Monday, July 30, 2007

Reflections on our Times

The UK Sunday Times has been my favourite newspaper for a good many decades. It is not, however, perfect. Far from it.

Madame Arcati has been less than complimentary about some of its staff, and there is the occasional article which is just plain ridiculous -- such as last year's nonsense about publishing.

That being said, one can usually depend on the ST to provide food for thought, if nothing else, and yesterday's issue was up to scratch in that respect.

Bryan Appleyard, for example, is one of the ST's most reliable performers, and yesterday he appeared twice. First, in the magazine, he produced a useful survey of Web 2.0. Nothing terribly startling there, and probably all younger readers, who would feel as if they had had a limb amputated if you took away their BlackBerry, will know it all already. But the average ST reader probably found it enlightening.

Mr Appleyard also featured in the ST's Culture section, and here, I fear, he came sadly astray. He chose to interview an American literary novelist. I will not record here the man's name, because my purpose is not to attack the individual. Rather it is to state (strictly, restate, because some of you will have heard it before) my view about a particular attitude which is embodied in this article.

Our novelist, you see, is of the lit'ry variety. Not only that, but he has attended the most prestigious of American training schools for lit'ry types, namely the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. Mr Appleyard, by the way, regards this as 'what every aspiring young writer in the world should do'. It is, he claims, a step 'so sane, so enviable, and so right'.

Personally I regard going to the Iowa Workshop as nuts, entirely unenviable, and wrong, and I am deeply grateful that I have no personal dealings with anyone who has even thought about doing such a thing. Long-term readers will know that, when faced with another mention of that institution, I groan loudly, make the sign of the cross, and hang garlic round my neck for a few days. But let us contemplate, for a painful moment or two, what attitudes this particular 'creative-writing' course represents.

I submit that the course embodies, and has succeeded in making respectable in many quarters, a form of Me-me-ism which, on a good day, I regard as offensive, childish, and immature, and which on a bad day I regard as both pathetic and contemptible.

All too many writers, whether Iowa trained or not, tend to take themselves very seriously indeed. They hold the view, consciously or unconsciously, that the universe revolves around them, and that everything they do, think, or feel is of vital importance. Not least to interviewers from the Sunday Times.

All of which, I submit, is demonstrably untrue. It is a world-view which should be firmly discouraged. But the ST's Mr Appleyard, to my dismay (for he is normally a sensible chap, when he sticks to what he knows best), seems to accept all this without question.

I have read the interview carefully, though with the exercise of a good deal of will-power to get me through the thing, and nowhere in it can I find a mention of anything so vulgar as a reader.

Now this is odd, not least because in his Web 2.0 piece Mr Appleyard sees full well what is going on. Appleyard quotes the results of some recent research into the attitudes of US college students, to the effect that modern students suffer from an excess of self-esteem.

'Today's college students are more likely to have a feeling of self-importance, to be entitled, and, in general, to be more narcissistic,' said Professor Jean Twenge, lead author of the study. And Appleyard comments on this situation as follows: 'Kids put themselves on Facebook, say how great they are, and then believe it. The problem is that this New Narcissism is utterly without foundation.'

Now, if Appleyard can see that in relation to kids on Facebook, how come he can't see it in relation to literary novelists who think that they too are 'important', and are entitled to be taken at their own valuation?

Of course, Appleyard, were he here, would doubtless tell us that, in the case of the novelist whom he chose to interview, the talent would justify a high level of self-esteem. Possibly. I am not in a position to judge. But what I can say is that there are few areas of life in which the New Narcissism is more evident than among the wannabe literary community. I have the emails to prove it, and Susan Hill has a lot more.

And why should I care, anyway, you may be wondering. Well, because at the very least it will result in wasted effort and deep frustration; and at worst it will end in madness and death.

I was taken to task recently, by a correspondent, for my excessive fondness for commercial fiction as opposed to the literary kind. 'Surely,' he wrote, 'your heart must sink when you contemplate the bestseller list.'

Well yes. Indeed. But between the crass commercialism of Katie Price's Crystal on the one hand, and the extremes of lit'ry nonsense on the other, there is plenty of sensible middle ground.

This is the ground which was occupied fifty years ago (to quote English examples) by the likes of Margery Allingham and Ian Fleming, and is occupied today by such as Rosie Thomas and Susanna Clarke.

Fortunately, we have a splendid example elsewhere in yesterday's ST -- admittedly from a field outside that of the novel -- of a woman who has her feet very firmly on the ground. The actress June Whitfield is probably little known outside the UK (except perhaps for her appearances in Absolutely Fabulous), but for the past fifty years or so she has worked with almost all UK comedians of note, feeding them lines and nobly allowing them to enhance their reputations at her expense.

June describes working with Tony Hancock, a troubled man who later committed suicide. He was always under some stress or strain and was very inclined to say 'What's it all about?' 'Well dear,' says June, 'it's about five minutes and we're on.'

Exactly. Precisely the kind of attitude that I would encourage in would-be novelists. Stop intellectualising and get on with entertaining the reader.

Speaking of which, let us not overlook a one-time would-be novelist who succeeded in reaching precisely the kind of broad, non-literary audience that I would advise all would-be novelists to bear in mind. I speak, of course, of J.K. Rowling.

Now you may well feel about this lady as I feel about Churchill and Kennedy, namely that I have read quite enough about them to last me through this lifetime and several others. But do spare a minute to at least glance at A.N. Wilson's review of the latest and reportedly last Harry Potter.

Mr Wilson is not a man with whom I always agree, but he assuredly made me think about giving young Harry another go. I read the first one long before it was famous, but haven't bothered with the rest, mainly because some of them seemed fearful long. But Wilson quite persuades me that, in the HP sequence, we have a gigantic intellectual achievement and one which I might well appreciate were I to give it the time. He at least is not afraid to admit that he can read popular children's fiction and weep real tears. I take my hat off to him.


Anonymous said...

Good Morning Sir and thank you for your reflections upon the current state of American collegiate litr'ry youth and their abundant narcissism. The arrogance of geekdom smothers so much and as colonialists perhaps we harbour an unconscious envy of the esteemed intellect branded for so long and so well by our mother nation Britain. No quarrel here, we could use a dose of humility quite often. Perhaps you could help me with my understanding of the term "self-esteem" as I am perhaps handicapped by the use of the RWD (Random House World Dictionary). Also, having read Nathaniel Branden's "The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem", I've come to believe that this term, self-esteem, is misused quite often to imply the quantity of self-respect one possesses, as opposed to the quality of one's self-estimations. RWD suggests that it is the proper esteem or regard for one's dignity of character. Thus it becomes a question of the accuracy of one's self-estimation. A person of modest abilities, such as myself, could be said to possess good self-esteem should I express proper or accurate humility, and as such one who possesses poor self-esteem could indicate either arrogance or deprecation, or am I splitting hairs here between connotation and definition?

Anonymous said...

Wilson says it more than well. I don't know why I have yet to read a Potter book. Perhaps I'm afraid I'll feel like a kid again.

Anonymous said...

excellent post, i enjoyed it especially as i first read The Yard's essays on-line today, from his blog, and my gut reaction to his lauding of the creative writing bollocks was to recoil with a catlike hiss of disgust.

To be fair, on a fairly quick read of The Yard's piece, i think he's such a Marilynn Robinson fan that he feels any writer with some talent could learn from her.

For myself i tend to agree with Cormac McCarthy, who lived in (relative) poverty, rejecting grand Creative Writing professorships with the astute "it's a hustle". What i've read of Robinson was marvellous but i've serious doubt about how much anyone can learn about writing from explicit instruction, rather than reading a lot, living a lot, and writing a lot.

Dave Lull said...

Might not Mr Appleyard's 'one simple reason' for applying to the University of Iowa be the opportunity to study with Mrs Robinson, who just happens to teach at the Workshop? If she taught at the University of Wisconsin, I think Mr Appleyard would say attending the University of Wisconsin in order to study with Mrs Robinson is 'what every aspiring young writer in the world should do':

'This is what every aspiring young writer in the world should do, for one simple reason. At Iowa University is the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is Marilynne Robinson, author of two novels, Housekeeping and Gilead, and a collection of essays, The Death of Adam, and not only one of the greatest writers alive, but one of the greatest teachers of writing.'

Anonymous said...

For some enlightening information about the Iowa workshops, I suggest the Introduction to Madison Smartt Bell's Narrative Design. Apparently, a great deal of the pressure to conform to the workshop's style comes not from the instructors, but from the students themselves. Sad.

Anonymous said...

My goodness, read some Potter! She's writing in the tradition of the Inklings, and she's hilarious.

Anonymous said...

Adults' reading Harry, way to go... In 2050 they're filling coloring books...