Somebody Say Something

Graham Greene wrote that:

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The writer’s duty is to make trouble for any dominant power, forcing complacent authorities and submissive followers to confront difficult questions.’ They should be ‘grit in the state machinery.’ He says that disloyalty is essential against anything that is ‘part of the establishment – churches, universities, businesses, social and cultural groups, even great literary figures such as Shakespeare. If any of these institutions or people are deserving, they can survive the criticism directed at them. Otherwise, no one will suffer unduly except the pretentious, the humourless, the dogmatic, the corrupt.’

There is nothing contentious in this statement, it is just common sense. Any power should be able to tolerate and absorb criticism. Criticism is necessary for democracy, or at least a healthy society, to thrive. Yet I see very little criticism of authority today. Of course it is there, perhaps more than ever, but it is mostly hidden, confined to the Internet or minority, specialist outlets. In the mainstream there is little of any relevance.

V.S. Pritchett described Greene as ‘genially subversive’ and suggested an appropriate maxim for him and those like him:

The world is too complacent. Let us catch it out.’

Greene was a very good writer and an extraordinarily interesting man. There were many like him: George Orwell, John Steinbeck and, later, Norman Mailer to name just a few. Orwell wrote of Charles Dickens that he was:

Generously angry…a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.’

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Orwell wrote that in 1939 about a man who wrote in the previous century. What would he think of the standard of writing today? Who confronts our ‘smelly little orthodoxies?

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Orwell also wrote about ‘the emotional shallowness of people who live in a world of ideas and have little contact with physical reality.’  That describes almost everyone in authority in the Western world today, particularly where I live in England – public schoolboys and girls are everywhere, completely out-of-touch with reality, living in a strange cocooned world of privilege, but nevertheless possessed of a disturbing certainty that what they are doing is right, that there is no other way. It is much the same with TV, journalism, in fact the media as a whole.

Far too many people are only interested in trivia. Twitter, Facebook, computer games and porn are all escapes from reality, time spent on them provides an excuse not to think. Authority conspires in this, often unthinkingly, until we are all engulfed in nonsense. Meanwhile a significant minority goes on its merry way, leading the world to disaster. Here is not the place to discuss what that disaster or disasters may be, I am merely addressing the reporting of it, the writing about it, particularly in books, newspapers and magazines. Many people believe that print is a thing of the past. I don’t agree. Generally, most people do not absorb or remember what they see on their screens; they don’t really learn anything – it is just an escape from thinking.

So, who in print is addressing real problems? Where are the influential writers of today? Who is publishing them? Where can I buy their books or read their articles? I hope I’m wrong, but I know of very few, especially novelists. Is there anybody out there who isn’t just playing the game, just lining their own nest?

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Norman Mailer wrote of the American WASP that:

They were not here on earth to enjoy or even perhaps to love very much, they were here to serve, and serve they did in public functions and public charities (while recipients of their charity might vomit in rage and laugh in scorn).’

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Mailer wrote that in the sixties; he was still genially subversive in 2006, not long before his death at 85:

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‘Global capitalism does not speak of a free market but of a controlled globe. It is alien to the creative possibilities that have not yet been tapped in legions of people who’ve never had a chance to be creative, who work and die without creative moments in their lives. Their hopes have been buried. When talented people emerge from no apparent cultural background, I see them as the product of ten generations of frustrated people who wanted more than their lives gave them.’

Some fine writers have died recently, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Christopher Hitchens among them. Far from perfect human beings, but thinkers, writers, troublemakers – they always had interesting things to say. I find it hard to think of anybody now who is challenging today’s awful orthodoxies. Is there anyone?

Britain produces an extraordinary amount of commentary, in print, on television and on radio: so much that the production of opinion seems to be our dominant industry, the thing we are best at and most enjoy doing. Most of it isn’t bad commentary. If the broadsheets were badly written, if the sermonisers and pundits couldn’t speak in coherent sentences, if you routinely tuned in to hear people not making any sense, it would be much easier to dismiss. That though is not the problem with what passes for discussion in Britain. The problem isn’t that it’s low-grade: It is mostly fluent, clear, coherent and often vividly expressed. The problem is that it is almost entirely free of fresh ideas.

You can go whole weeks without encountering a new idea; you can listen to hundreds of hours of media debate and encounter nothing new. The void is at its worst when there is a conspicuous attempt to fill it: the frowning politician pretending to think, as he mimes sincerity; the pouting celebrities spouting forth on the issues of the day, when their only motive is to draw attention to themselves. You witness these performances (and that is what they are – acting) and you think: I wish somebody would say something. Because this is the feeling I get about British life, a bizarre feeling given how much talk there is, but one which goes very deep: you get the feeling that nobody ever says anything. You watch the television, read the newspaper, and wait for somebody to say something…and wait…and wait…and wait…

John Lanchester wrote the above in the London Review of Books. He wrote it TEN years ago. We are so, so much worse off now.

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Victor Hugo did it Naked

Victor Hugo did it naked, standing at a lectern facing a third floor window of his Guernsey home, overlooking St Peter Port harbour. Tennessee Williams couldn’t stop doing it and worried constantly about it. George Orwell thought it “a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness”, while Evelyn Waugh required “merely silence” to do it; he preferred his children to be “away”. John Lennon thought it ‘torture’ and GK Chesterton believed there was only one way to do it.

penFor many authors, writing is not a pleasurable experience, although Victor Hugo may have discovered a fun element.

Why am I writing about writing? Well, I’ve written one book and I’m desperately trying to write a second. I didn’t begin writing my first until into middle-age and it took me a few years to complete.  I’d always wanted to write, so why did it take me so long?

Because I will do anything rather than sit down and write; tasks I normally hate: cleaning, paying bills, laundry, suddenly take precedence over writing, even though it’s the writing and the ideas for writing that are constantly swirling around in my mind. When I finally force myself to write, the early stages are the hardest, the period when nothing will come, when I believe I’m an utter moron and question my ability: “who are you kidding, thinking you can write?” This is often the stage where I just have to do that extra piece of research, read the latest book on how to write or the latest author biography, switch on that must-see TV programme – or just give up and open a bottle of wine.

But why is writing so hard?

John Yorke, in his recent book Into the Woods, shows that stories follow a pattern, a common structure. This is not a new idea, far from it, but Yorke believes that the archetypal structure matches deep psychological needs within us all: order from chaos, characters changing, confronting their demons to become the people they were always capable of being. This supplies a need for the reader, who is comforted by the process, identifying with the character that brings order from turmoil, confronts and slays the enemy. The detective story is a perfect example: a problem is solved; there is resolution. Most of us do not confront what we fear; we hide and play it safe. This explains the hunger for stories, be they in books, films, soap operas or reality TV shows: secret fears are confronted and overcome.

I have oversimplified outrageously, but I believe that for many writers the process of sitting down and writing is also, like story structure, a confrontation with the enemy: self-knowledge, not only in the sense of revealing oneself but in conquering doubts over one’s ability. In practical terms writing should be easy, you just sit down (or stand naked at a lectern) and do it. But it isn’t easy. Steven Pressfield in The War of Art puts it bluntly:

“How many of us have become drunks and drug addicts, developed tumours and neuroses, succumbed to painkillers, gossip, and compulsive smart-phone use, simply because we don’t do that thing that our hearts, our inner genius, is telling us to? Resistance defeats us.”

I love the idea of writing, I want to write but hide from its practice, unless … unless I force myself to sit and write, probably awful stuff, for at least an hour. Then, miraculously, something happens – not always, it’s not that easy – and the awful stuff begins to make sense: it flows, ideas appear from everywhere, ideas that had been locked away, ideas locked away by me while I resisted and wasted my time, pour onto the page, ideas I didn’t know I’d had; plots change, characters change, and for a blessed few hours I am creating something, something worthwhile and I am enjoying writing. But that initial process of beginning – it’s hard, and I resist it much more often than I embrace it.

The truth is that writing is very hard work; you have to be dedicated and professional to keep going. Norman Mailer put it well:

“One must be able to do a good day’s work on a bad day, and indeed, that is a badge of honor decent professionals are entitled to wear.”

Apparently more than 80% of people say they want to write a book, but less than 1% do. Not all those would-be writers have the ability to write – The X Factor shows us that believing you have talent and actually possessing it are two very different things – but I’m sure there are many talented people among that group telling themselves every day that they will start that novel tomorrow or next week or after they’ve finished researching the history of Florentine art for that Renaissance murder mystery they’ve been planning for five years. Steven Pressfield, straight as ever, gets right to it:

“We don’t just put off our lives today; we put them off till our deathbed.”

And GK Chesterton’s

“one way to do it”

his method of getting it done?

“Apply the seat of the pants to chair and remain there until it’s finished.”

I’m about to do just that, right after I’ve cleaned those windows, they’re filthy.