Writing is a sweet, wonderful reward.

by John Holbo on April 17, 2016

We acquired this fridge magnet at some point.


Nice use of Papyrus. Nice combination of Papyrus with whatever that faux-handwriting script font is.

Fits with Henry’s link to an incongruous appropriation of Beckett.

Suppose we wanted to make a collection of cheerful thoughts from depressed writers. You can’t spell ‘unhappiness’ without the happiness! What else might be included?



Adam Roberts 04.17.16 at 8:51 am

I’ve always liked Thomas Hardy’s description of Angel Clare’s period of happiness in Tess: ‘Considering his position he became wonderfully free from the chronic melancholy which is taking hold of the civilized races with the decline of belief in a beneficent Power.’


John Holbo 04.17.16 at 9:56 am

I should have mentioned that we didn’t buy this magnet for its ironic hipster cachet. I think one of our kids got it at some school thing a few years ago – some sort of writing prize, if I remember?

That’s a good one, Adam. But I think the thing to do is make a list of the most depressive authors, then scour their biographies for that one moment when they were happy.


Pat 04.17.16 at 10:58 am

“You can’t spell ‘unhappiness’ without the happiness!”

You also can’t spell “manslaughter” without laughter!


Francis Spufford 04.17.16 at 11:04 am

How about Hazlitt on his deathbed, after decades of hand-to-mouth journalistic poverty, quarrels with all his friends, comprehensive political defeat, and obsessive love self-anatomised in public with hideous frankness, and saying, “Well, I have had a happy life”?

Doesn’t really count as a written utterance, of course.


oldster 04.17.16 at 11:34 am

Or, you could take the more accurate characterizations of writing, and mash them up with the delusional ones:

Kafka + Hemingway: “sitting down at a typewriter and opening a vein is a sweet, wonderful reward!”

Kafka + Johnson: “no man but a blockhead ever accepted a sweet, wonderful reward, except for money.”

Kafka plus Elmore Leonard: “if it sounds like a sweet, wonderful reward, I rewrite it.”


engels 04.17.16 at 11:39 am

You can’t spell ‘unhappiness’ without the happiness!

You also can’t spell either without PIES. Or NAPPIES. Fwiw.


UserGoogol 04.17.16 at 4:50 pm

Incidentally, Google Books turns up the context of that quote from a letter Kafka wrote to Max Brod:

But what is it to be a writer? Writing is a sweet, wonderful reward, but its price? During the night the answer was transparently clear to me: it is the reward for service to the devil. This descent to the dark powers, this unbinding of spirits by nature bound, dubious embraces and whatever else may go on below, of which one no longer knows anything above ground, when in the sunlight one writes stories. Perhaps there is another kind of writing. I only know this one, in the night, when anxiety does not let me sleep, I only know this one. And what is devilish in it seems to me quite clear. It is the vanity and the craving for enjoyment, which is forever whirring around oneself or even around someone else…and enjoying it. The wish that a naive person sometimes has: “I would like to die and watch the others crying over me,” is what such a writer constantly experiences: he dies (or he does not live) and continually cries over himself.

But still, it is a sweet, wonderful reward.


Lowhim 04.17.16 at 5:45 pm

@3 I like


Anon 04.17.16 at 6:40 pm

I sometimes wonder how different Kafka’s reputation as a “depressing” writer would be if abroad had burned The Judgement, The Metamorphosis, and The Trial. Then I realize: he’d have no reputation at all, since those are the only ones people pretend to read.

Imagine if his rep rested on the short stories, or Amerika. Hell, The story goes they’d laugh reading The Trial at the bar. The humor is the only part Orson Welles got right.


Bloix 04.17.16 at 10:28 pm

#9 – The Judgment IS a short story. And it wouldn’t have mattered if Max Brod, his executor, had burned it, or Metamorphosis either, since both were published years before he died. And since you admit you’re an ignoramus when it comes to Kafka (“pretend to read”), maybe you will shut your piehole now.


Bloix 04.17.16 at 10:33 pm

#7- yeah, I read the quote and I said, “that cannot be Kafka – unless it has been excerpted or truncated in a way that does violence to the original.” And sure enough …

So here’s my version: “Writing is … the reward for service to the devil.” Try putting that on a refrigerator magnet.


John Holbo 04.17.16 at 11:29 pm

Thanks, usergoogol, that’s great! I hadn’t bothered to track the context myself, although I did bother to check that wikiquote authenticated it. But that’s quite a context!


RNB 04.18.16 at 12:03 am

Here’s a slightly amusing attempt to enlist Karl Popper into the propagandizing efforts of marketers. The reference to Popper comes at the end


Anon 04.18.16 at 1:00 am


Yeah, the Judgement’s a short story, but only of many, and much more suited to the stereotype of depressed Oedipal Kafka than the majority of the stories. So how does it affect the larger point?

I said “people pretend to read”–referring to the general reading population, above all those who created and trade in the Kafka stereotype, not to myself. You seem to take great offense at the suggestion that K’s not as depressing as he’s made out to be. I suppose it’s a mildly controversial view but your reply seems unnecessarily hostile.


John Holbo 04.18.16 at 1:38 am

Anon, I think Bloix read you – as did I – as implying that Kafka deserved to have no reputation. That is, the only reason anyone thinks Kafka is good is because people who haven’t read him think ‘oh, man, the “Metamorphosis” is great! So depressing!” I see now that was not your intended message. I agree that Kafka is insufficiently reputed as a straight-up comic writer. I remember some story – I hardly know any Kafka biography – about him reading some piece to a circle of friends and everyone laughing and laughing. Don’t know which piece that might have been, but there are supposed to be some laughs in there, no doubt.


JimV 04.18.16 at 2:05 am

Hemingway had some serious head injuries which probably caused what is now known as CTE, and has caused several suicides by former football players. Hilarious. (In reference to #5.)


Alan White 04.18.16 at 3:20 am

“My Dolphin, you only guide me by surprise,
a captive as Racine, the man of craft,
drawn through his maze of iron composition
by the incomparable wandering voice of Phèdre.
When I was troubled in mind, you made for my body
caught in its hangman’s-knot of sinking lines,
the glassy bowing and scraping of my will. . . .
I have sat and listened to too many
words of the collaborating muse,
and plotted perhaps too freely with my life,
not avoiding injury to others,
not avoiding injury to myself–
to ask compassion . . . this book, half fiction,
an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting

my eyes have seen what my hand did.”
― Robert Lowell

I was lucky enough to see Lowell in ’77–right before his death–while a grad student at Tennessee. If there is such a thing as beautifully damaged language, then his is exemplary.


ZM 04.18.16 at 3:35 am

Alan White,

If that is from Robert Lowell’s poems for The Dolphin, these are the worst poems he ever wrote. He put his poor wife’s angry letters into the poems without asking her, and Elizabeth Hardwick was very unhappy about it. His friend and correspondent Elizabeth Bishop was very unhappy about it too and wrote Robert Lowell a letter saying she was disappointed with him and “Art just isn’t worth that much”.


ZM 04.18.16 at 4:17 am

And it wasn’t just Elizabeth Hardwick and Elizabeth Bishop who knew Robert Lowell personally who were unhappy about The Dolphin, it was generally controversial with Adrienne Rich writing “what does one say about a poet who, having left his wife and daughter for another marriage, then titles a book with their names and goes on to appropriate his ex-wife’s letters written under the stress and pain of desertion, into a book of poems nominally addressed to the new wife?”

Elizabeth Bishop was usually just discouraged by people writing about their private lives and wished she “could start writing poetry all over again on another planet.”

I am more litigious minded and I think Elizabeth Hardwick should have sued him for circulating her private letters in his commercial book of poetry, and sent him and the publishers a cease and desist letter etc.


ZM 04.18.16 at 4:51 am

And also as well as Elizabeth Hardwick taking legal action against Robert Lowell and the publisher of The Dolphin, I think the government should regulate the Creative Industries better so as to protect other people’s privacy from artists putting their letters in commercial books of poetry without their consent, or doing similar things invading people’s privacy.

I guess you could say the same about Kafka, he specifically asked that his diaries be burnt, but then the Creative Industries editor Max Brod published Kafka’s diaries. I read these when I was a teenager. I guess they made a profit for the publishing company, but if Kafka asked for his diaries to be burnt, I am pretty sure this is an indication he didn’t want them published commercially. I guess Kafka’s family could have taken legal action about the publication of his diaries when all indications are that he didn’t want people reading his diaries and parts of his private thoughts getting turned into fragments for fridge magnets.


ZM 04.18.16 at 5:19 am

Elizabeth Hardwick said about the use of her letters ““I was much distressed about the use of my letters in this antic caper. Actually, I don’t think they were my exact letters, but they were made to seem so—that was the intention—but to me they seem to have been under the reign of Lowell’s famous habit of revision. The poems from my letters seem to me quite silly, and perhaps I should be glad they are not in the mode of fury of some of my communications at the time.”


Adam Roberts 04.18.16 at 6:39 am

This is turning into an impressively bad-tempered thread, considering the inoffensiveness of the original post.


JoB 04.18.16 at 7:10 am

If it isn’t sad, it isn’t funny. If it’s funny, it’s always a little sad.

Kafka not wanting his private thoughts winding up on fridge magnets is both funny and sad. Maybe he wanted his private thoughts winding up into a mildly ironical CT thread.


John Holbo 04.18.16 at 10:23 am

“This is turning into an impressively bad-tempered thread, considering the inoffensiveness of the original post.”

The internet is a sweet, wonderful reward …


kingless 04.18.16 at 10:28 am

@22 Yes, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised but I am, at least a little.


ZM 04.18.16 at 12:18 pm

“This is turning into an impressively bad-tempered thread, considering the inoffensiveness of the original post.”

I’m sorry, the mention of the Robert Lowell poem made me bad tempered. I’m not sure if this poet is depressed, but the poem is anthologised as the Armenian people were the first to be the victims of genocide in the 20th C which is depressing but the poem is uplifting but sad in context

The Armenians Language Is The Home Of The Armenians

The Armenian language is the home
And haven where the wanderer can own
Roof and wall and nourishment.
He can enter to find love and pride,
Locking the hyena and the storm outside.
For centuries its architects have toiled
To give its ceilings height.
How many peasants working
Day and night have kept
Its cupboards full, lamps lit, ovens hot.
Always rejuvenated , always old, it lasts
Century to century on the path
Where every Armenian can find it when he’s lost
In the wilderness of his future, or his past.

– Moushegh Ishkhan


JoB 04.18.16 at 12:27 pm

My Einstein fridge magnet says: “It’s harder to crack a prejudicie than an atom.”

Kind of applicable to CT opinions as well.


Bloix 04.18.16 at 12:49 pm

#20 – when you make your closest friend, who idolizes your talent and has encouraged you all your life to write and publish more, your executor, and you entrust him with all your letters and diaries and unfinished works with instructions to burn them, and then you die a slow death that you knew was coming long in advance, giving you plenty of time to burn them yourself, and then you die at age 40 in the flower of your art, then perhaps your friend can be forgiven for concluding that you didn’t mean it.

Brod said that he had told Kafka he would not burn the papers. “Franz should have appointed another executor if he had been absolutely and finally determined that his instructions should stand.”


Retaliated Donor 04.18.16 at 1:47 pm

“There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.” –Sylvia Plath


anon 04.18.16 at 2:15 pm

Holbo @15,

Thanks for having the courtesy to clear that up (unlike Bloix). It still does surprise me, though, that “x would have no reputation if never read” could be interpreted as “x should have no reputation.”

The main point of my post is that I love, love, love that fridge magnet and I think that Kafka would love it too. And I think he would love it both ironically and unironically–just as he’s being both ironic and unironic when he says “lots of hope–for God–an endless amount of hope–only not for us.”

I think he’d even love the font unironically, since the people he loved and admired most in the world are the ones who use comic sans unironically. I vaguely recall a story (maybe from Janouch’s wonderful Conversations with Kafka?) about Kafka being in utterly in awe of someone who was a typist, full of admiration for the skill and utility of their work. Metamorphosis starts with a prematurely old young man turning into bug but in its last line his little sister “gets up and stretches out her young body.” In many ways Kafka is the polar opposite of Beckett, the sort of person who would endorse the common non-ironic misreading of “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

Anyway, I’d love to live in a world where “Kafkasque” meant: funnily strange and strangely sweet stories about talking animals. Where students had to read Investigations of a Dog rather than The Metamporphis. Where Pixar made film versions of Josefine the Singer or the Mouse Folk rather than Welles making nuclear war allegories about The Trial. Where The Burrow and Report to an Academy were more famous than The Judgment.


Retaliated Donor 04.18.16 at 2:42 pm

“The soul is healed by being with children.” ―Dostoyevsky


Ronan(rf) 04.18.16 at 2:54 pm

“Lots of hope–for God–an endless amount of hope–only not for us.”

Ah, I was going to suggest that quote. Just for some reason I thought it was Kurt Vonnegut


ZedBlank 04.18.16 at 8:31 pm

Going somewhat off of Francis @ 4 –

Wittgenstein – who braved WWI, a family full of suicides, the grating ignorance of modern Western civilization, unfathomable levels of mental concentration and despair, and who would seem to have been an unlikely inspiration for Frank Capra, supposedly entreated those gathered at his deathbed to “tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”


Bill Benzon 04.19.16 at 12:23 am

A comment that’s rather oblique to the OP but I just had to post it anyhow, here’s the synopsis of a kids book published in Singapore:

“How does a spoilt young boy and party-going dandy become the man who housed a nation? Discover the passion that drives Lim Kim San from his comfortable, carefree life into a mission that would change Singapore forever.”

Needless to say, it’s not by FK. You can read all about it here:



RNB 04.19.16 at 12:42 am

Haven’t been following discussion, but to follow through on the OP I have this idea of someone like Kurzweil gushing about the possibility of transhumanism or radical longevity with a quote from Schopenhauer. I haven’t found such a misuse of a quote yet, and I won’t be looking. But that’s what I read the OP as asking for.


Alan White 04.19.16 at 1:45 am

Lowell knew full well what he was doing–he starkly referred to his illness in his 77 reading at UT. He even read “Skunk Hour” prefacing it with remark that he was utterly tired of it–whether that was a swipe against Bishop I can’t say. The Dolphin won a Pulitzer for damn good reason, whatever unethical background for it–which of course I knew full well before the post. Quality of verse is not a function of authorial virtue. Truth however hard-won is just that. I never admired Lowell. Or Dylan Thomas, or Plath, or her hubby, or. . . but they sometimes state glaring and even incongruous truths about themselves. The best honest expressions of the worst of us even as sometimes both privileged to tell the tale and nonetheless immoral is still truth.


ZM 04.19.16 at 9:07 am

Alan White,

“I never admired Lowell. Or Dylan Thomas, or Plath, or her hubby, or. . . but they sometimes state glaring and even incongruous truths about themselves.”

It is one thing to state a glaring truth about yourself, if you so please, in a poem, and quite another thing to use your wife’s angry letters to make poems for a commercial book.

Elizabeth Hardwick went on to write a lot about the public private divide after this in her essays.

They are her letters Alan White, if she was unhappy about Robert Lowell making them into a book, I don’t think it is up to you to say it was fine for Robert Lowell to make them into a book. Perhaps you could get everyone you ever sent personal letters to to collect up all your letters and make them available for poets to make into books. Your letters are likely just as interesting for poets to write about as Elizabeth Hardwick’s, and you don’t mind personal letters being made into books.

I know a number of singers I am taking legal action against for writing songs about me over 18 years, and putting me in 3 books, and numerous film clips, and record art and promotional materials. Since they read my comments on Crooked Timber I am sure they would all be happy to know you would like to volunteer all your personal letters to be turned into art now they can’t write about me anymore or they’ll go to gaol for longer and owe me more damages :-/


Anon 04.19.16 at 4:32 pm

Back to the OP, there’s always Kim Kierkegaardashisn:


anon 04.19.16 at 4:42 pm


nnyhav 04.20.16 at 5:39 am

‘The trust in life is gone: life itself has become a problem. Yet one should not jump to the conclusion that this necessarily makes one gloomy. Even love of life is still possible, only one loves differently.’ —Nietzsche (via imp kerr)


nnyhav 04.20.16 at 5:45 am

(but it’s funnier when he says it)

(and NeinQuarterly is tweeting again)

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