus senior is one of the best American short story writers I've
ever read, a writer whose intelligence, compassion, and elegant
prose have inspired comparison to such masters as Anton
Carver, and Flannery
O'Connor (whose devout Catholicism he shared). Dubus senior's
stories even coaxed a few flowery lines from Mr. John
Updike: "...life's gallant, battered ongoingness, with
its complicated fuelling by sex, religion, and liquor, constitutes
his sturdy central subject, which is rendered with a luminous
Readers are fortunate to have Dubus's stories. But even more
than the loudly-suffering writers mentioned above, they did not
come easily. In the late eighties Andre Dubus was involved in
a tragic car accident which left him permanently confined to a
wheelchair. For several years the rigors of physical recovery
as well as a severe case of depression prevented him from writing
anything at all. When he did resume his work, it required enormous
effort. However, the result was the superb, Dancing
After Hours, the greatest collection of his distinguished
Sadly, Andre Dubus senior died just before his son began to realize
his own success. Of course Dubus senior would have been proud.
But one wonders, given his own struggles as a writer, whether
he wouldn't have had at least a few reservations at seeing his
son commit to a writer's life. Dubus junior himself made his intentions
clear: "That's the last thing I wanted to be. No friggin'
way." And yet, finally, he couldn't resist. Why? Who knows.
Maybe Euripides was right.
Amis, famous son of the first famous Amis (Sir Kingsley),
offers even fewer clues as to why he wanted to follow his father:
"My father never encouraged me to write, never invited me
to go for that longshot; he praised me less often than he publicly
dispraised me." And yet, like Dubus, the younger Amis couldn't
pass up the gauntlet thrown by the father, in his case one of
the twentieth century's greatest writers.
In 1954 Kingsley
Amis published his first novel, Lucky
Jim, which made him a leading figure in the pack of brilliant,
cynical postwar intellectuals soon dubbed the Angry Young Men.
Lucky Jim, the father of all academic satires, has since
been recognized as one of the greatest comic novels of the century,
not to mention one of the greatest debut novels of all time. It
was also the first in a string of brilliant works that soon made
Kingsley Amis one of Britain's most famous (or infamous, depending
on your tastes) novelists. Kingsley Amis was the original grouchy
Brit wit, the man who said, "If you can't annoy somebody,
there's little point in writing." But as a world-class writer
he remained vital for several decades. Though inexplicably out
of print in this country, his 1986 novel, The Old Devils,
is as fine and funny as any novel he wrote, the
novel Martin believes his father will be remembered for: "...it
stands comparison with any English novel of the century...except
of course Ulysses."
In 1973 son Martin published his own first novel. Though there
was no longer a school of "angry young men" to define
Rachel Papers, a wickedly satirical portrait of a depraved
teenage boy, was hardly the work of a gentle soul. Nonetheless,
it was peach sherbet in comparison with the dark, complex novels
that followed, including Money,
Night Train. But while these novels rapidly established the
young Amis's reputation as "the most talented British writer
of his generation" and, by the way, its best paid:
Information received the largest literary advance in British
history Amis the senior remained less than encouraging
of his now famous son, stating in interviews that his novels were
"unreadable" and his ideas "dangerous, howling
Apparently this didn't bother Martin much. A good portion of
his brilliant 2000 memoir Experience
that is, the parts that aren't describing his odd obsession
with his teeth is an affectionate, astute, touching portrait
of his relationship with his famous father. If he had minded his
father's disapproval, all had clearly been forgiven. Maybe this
was because he had become a father himself: ''At the birth of
your child, you forgive your parents everything, without a second
thought, like a velvet revolution.'' Or maybe it was because he
had realized why his father offered so few kind words regarding
his chosen profession: "...there will be no encouragement
for my children. No encouragement. None."
Now come on, Martin. I can't be the only one who finds this about
as fair as Sammy
Hagar subjecting his children to a zero tolerance drug policy.
Is being a writer really such a terrible weight to bear?
George Orwell notwithstanding, don't many writers actually enjoy
their profession? Take Red
Smith (yes, I know he's a sports writer). He states,
with refreshing optimism, that writing is easy, "all you
have to do is sit at a typewriter and open a vein."