I wrote a blog in July 2014 suggesting that despite the plethora of news and print everywhere, nobody was really saying anything, at least nothing of interest, importance or even relating much to the truth. It was called Somebody Say Something, the title of an article written by John Lanchester ten years ago. He was pleading then for someone to say something (of some relevance). I recently listened to a recording of interviews with American Writers, a CD I’ve listened to perhaps fifty times. I never tire of it or anything to do with writers. They seem to me to be people who think about the world and have interesting things to say, not all of them of course, but any vaguely serious writers. Listening to American Writers I was struck by how relevant their opinions were and are. The CD reminded me of Lanchester’s article – if people weren’t saying much in 2004, they are saying much less now. There is plenty being said of course, but how much really addresses matters of substance?
These interviews are from the 60, 70s and 80s and most of the writers are now dead. It doesn’t matter. Their words are as important today as they were then. Is anybody today saying anything of significance? Here is
William Burroughs in 1964:
Love plays little part in my mythology. I feel that what we call love is largely a fraud, a mixture of sentimentality and sex which has been systematically degraded and vulgarised by the virus power. The virus power manifests itself in many ways: in the construction of nuclear weapons, in the creation of political systems which are aimed at curtailing inner freedom. It manifests itself in the extreme drabness of everyday life in western society. It manifests itself in the ugliness and vulgarity that we see on every street.
Toni Morrison in 1982
That business about lazy. People doing four jobs are supposedly lazy. I remember working in houses for white people. It’s very difficult if you move in somebody’s dirt not to recognise that they are both lazy and dirty. I am the one who is assumed to be both those things. If a proper economic study is done of this country, it must include the fact that they had 200 years of free labour, which made them a successful country in one eighth of the time they would normally have to spend.
Henry Miller in 1979
Sex has no pull anymore. Everybody is immersed in it like a hot bath. Therefore there is no ecstasy, no surprise, no enjoyment. It’s as if they were doing exercises.
Saul Bellow in 1977
They are intellectual professionals in the study of literature. Their purpose is to convert novels, poems, plays into subject matter. This is where the damage comes; they make discourse of it. It wasn’t originally there to make discourse of. Modern novels weren’t taught in the universities of the 19th century. Anyone who has received a decent education should be able to pick up a novel by themselves and read it.
Mary McCarthy in 1960
I think the world is pretty terrible and somebody has to speak up. I think there is a general conspiracy of silence about what goes on. All the stuff that’s piped in, including probably this programme with me on it, that daily cant that pours from the radio, the newspapers, advertising, education and everybody simply endures it. Somebody should get up and just shut it off.
Eudora Welty in 1985
Something has been troubling me a lot when I go round and talk to students. It is that very intelligent people don’t know the difference between fiction and non-fiction and they don’t assume there is any.
Arthur Miller in 1968
The reality was depression. The reality was the whole thing coming down in a heap of wood and cinders. What happens when everybody has a refrigerator? What happens when everybody has a car? It’s got to end.
Gore Vidal in 1978
With politics and religion, one is the mirror of the other and there is no answer in either case.
Except for Toni Morrison, these writers are now dead. None would be pleased with the way society has gone. If Mary McCarthy thought there was too much daily cant then, her head would explode now. Why must we be taught literature? We can teach ourselves and enjoy it ourselves. The virus power attempts more and more to curtail inner freedoms. To Eudora Welty I would point out that those students were certainly NOT ‘very intelligent people’. She was being far too polite. Arthur Miller knew in 1949 that it all has to end – we’re much closer now. Sex is merely an advertising scam.
This is just a small sample of what the writers had to say about their world. I can thoroughly recommend the CD to anyone interested (British Library: The Spoken Word archive). They also recorded a British Writers CD which is almost as good, including JB Priestly, William Golding and many others.
I shall continue to read biographies and listen to recordings of writers. They seem to me to be the only people recognising what is actually happening. Some care, some don’t. Some would like to change the world, others think it unchangeable or they would change a small part of it, usually their own tiny part of it. No matter, through the ages, from Homer to Dickens and beyond, they all have something to say. They lead interesting lives and find different ways of communicating their ideas, as did Hunter S Thompson in The Rum Diary: escaping from the Luce empire with its ‘slick drivers and jingo parrots’ spreading ‘like a piss puddle’ to Puerto Rico where a tourist ship arrives ‘from somewhere in the middle of America, some flat little town’ with another ‘fearsomely alike’ group, consisting of ‘shapeless women in wool bathing suits and dull-eyed men with hairless legs who should never have been allowed to leave their local Elks Club.’
Who says stuff like that anymore?