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Zadie Smith: Why Write?

Why Write?

Zadie Smith

June 15th, 2011

 

Don’t worry: I know the feeling. I’ve been to a lot of writers’ lectures. Often the room is large and rather drafty, and the chairs not as comfortable as the chairs you have at home; there is a lengthy introduction - especially long if the lecture is in Italy - and then a writer steps up to the podium, looking sometimes sheepish, sometimes bold, but always with their mouth a little too close to the microphone. The reverb squeals: you feel it in your molars. You examine the writer. They either look exactly as you expected or not at all as you expected, and thinking about this takes a few minutes, in which time the lecture has begun – you’ve missed the title, you’ve missed the subject, some lines of foreign verse float by… The boat has left the harbour and you stand helpless upon the shore. You look at your nails. You look up at the writer. She is saying something about writing, about how it crosses borders and shapes identities, or ignores borders and has no identity. In her hands she holds a sheath of trembling paper the depth of which you try quickly now to calculate. It looks long – ominously long. Forty-five minutes - perhaps even an hour - lay before you, with no hope of a glass of wine or even so much as a biscuit. What, will these lines stretch out to the crack of doom?

            Probably. The ‘lecture about writing’ is a tricky thing: it attracts humbug. It’s both somehow too broad and too narrowly self-regarding: by the end of the hour we’re likely to have convinced ourselves that writing is more vital to a nation than its food production, and writers themselves a mix of martyr, teacher, politician, man-of-the-people, preacher and saint. I am always, when in the audience on these occasions, amazed by how much of this sort of thing readers will put up with. In an age when almost no human role escapes being emptied of its significance, ironized and belittled, it’s strange that the title ‘writer’ should continue to hold so much wonder for so many. What can account for it? I want to get to that a little later: first I’d like, if I may, to keep you in my archetypal lecture room, with the audience shifting slightly in their fold-up chairs, and the writer with her trembling hands. Usually in this audience there are a few other writers, friends of the lecturer, perhaps, or colleagues at the same festival. They are immediately recognizable: they never look up. For them the title alone was enough. Why Write? Why Write? The best they can do is sit back and let the speech wash over them - all those noble, uplifting, completely intolerable sentiments. While the students scribble down the bon mots, the writers make an intent study of the floor tiles until the pattern is committed to memory. And when it’s over, they go home, back to their computers, where a few reliably dark feelings - notably absent from the lecture - lay in wait for them, patient as death. Pointlessness. Redundancy. Absurdity. Not despair exactly – ‘despair’ is exactly the sort of word writers use in their lectures; it has at least a certain grandeur to it. “When I sit in front of my computer, I despair!” is a very literary thing to say. “When I sit in front of my computer I feel pointless” is, I believe, a little closer to the truth. For there are few things more likely to make you feel ridiculous, in this year of our father 2011, than sitting down to write a novel. I tell a lie: sitting down to write a poem. The role of writer has become absurd.  Perhaps readers haven’t noticed yet – writers feel it acutely. I know of a poet who, if you ask what it is he does, says “lawyer” although he has not been a lawyer in over a decade. He feels that standing in a room in London, in 2011, and saying “I’m a poet” is like saying “I light gas lamps” or “I’m a town cryer.” I understand that well-meaning people point to the ubiquity of literary festivals and claim these as proof of the continued significance of this cultural figure ‘The Writer’ – which is kind and generous of them. But the rise of literary festivals is only a function of our absurdity: when Writer was a genuinely serious role, writers had no need to travel the globe talking about ‘writing’; now that we’re absurd, we have to talk about being writers continually: it’s the only way of convincing ourselves we exist.

 

            Poor 21st century writers! It is of course in the nature of writers of all centuries to feel sorry for themselves and to think that their own case, whatever it may be, is unique. Writing this lecture I tried to ask myself honestly if what feels true is in fact true: is it really harder to write now than it once was? Have we special reason to complain? We feel we do:  Melville had a hard time with his publishers, but he didn’t face the imminent end of copyright; Keats suffered the barbs of a few critics but never had to contend with half the internet calling him an asshole; Emily Bronte struggled to find an audience, but she wasn’t competing with a global audiovisual entertainment industry, cinema, television, online gaming, Ipods, Ipads, and tricked-out phones loaded with a lifetime’s worth of two-minute distractions. Surely what we have here is a uniquely defeating set of circumstances? Then you start doing a little research, eavesdropping in the archives: you find yourself standing in an echo chamber of complaint. For writers always feel neglected. They are forever longing for a mythical golden age, just past, in which they could be writers in the grand sense, or at least, in a grander sense. Pope longed for the time of Horace. Henry James longed for the time of Austen. 21st century writers hopelessly romanticize Modernism, which seems to us, in retrospect, a period when it was possible to write a book so revolutionary you had to smuggle it into France to get it published. Virginia Woolf, who lived through that remarkable period, yet experienced this ‘epoch envy’ and depicts the deluded cycle with precision in her essay Modern Fiction: “We do not come to write better; all that we can be said to do is to keep moving, now a little in this direction, now in that, but with a circular tendency should the whole course of the track be viewed from a sufficiently lofty pinnacle. It need scarcely be said that we make no claim to stand, even momentarily, upon that vantage ground. On the flat, in the crowd, half blind with dust, we look back with envy to those happier warriors, whose battle is won and whose achievements wear so serene an air of accomplishment that we can scarcely refrain from whispering that the fight was not so fierce for them as for us.”

Looking back, it looks easier because it looks effortless, as any completed task takes on the aura of inevitability. When the 21st century poet looks at his own literary life he is likely to see a wasteland of misdirected energy. What is he doing with his time? Arguing with recalcitrant publishers, being rejected by magazines, trying to claw back his copyright from online abuse, entering an Internet flame war[1] with an anonymous poetry blogger who badly reviewed his last chapbook and has an IP address in Belgium, setting up a Facebook account pretending to be his own fan-club, doing the same on Twitter, hating his peers, envious of the poets above him, fearful of the ones below, angry if an editor enquires after his next book (he needs time: he is an artist!) and desolate if an editor doesn’t (Nobody cares if he lives or dies. He is a forgotten man. He is absurd!) By contrast, how serene the versifiers of the past appear, how dedicated to their art, and only to that. How pure they look, and central to the culture, and convinced of their own talents. They never seem to have asked themselves the question “Why Write?” Writing came as naturally as breathing to them, perhaps because they lived in a time when metaphors like that one weren’t utterly stale from overuse. Lucky those guys! It’s all an illusion, of course. We have a lovely and practical rebuttal in Alexander Pope’s “Epistle to Arbuthnot’, a poem that makes an Internet flame-war look like two toddlers struggling in a sandpit. It takes the form of a verse letter, to Pope’s friend and physician, John Arbuthnot, and is described, by Pope, as a “Sort of Bill of Complaint”, a vicious, rhyming response to all those who had “attack[ed] in a very extraordinary manner, not only my Writings […] but my Person, Morals and Family.” Written by a man who was, at the time - lest we forget - enjoying a quite unprecedented amount of literary fame, it is a monumental piece of bad grace, a sort of epic whine, in which the 21st century poet can happily see a reflection of all his own vices. Here he is complaining about the fact that, as a successful writer, he is sometimes called upon to read the work of young, aspiring writers:

Seiz’d and tied down to judge, how wretched I!

Who can’t be silent, and who will not lie;

To laugh, were want of goodness and of grace,

And to be grave, exceeds all pow’r of face.

I sit with sad civility, I read

With honest anguish, and an aching head;

And drop at last, but in unwilling ears,

This saving counsel, “Keep your piece nine years.”

            Which was Horace’s advice: put it in a drawer for nine years, and then see if it’s any good after that. But it seems that even when you tell young writers that they’re terrible, it doesn’t stop them:

Who shames a scribbler? Break one cobweb through,

He spins the slight, self-pleasing thread anew […]

Thron’d in the centre of his thin designs;
Proud of a vast extent of flimsy lines!

            Elsewhere Pope spends a verse or two railing at the publisher who printed his collected letters without paying him, at critics whose “Pains, reading, study, are their just pretence/And all they want is spirit, taste and sense” and at journalists who sneered at his father’s lowly background (“Unlearn’d, he knew no Schoolman’s subtle Art/ No Language, but the language of the heart.”) Friends, too, fail to be as supportive as they might be. Pope’s frenemy[2] and co-founder of The Spectator, Joseph Addison, he finds to be the kind of man who “damns with faint praise.” (The now colloquial phrase is Pope’s and was used first here.) Meanwhile fans and keen readers only annoy him with their importunate claims on his time:

Why am I ask’d what next shall see the light?

Heav’ns! Was I born for nothing but to write?

Has life no joys for me? Or (to be grave)

Have I no friend to serve, no soul to save?

In conclusion, looking back at what he has suffered, Pope finds himself to be really quite noble, all things considered:

That not for Fame, but Virtue’s better end,

He stood the furious Foe, the timid Friend,

The damning Critic, half-approving Wit,

The coxcomb hit, or fearing to be hit […]

The distant Threats of Vengeance on his head,

The blow unfelt, the Tear he never shed […]

The Morals blacken’d when the Writings ‘scape;

The libell’d Person, and the pictur’d Shape…”

 

That ‘pictur’d shape’, by the way, refers to the cartoons of Pope’s tiny deformed body that had appeared in several Grub Street publications. That’s got to hurt. (Pope prefaces this poem with a few lines from Cicero: “Let what others say about you be their concern; whatever it is, they’ll say it anyway.”) Perhaps the internet is not that much different, as far as a writer’s ego is concerned, than the intense local poison of 18th century London, when you couldn’t move for wits and pamphleteers shouting from the rooftops about what an asshole you were. Why write, then? If the act is so attendant with misery? Pope’s answer will be familiar to writers of all times and all ages. Because he couldn’t help it, any more than he could help his hump, or his height:

Why did I write? what sin to me unknown

Dipp’d me in ink, my parents,’ or my own?

As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame,

I lisp’d in numbers[3], for the numbers came […]

The muse but serv’d to ease some friend, not wife,

To help me through this long disease, my life.

             Writing may indeed be a native compulsion – but shouldn’t you keep it in that Horatian drawer forever if you don’t like the fuss it creates? Naturally Pope has an answer for that, too:

But why then publish? Granville the polite,

And knowing Walsh, would tell me I could write;

Wel-natur’d Garth inflamed with early praise,

And Congreve lov’d, and Swift endur’d my lays…

            It’s an interesting answer. How can you ever be sure you’re not one of these hopeless, deluded fools “whose fustian’s[4] so sublimely bad/ It is not poetry, but prose run mad”? The answer for Pope is: by securing the approval of your peers, who have, by recognizing your work, “with open arms receiv’d one Poet more.” It was the opinion of fellow artists that was most important to him. More so than the opinion of readers, and certainly more so than that of critics, whom he denigrates in the traditional way, by pointing out that “ne’er one sprig of laurel” has ever graced their brows.

            So: the pettiness, the spite, the over-concern with status, the self-pity, and the pride – these all appear integral to the role of writer, and have passed down seamlessly to my generation through the centuries. Still, there has been a change. The serenity of earlier ages is not entirely an illusion. Pope may be full of bile and fury, but he has also at his core an ontological self-confidence typical of his time:

Oh let me live my own! and die so too!

(“To live and die is all I have to do:”)

Maintain a Poet’s Dignity and Ease,

And see what friends, and read what books I please.

Above a patron, though I condescend

Sometimes to call a Minister my Friend:

I was not born for Courts or great Affairs;

I pay my Debts, believe, and say my Pray’rs 

            That the role ‘Poet’ signifies dignity and ease is self-evident to him, as is his easy, familial relation with the poetry and myths of the Ancients. He is a Poet with a capital P. He can reject the fussy elites of the court because he is embedded in the socio-economic comfort of English middle-class life which itself rests on the belief that this “nation of shopkeepers”  - who all pay their debts promptly - is a new Jerusalem, green and pleasant, and in God’s hands. (The last line of the epistle: “The rest belongs to Heav’n.”) Above all, Pope “believes.” In himself, in his craft, in his vocation. ‘Why Write?’ His answer is essentially an Olympian tautology: because I am a writer.

But: What is a writer? Gregor von Rezzori - in whose name I speak to you this evening - once gave a writer’s lecture by that title. He is himself a fascinating instance of the writer’s role. Just as his fiction depicted the dying light of a disappeared world - the Austro-Hungarian empire of his childhood - so his writerly persona was a melancholy tease, recalling the past grandeur of the vocation while accepting its present-day comic futility. He had a quite different attitude than his near-contemporary and literary hero, Vladimir Nabokov, who, when asked to describe his position in the world of letters replied: “Jolly good view from up here…” Nabokov basically performed the role of writer-as-genius; he never answered an interview question without note-cards in his hand, indeed, never spoke a personal word, or expressed any sentiment off the cuff. Rezzori played a role, too – that of the writer-dandy, elegantly tailored, magnificently shod, witty, graceful, urbane. But Rezzori’s version was the more humane, the more fallible. Claudio Magris, my predecessor in this role of lecturer, describes it perfectly. Rezzori, he writes, possessed “the settled melancholy of one who inhabits the inauthentic and at times expresses it.” Rezzori may have dressed like a great writer of the previous century, but he expressed himself as an inauthentic 20th century man, a man without a nation, without a settled identity. A skeptical soul, on intimate terms with failure. What is a writer? He is one afflicted by “swarms of doubt: doubts in himself, in his talents, his understanding, his choice of one subject or another, of coping with it, and so on and so forth.” And though Rezzori recognizes that “there is a strange halo of prestige that lingers on us writers as if we were in possession of a kind of witchcraft,” his wry, self-mocking nature prevents him from fully believing in or enjoying this role: “He who know how to put letters together in order to make them sing finds himself in the role of a sorcerer – or better: in the role of a sort of priest. And enjoys the prestige of a sort of priest. And has to carry the burden of priesthood.”

This burden, for Rezzori, is the burden of fraudulence. I think this is what makes him feel sometimes closer to the spirit of our times than Nabokov. Nabokov’s writer is the impenetrable genius, the undefeated magician, who consistently asserts in his own person, as he put it, “the power of art over trash, the triumph of magic over the brute.” The writer, as performed by Nabokov, is an awesome being. The writer described by Rezzori cannot take himself quite so seriously. He is like the priest who stands before his congregation, performing the ancient rights, invested, by those faithful souls, with all the magic and sacrality of the ritual he performs –  but for whom the bread is only bread, and the wine, wine. To me, the most moving moment in that lecture is when Rezzori expresses with desolate honesty the experience of most writers, a feeling of failure that Nabokov never imagined, or never admitted: “In the core of his heart everyone who has dedicated his or her life to writing knows that, as in any other art, you have to be first-rate. And if you are not first rate – or at least very near first rate, you are second rate. And when you find out that you are hopelessly second rate, it breaks your heart.”

            In a wonderfully rambling interview with BOMB magazine - no note-cards, no scripted answers - Rezzori expands on this heartbreak, speaking frankly about his relation to Nabokov: “When I collaborated on the translation of Lolita into German, I became aware that I shall never achieve the almost medieval craft of Nabokov’s to link fiction with literary allusion and write a book on many layers—of which one is a direct and fictitiously concrete reality, and behind there is the other reality, the literary reality of all the allusions, all the relations of literature with other literature. At the same time that it’s discouraging, it’s very challenging.” Part of the challenge for Rezzori was to find a literary space that Nabokov has not already annexed. He found it by turning inwards: by obsessively mapping his own inner space. Here he is, answering my question (and quoting Pope):

Rezzori: Why do I write? “What sin to me unknown/Dipped in ink, my parents or my own?” Listen, I suppose that in fact writing, whether you know it or not, is the attempt to find an identity. Knowing the secret of the “I” that never can be lost in spite of all the changes it undergoes throughout a lifetime, there you have already the secret theme of every fiction writer, don’t you think so?

Bomb Magazine: The search for the voice?

Rezzori:  The search for the voice. Also the search for the secret of transformation, of living many lives in one life.

            It is a simple and honest answer. It has a human scale. The word ‘identity’ is used here in a far quieter way than people tend to use it today: it does not represent nations or peoples, ideologies or arguments – it barely represents itself. Why write? To find out if the person who said ‘I’ aged five and the person who voiced that pronoun at 35 or 53 or 78 have any relation each other – if they have a continuity, if the ‘I’ persists. Pope writes because he is a writer, because he was born one, lisping numbers. Rezzori is a 20th century man: he writes because he’s not sure who he is. 

            I want to look at one final writer’s lecture. It’s called “Why I Write” by George Orwell. If the role of ‘The Writer’ peaks at Horace, descends to Pope and is ironized by Nabokov and Rezzori, it reaches ground zero with Orwell. From him we can expect no talk of muses or inspiration, of magic and witchcraft – that language is long lost. In its place we hear Orwell speaking plainly, with the classificatory curiosity of an anthropologist: “Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living.” The first motive, my favourite, is worth hearing in full:

  1. Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

They should print that up on T-shirts and hand them out at literary festivals. The second motive Orwell calls “Aesthetic enthusiasm”, which he intends both in the sense of perception of beauty in the external world, and in words and their right arrangement. It’s his opinion that this aesthetic motivation proves to be “very feeble” in many writers, though rarely entirely absent. The third motive is “Historical impulse”, widely defined as the “Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.” The last is “Political purpose”:

Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. […] No book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” 

            What interests me about this system of classification is whether or not any of it still stands. I see an immediate problem with number one: Sheer egoism. I don’t dispute its accuracy as far as writers are concerned: as true now as it ever was. But I think Orwell, if he were alive today, might be surprised to find to what a degree writers have ceased to be the exception. That great mass of human beings he spoke of, “abandon[ing] the sense of being individuals at all” after the age of 30 – they have largely disappeared, at least in the developed world. Now everybody is “determined to live their own lives to the end” no matter what their social and economic reality. Now even work Orwell would have considered decent and honorable - teaching, nursing  - is considered drudgery. The desire for fame and self-actualization (or more precisely, fame through self-actualization) is ubiquitous. Given that this is so, it shouldn’t be surprising that ‘writing’ has become a fantasy career. I cannot be the only writer to notice that her readings, when they happen, are no longer full of readers. They’re full of people who identify with this word ‘writer.’ They haven’t come because they’ve read my book, or any books. They’ve come because I’m a writer and they’re writers, too. To them, writing has little to do with reading. It’s understood as an identity, one that appears to offer the irresistible modern opportunity to do what you are. What follows from all this, in my opinion, is that writers can no longer hope to define themselves as “willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end.” Once it was possible to look on in awe as a single man expressed himself with a compulsive honesty over a series of novels – daring to write that which no-one else dared say. It was possible for a book like Portnoy’s Complaint, for example, to be accused of threatening the moral fabric of America! Now the Internet is crammed with mini-Roths, with people living their own lives - and speaking of their own lives with utter frankness - to anyone who will listen. ‘Sheer Egoism’ used to be a freakish quality that few would admit to: now it’s practically a human right. Why Write? Because I am a writer! Well, you can shout it as loud as you like, as loud as Orwell did, but be aware that everyone else is shouting it, too, and has exactly the same claim upon the word as you do. In response to this mass storming of the literary Bastille, some people attempt to defend their privileges by leaning heavily on the word ‘published’, as in “But I am a published writer!” Soon the distinction will be obsolete, and anyway the argument is flimsy. Many fake writers are published, and many real writers exist on the Internet: the opposition will not hold for long.

      What about the second motive, the aesthetic motive? Here I find both a reason to write and a mild defense of the role, particularly in this sense of cultivating an attention to the beauty “in words and their right arrangement.” There is a practicality about that idea that appeals; it is also an accurate description of what it actually is to write, what the task truly entails. The micro-work of attending to the beauty and fitness of a sentence is a healthy antidote to the sometimes pseudo-spiritual claims that are made for the act of writing, and of being a writer. Better to think of oneself as a specialist craftsman. Many people know how to bang a chair together – they understand the basic principle of a chair. But can they make a chair as finely worked as yours? As decorative, as useful, as surprising in style and structure?  In a world where every man is a writer, and everyone “published”, writing must distinguish itself by its skill, its clarity and craft, and writers will justify their existence only if by doing their work they are able to remind us of the true capabilities of language. Online, on television, it’s sometimes easy to forget what a correct, interesting and fresh sentence actually is. This may not seem a very noble or exalted role for the 21st century Writer – maybe it sounds a little too much like drudgery. It is certainly going to get to the point where the fact you spent twenty minutes crafting a sentence and the next fellow spent ten seconds dashing one off will make no difference to how many people read that sentence, how much either of you get paid for that sentence, or even what impact that sentence has on its readers. Many people now read so quickly and with so little care, they barely register the arguments of what they read, no matter the nuances of style. To carry on writing sentences like a craftsman, you will have to make a commitment to the absurd idea that slowing down, taking your time, listening and attending to your own words, is still worth doing. Even when you can see - by every objective worldly indicator - that it isn’t.

Thinking of these matters it’s hard not to fall into romantic self-pity or stylized despair. I am making a chair that nobody wants! Even Philip Roth - who’s got more people sitting in his chairs than practically anybody – looks towards the near future with poetic resignation:

I think it’s going to be cultic. I think always people will be reading them but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range... To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don't read the novel really. So I think that kind of concentration and focus and attentiveness is hard to come by — it’s hard to find huge numbers of people, large numbers of people, significant numbers of people, who have those qualities.

            He’s right, I’m sure – but it can’t really help us with this question ‘Why Write?” Its sentiments play too easily into the self-pity of writers, which, as we have seen, is naturally extensive anyway. No, we have to take some personal responsibility. Perhaps our chairs aren’t popular for other reasons – perhaps they seem superfluous, unnecessary. Here Orwell’s third and final motives - “Historical Impulse” and “Political Purpose” – offer the possibility of building a writing life upon more secure foundations. I suppose because they offer the writer a chance to be useful, or at least engage in a dialogue with the wider world, and thus help to counter that overwhelming sense of one’s own pointlessness I tried to describe earlier. The desire to see things as they are. This seems to me, for the 21st century writer, no small ambition. I’ll illustrate with an analogy. Recently, I was reading an online squib about the public release of Obama’s ‘long form’ birth certificate. Below the line, Anonymous had joked: “A victory for the reality-based community!” Anonymous, I hope, is a writer. All writers should be strong and enthusiastic members of the reality-based community. At this moment, when the very nature of what constitutes “evidence” is being questioned by those who think skepticism uncoupled from judgment a virtue in itself, it’s essential that whoever calls himself ‘Writer’ make an effort to demonstrate, in his work, that it is both possible to be skeptical and to possess real knowledge, to read between the lines and also to to read the lines. But again: get ready for a fight. I had an argument not long ago with a young man who believes that the plane never hit the towers, and the towers themselves were blown up with dynamite by the American government, a common enough belief in my corner of North London. It seemed at first a very easy argument to win: then I realized what I was dealing with. He didn’t believe the TV footage (“Holograms!”) and he didn’t believe my long description of the back story, as culled from the investigative journalist Lawrence Wright’s book, The Looming Tower (“Who’s Lawrence Wright?”) Quite soon I found myself desperately throwing around the names of respected magazines he’d never read (“What’s The New Yorker?”) and academics and universities he didn’t care about, and journalists who’d interviewed Bin Laden for newspapers that meant to nothing to him. All of this ‘evidence’ he gathered together neatly under the heading “Media”, and dismissed at once. I could see he genuinely pitied me: “You don’t really believe everything the media tells you, do you?” At a fundamental level I was powerless before him. ‘Why believe a plane brought down the towers?’ turns out to be ontologically a very similar to the question  “Why believe you’re a writer?” It cannot be answered by resorting to the once accepted channels and gatekeepers: universities, news organs, journals, publishing houses. The young man was expressing an extreme version of a general loss of faith: why believe the “media” when it has so frequently been a distorter and deceiver? Why trust in “universities” when for centuries they have protected and promoted the interests and values of a tiny elite? It does no good pointing out that there is a difference in kind between one paper and another, one TV channel and another, one politician and another, one academic or journalist and another. The form of skepticism I’m describing is too broad; it doesn’t pause to heed the niceties of ‘independent’ versus ‘owned’, ‘private’ versus ‘public’, or even ‘conservative’ versus ‘liberal’. And if we’re going to respond to it, just standing on a street corner shouting BECAUSE I SAY SO is not going to work. In a sense we have to keep starting from scratch. The loss of faith is simply too great. We are back in an earlier epistemological period, when people needed to have an intimate encounter with a truth before they would accept it. (“I’ll believe it when I see it!”) We might wish the situation otherwise, but we are where we are. Thus Hawaii must dig out Obama’s long-form birth certificate, and a writer in their own way must also keep demonstrating, sentence-by-sentence, that he is part of the reality-based community. No amount of back page blurb about your MFA or your university degree or your time living with monkeys in Kathmandu will convince anyone that you can write, or have a reason to write. Why write? Because you desire to see things as they are. A writer has to work incredibly hard these days to counter the great mass of fatuous, venal and false realities heavily promoted to people through their TVs and magazines, consoles and Ipads. Which brings us back to Orwell’s final motive, the political, because I believe that the elusive sensation a writer tries to provoke in his reader is inherently political:

 Yes, that’s just how it is.

Yes, that’s just how I felt.

Yes, that’s just what that looks like.

Yes, that’s just how that works.

            When counterfeit realities are all around us, the desire to see things as they are is itself a radical act. Important to note here that seeing clearly does not mean seeing singularly: on the contrary, it’s the counterfeit realities that tend to be linear and singular. This is what a terrorist is. This is what an immigrant is. Members of the reality-based community have a duty to try and complicate the narrative; to render the world in all its incredible variety. I know that for English and American writers such arguments can feel like liberal piety, a last ditch attempt to defend a decadent and dead form. But you only have to inch out of the English speaking world to be reminded that forms we may believe to be conservative yet possess, for many other people, a great vitality, and that the difference in response depends not on content but context. I heard recently of a British novelist who, while on a reading tour of Chinese schools, was startled to find his historical novel treated with some amazement by students who couldn’t understand how he was permitted to effectively ‘write his own version of history.’ I’ve been surprised myself to find the strange uses and interpretations short articles or stories of my own take on, as they get passed between people online, adding meanings I couldn’t have planned for, being dismantled and added to other people’s writing, or employed to discuss places and people and ideas I’ve never known or had.  In this sense the web is a great opportunity for people who care about ‘rendering the world in its complexity’ – it gives us all access to so much more of it. And it offers a new model for the writer’s life, suggests new acts of collaboration and inter-connectedness, new ways of shaking off the ancient and lonely role.

            I see that somehow I have swung all the way round to the heroic and abstract again! It’s as I warned you at the start about writers’ lectures: they attract humbug. I should make it clear before I finish that when I sit down to write I am not hoping to destroy the monolithic capitalist industrial complex with my pen. I am feeling pointless and absurd. And the only way to contain those feelings is to reduce my task to its smallest unit: this sentence. I am writing to make this sentence; to make it as good as I can manage, and the next one, too. I find that simple mantra very comforting. It’s an antidote to pointlessness. As is Gregor von Rezzori’s graceful account of the value of writing, expressed from the perspective of readers: “It has created a reality – and people are touched by it.” But he’s better demonstrating that fact than explaining it, like all writers. Rezzori is at his best in the Snows of Yesteryear creating the exquisite reality of Cassandra, his feral nanny with her simian face and that gigantic plait laid across her head; I am at my best sitting at my computer trying to make one imagined person speak to another – not giving lectures like this. Why write? To make that sentence, to finish that page. Is caring about sentences an aesthetic indulgence, the cultural equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns? I never understand that argument. What else does a writer have but sentences? Asking a writer to forget about sentences is like telling a builder not to worry about the quality of his bricks. Why write? Because you care about this small matter of sentences: you think it important. And you will write them at your own snail’s rate, with all the elaborate care writing deserves. It’s not just a writing thing – all over the world people have been awakened to the radical nature of the micro, the small and the slow. Of making things with their own hands. Of taking their time. Of life on a human scale. These are ways of restating our human capacities in a world that frequently sees us only as producer or consumers.

 

I think we are entering a revolutionary period of intimacy between writer and reader. None of the usual gatekeepers or guardians that watched over that relationship matter anymore: a publisher is no guarantee of quality to young readers (What’s Random House?), nor is a certain agent, nor any of the established routes of qualification and apprenticeship. They will only know you can write by reading you, by feeling the fitness, beauty and power of your sentences as they resound (or fail to) within their own minds. That has always ultimately been the case, of course, but now that essential human connection must do all the work, as the scaffolding of publishing that held up and supported the relationship (and provided cover when it was weak) begins to crumble.

Why write? To express the reality of human capacities. Without that, there can be no art and no politics. The way we live now is designed to encourage us to believe that our only worthwhile capacities are the ones that enable us to buy things. Everything else is “farmed out”, delegated to others. Other people grow our food and cook it, other people make the clothes we wear, often in circumstances we’d rather not hear about. (We delegate out consciences to activists and charities.) We are aggressively entertained by television “creatives” so that we needn’t be creative ourselves, we are disenfranchised politically by our own apathy and the sense – usually correct – that our political class is less powerful than the corporate entities that fund them. Writing - no matter how pitiful or absurd it might feel to do it - allows us to demonstrate the fact that we do still have abilities, ideas and means of communication that are our own, unrelated to our credit cards or social positions. It enables us to see the end of our actions – at least here, on this page. The reason so many people still want to say “I AM A WRITER!” is because it is one the few symbolic roles left in the culture that seems to deliver to people what the culture as a whole offers in theory but obliterates in practice: self-determination and self-expression. Of course, that the job of writing isn’t quite the freedom it appears becomes obvious pretty soon to those who quit their day jobs and sit down to seriously attempt it. And those who do it for the prestige or power they think will follow are soonest disappointed. Even successful writers simply can’t expect any position of real authority in the culture, not any more. You are only as good as the page you are writing, or a page of yours that someone just read. On the Internet your name will likely unhook itself from that page anyway, and it will become simply ‘content’, floating through the world, accessible to anyone and perhaps considered – in the not too distant future – to be written by no-one. (Of this I have personal experience: the sentence most frequently attributed to me online was in fact written by my husband.) How will writers then be paid? I have no idea. Perhaps each citizen will pay a “culture tax”. Maybe writers will seek the protection of patrons once more. Certainly this new diffusion of the writer’s role will need to be attended by a new humility. Novels that speak to their readers like a priest to his congregation belong to another time. How will books sound in the future? Perhaps like a voice you hear whispering in a public bathroom through a hole in the next stall.  Writing that builds itself up from small foundations, that feels home-made and idiosyncratic, less of an epic boast and more of a kind of query. I have this feeling? Do you? I saw this thing. Can I make you see it? I had this thought – can you understand it? I am in this relation to death. Are you? I am in this relation to technology. Are you? I am in this relation to my self, and in this relation to the world. Are you? I am wondering whether writing is possible? Are you? Which is maybe only to say that prose will - in ways both spiritual and vocational - approach the condition of poetry. The role of the great novelist, the all-seeing artist, is a costume from an earlier time that occasionally you see people putting on, trying to convince themselves that it fits, hoping they don’t look too absurd. But no-one can be all-seeing now – there’s just too much to see. Once the world was small: you thought only of the conditions of people in your village, and the next. Now even the simple act of cooking dinner – Broccoli from Kenya, potatoes from Spain, crockery from China - forces you to think of the conditions in which people live all over the world.

For me, now, the writer sits somewhere below artist, closer to artisan – a craftsman, skilled in his task, whose wares are relevant or useless depending on demand, but who continues to make them anyway  - from some absurd inner necessity - even when a huge factory opens up on the other side of town. I have made this chair. Will you sit on it? Stand on it and shout? Smash it up and use it for firewood? A craftsman can hope for all of these things. But he must always allow for the possibility - more comic than tragic - that he is an excellent chair maker who has made a chair surplus to demand, unnecessary in this economy, that nobody wants, or needs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

 

[1] An argument between people online.

[2] 21st century slang for someone who is both your friend and your enemy.

[3] Numbers: another words for metrical verses.

[4] A kind of fabric made of many different pieces. The analogy is to an overwrought, over-written piece of writing.