Tell Him To Go To The Devil - W. Somerset Maugham

photo of Maugham at his desk, with his productions piled up
A Felicitous Maugham

This post is about W. Somerset Maugham's letters to an anxious mother, which later Maugham incorporated in one of his lectures at Kingsway Hall. The lecture was published as The Writer's Point of View (1951).

Novelist or Bond Salesman (1925)

Today I read something that first made me roll about with laughter, later calmed me down, subsequently disposed me to listen to good sense and a writer's advice on the art of writing novels.

This article was published in The Bookman, issue February 1925, titled "Novelist or Bond Salesman. Letters to an Anxious Mother." It was included posteriorly in A Traveller in Romance.

I have to admit that I took the whole thing in good faith and did believe that it was a real exchange between Maugham and this certain Mrs. Hale... Undoubtedly Maugham was making fun of the advice column and playing the agony uncle.

Real or not, Maugham is very skilful in transmitting ideas which otherwise could have been heavy reading.

Let's look at the very clever beginning:
XXX, Beacon Street, Boston,
The Twenty Third of September,
Nineteen Hundred and Twenty Four.
I trust that you will pardon a total stranger writing to you and will give a few minutes of your time to answering a question which I am going to put to you. I am sure that you are very busy and I would not take the liberty of asking your advice if I were not fully determined to take it. To cut a long story short my son is about to leave Harvard and has determined to adopt a literary career. His intention is to write chiefly fiction and I should be very grateful if you would tell me in a few words what you would recommend him to do now. I am anxious to do everything in my power to assist him.
Cordially yours,

Hotel Gotham.
New York City,
Sept. 27, 1924.
Give your son one thousand dollars a year for five years and tell him to go to the devil.
Yours very faithfully,

The exchanges continue, which leads to Maugham expounding on the art of writing fiction. The main ideas are later elaborated in The Summing Up and Ten Novels and Their Authors, among others.

The few broad strokes of the character of Mrs. Hale are so cleverly applied that I doubt if one cannot put a face (most probably that of one's acquaintance) to it.

Interestingly Maugham has been giving thoughts to this over the years; here is the entry in 1933 (A Writer's Notebook):
Once a lady who had a son of a literary bent asked me what training I should advise if he was to become a writer; and I, judging by the inquirer that she would pay little attention to my answer, replied: "Give him a hundred and a fifty a year for five years and tell him to go to the devil." I have thought of it since and it seems to me it was better advice than I imagined. On such an income a young man will not starve, but it is small enough for him to enjoy little comfort; and comfort is the writer's bitterest foe. On such an income he can travel all over the world under conditions which will enable him to see life in aspects more varied and multi-coloured than a man in more affluent circumstances is ever likely to happen upon. On such an income he will be often penniless and so constrained to many pleasant shifts to earn his board and lodging. He will have to try his hand at a variety of callings. Though very good writers have led narrow lives they have written well in spite of their circumstances rather than on account of them; many old maids who spent much of the year at Bath have written novels, but there is only one Jane Austen. A writer does well to place himself in such conditions that he may experience as many as possible of the vicissitudes which occur to men. He need do nothing very much, but he should do everything a little. I would have him be in turns tinker, soldier, sailor; I would have him love and lose, go hungry and get drunk, play poker with rough-necks in San Francisco, bet with racing touts at Newmarket, philander with duchess in Paris and argue with philosophers in Bonn, ride with bull-fighters in Seville and swim with Kanakas in the South Seas. No man is not worth the writer's knowing: every occurrence is grist to his mill. Oh, to have the gift, to be twenty-three, to have five years before one, and a hundred and fifty a year. (244)

The link to the original article in The Bookman can be found on the free ebooks - non-fiction page.


  1. Thanks for reminding me of the connection with "A Writer's Notebook". I had totally forgotten about it. I think I should include this delicious piece, "Novelist or Bond Salesman", in my Bibliography of the Short Fiction, if not among the short stories, certainly in the appendix with pieces that inhabit the no man's land between fiction and non-fiction. It appears that, much like the short stories, it had real foundations but was greatly expanded beyond them by Maugham's (underrated even by himself) imagination. Frances is certainly a character who is difficult not to see and hear while reading...


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