Muriel Spark, the writer who couldn’t abide being edited

November 20, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writers, writing.

Muriel Spark, the author of 22 novels including The Prime of Miss Jean Brody, always wanted to be in full control of her writing, and once she achieved a measure of fame and recognition, she got it. She refused to be edited unless she could have the final say in the matter.

Just as The Prime of Miss Jean Brody was about to appear in 1961, her publisher, Macmillan, sent out a press release that included an edited version of an interview that she had given the year before. The essay was titled How I Became a Novelist, and she had seen the written version and edited it herself. It was sent to Books and Bookmen, a literary journal of the day.

The editor was delighted with the essay and put her picture on the cover of the issue in which it ran.

Spark was less than totally pleased. The editor had “updated” the text but had not gained her approval for the changes he had made. Spark confronted him with an ultimatum: pay a small sum to a charity of her choice for his indiscretion. He refused. Spark wouldn’t let it go. It was a matter of “principle and justice.” She threatened to sue for twice the amount she had suggested, plus cost. The editor finally relented and paid.

Before 2018 slips away, we should recognize that this year is the centenary of her birth. She had been the subject of several remembrances. The best article about her work that I have found, however, was one written by novelist Thomas Mallon for the New Yorker in 2010, which you can find here.

Spark’s fame became international after the publication of Jean Brody and particularly the movie version of it in which Maggie Smith won an Academy Award in 1969.

Spark is a puzzling and fascinating writer. Her work does not fit into any genre. There’s usually crime and mayhem in her stories, but she is neither a crime writer nor a mystery novelist. Instead, she is a master stylist and a manipulator of characters she creates. Her characters never get away from her; they are always under her control, and she makes them do odd and sometimes surprising things for the reader.

Mallon writes:

Spark was never a creator of character; she was a trickster of circumstances, a writer whose narrative voice speaks from the past or present or future at her own whim and will. She never foreshadows action when she can simply foretell it, with as much cruelty or merriment as she pleases. This is how Miss Brodie’s most hapless student is shown answering a question, incorrectly, at the end of Chapter 1: “Mary Mcgregor, lumpy, with merely two eyes, a nose and a mouth like a snowman, who was later famous for being stupid and always to blame and who, at the age of twenty-three, lost her life in a hotel fire, ventured ‘Golden.’ ”

Spark was a dedicated and prolific writer but a difficult and complex personality. Her life, even after she achieved wealth and fame, was never easy. She took her craft seriously, and if you read any of her books, you know that she was a master. They are slim volumes with lean, sparkling prose, where every word counts.

And she was probably right. An editor, even a good one, likely would not have helped.

Another essay on Spark’s work: Snapshots of Muriel Spark – Margaret Drabble | Literature in the Times Literary Supplement.

Martin Stannard’s Muriel Spark: A Biography goes into depth on just about every aspect of her life and her writing.



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