Advice for the writer – Thomas More

Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the younger
Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the younger

Advice for the indie writer can be found in the most surprising places sometimes. This extract, from More’s Utopia, is amazingly fresh and relevant considering it was written around 500 years ago.

“But to tell the truth, I’m still of two minds as to whether I should publish the book or not. For men’s tastes are so various, the tempers of some are so severe, their minds so ungrateful, their tempers so cross, that there seems no point in publishing something, even if it’s intended for their advantage, that they will receive only with contempt and ingratitude. Better simply to follow one’s own natural inclinations, lead a merry, peaceful life, and ignore the vexing problems of publication. Most men know nothing of learning; many despise it. The clod rejects as too difficult whatever isn’t cloddish. The pedant dismisses as mere trifling anything that isn’t stuffed with obsolete words. Some readers approve only of ancient authors: most men like their own writing best of all. Here’s a man so solemn he won’t allow a shadow of levity, and there’s one so insipid of taste that he can’t endure the salt of a little wit. Some dullards dread satire as a man bitten by a hydrophobic dog dreads water; some are so changeable that they like one thing when they’re seated and another when they’re standing.

Those people lounge around the taverns, and as they swill their ale pass judgement on the intelligence of writers. With complete assurance they condemn every author by his writings, just as they think best, plucking each one, as it were, by the beard. But they themselves remain safely under cover and, as the proverb has it, out of harm’s way. No use trying to lay hold of them; they’re shaved so close, there’s not so much as the hair of an honest man to catch them by.

Finally, some men are so ungrateful that even though they’re delighted with a work, they don’t like the author any better because of it. They are like rude, ungrateful guests who, after they have stuffed themselves with a splendid dinner, go off, carrying their full bellies homeward without a word of thanks to the host who invited them. A fine task, providing at your own expense a banquet for men of such finicky palates, such various tastes, and such rude, ungracious tempers.”

I don’t know about you but I was completely bowled over reading this. So often we’re led to believe that literature is scary and dull but More’s Utopia, like so many other works, has been a delightful surprise, and not a monster read either. If you have any interest in social reform, or finding out more about humanitarianism and the Renaissance Man, it will be right up your alley.

Sir Thomas More (7 February 1478 – 6 July 1535), known to Roman Catholics as Saint Thomas More since 1935, was an English lawyer, social philosopher, author, statesman, and noted Renaissance humanist. He was an important councillor to Henry VIII of England and Lord Chancellor from October 1529 to 16 May 1532. More opposed the Protestant Reformation, in particular the theology of Martin Luther and William Tyndale, whose books he burned and followers he persecuted (!). More also wrote Utopia, published in 1516, about the political system of an ideal and imaginary island nation. More later opposed the King’s separation from the Roman Catholic Church and refused to accept him as Supreme Head of the Church of England, because such disparaged Papal Authority and Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Tried for treason, More was convicted on perjured testimony and beheaded. Source: Wikipedia.

You can read Utopia here: http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/more/utopia-contents.html

Published by Jill London

Hi, I’m Jill, a writer and teacher living in the UK, usually behind a desk but sometimes on a sofa with a book or a film. I began writing at around age three, legibly by five, although I didn’t write any stories until I was older. Aged eleven, I began writing children’s fiction, mostly middle-grade fantasy and I’m still doing it to this day. I have had stories published online and in My Weekly magazine. The best bit about writing is when ideas pop into your head (from the writing fairy presumably?) and everything starts clipping together like a jigsaw puzzle. The worst bit? When you start to get the feeling there's a piece missing from the box...

18 thoughts on “Advice for the writer – Thomas More

      1. It deals with a very interesting period of history though you have to bear in mind that it’s a work of fiction and not an historical account. It was the 2009 winner of the Booker prize.

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      2. You and me both! I spend most of the time with my head in the clouds, unfortunately, a myopic kind of expression on my face, occasionally looking around to say ‘What did I miss?’ 😀 (I suspect that I miss a lot!).

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  1. Oh, he’s an Aquarian and most of us Aquarians are utopians so it’s why sometimes we look so grumpy. We also need help with our fashion sense as illustrated by the painting of Thomas– though his words are very true and funny. We may complain, but in the end we still want our stuff read– just like the saint.

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  2. Whoa! I think you and your commentators have gone overboard in praising Thomas More based on ‘Utopia’. There was another side to him recently revealed by Hilary Mantel in her recent novel ‘Wolf Hall’ and with some historical justification. More was a prideful intellectual who wore a hair shirt and tortured and burnt to death heretics betraying his ‘humanist’ past. I think a little more research should be done before making him anyone’s patron saint.

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    1. Malcolm! I didn’t expect to find you guilty of leaping before you look! I have mentioned More’s persecution of Lutherans in my post and the fictional novel Wolf Hall has been mentioned in a previous comment. (For an alternative insight into Mantel’s novel read Melanie McDonagh’s article in the London Evening Standard http://www.standard.co.uk/news/a-man-for-all-seasons-sir-thomas-more-brought-low-by-fiction-6799985.html)
      What we are looking at here is More’s understanding of the writer and not More’s personal beliefs. If we were to discount the words of every ‘great’ man and woman because of their beliefs we should have a very poor offering of wise words indeed. As we know, throughout history there have been many examples of writers and thinkers suggesting the most heinous ideas, from Plato’s plans for selective breeding and Infanticide in The Republic, through Dickens’ comments regarding Indians and his wish “to exterminate the race from the face of the earth” and George Bernard Shaw’s assertion that “only eugenics could save mankind”, it is a fact that our greatest human beings were often despicable, mean and cruel: In short they were human.
      In life, and in literature, the lenient young idealist may become the cruel old misanthropist and More’s opinions were as changeable as any. This from Utopia again regarding the character of Utopus. “In matters of religion, he was not at all quick to dogmatize, because he suspected that God perhaps likes various forms of worship and has therefore deliberately inspired different people with different views. On the other hand, he was quite sure that it was arrogant folly for anyone to enforce conformity with his beliefs by means of threats or violence. He supposed that if one religion is really true and the rest false, that the true one will prevail by its own natural strength, provided only that men consider the matter reasonably and moderately. But if they try to decide these matters by fighting and rioting, since the worst men are always the most headstrong, the best and holiest religion in the world will be crowded out by blind superstitions, like grain choked out of a field by thorns and briars. So he left the matter open, allowing each individual to choose what he would believe.”

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  3. Jill, mea culpa. You are right to slap my knuckles. I concede that I did not read your post and comments carefully enough and failed to note that the reference to making Thomas More your patron saint had to do with his understanding of writers and not his general beliefs. My own views of More were molded by reading Sir Geoffrey Elton, many years ago, who claimed that More’s public career as a humanist reformer is mythological. Hilary Mantel relies a great deal on Elton’s view but I see now that there is a genuine debate about More’s contribution to humanism.

    Your point about great thinkers and their heinous ideas is well taken but Plato and George Bernard Shaw were at least consistent although wrong. However, your quotation from More about “allowing each individual to choose what he would believe” is inconsistent with burning six heretics. More may have changed his mind or he may just have been a self-serving hypocrite. I suppose we will have to leave it up to the historians to decide that one.

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    1. It’s easy to feel that way about writers sometimes. I always feel the same way about Edmund Spenser and his ‘scorched earth’ policy regarding Ireland.
      I found Utopia to be a startling piece. I feel that More deserves recognition for it and I was eager for the opportunity to share it with others (and considering how well people received it, with good cause). Obviously his actions were deplorable, no-one is denying that, but religion sometimes prompts monstrous reactions, as we know only too well. Also, historians themselves will freely admit that history is entirely subjective and open to colouring. We all need to apply our own judgement!

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