Gave a talk/reading last night. Usual meagre attendance, confirming yet again the Catch-22 of ‘Only famous people get big audiences and you need a big audience to get famous’. Not that I particularly want to be famous – that would interfere too seriously with my lethargy and I need to keep my priorities straight. But I’d like lots of people to read my books.
Anyway, it struck me afterwards that talking about one’s own writing is difficult. Because if you start claiming things about your intentions, the ‘meanings’ of your symbols, images, etc., the significance of particular themes, or any of the normal stuff that crops up when people talk about books, you can’t help but sound pretentious. I take my writing seriously. I want it to entertain, amuse if possible but also to say something – usually something pretty trite about how human beings treat one another. I marvel at the resilience of some, admire (with a lump in my throat) the astonishing cheerfulness of others in dire circumstances, deplore the apparent determination of those dickheads who patronise others from some baseless sense of their own superiority. And I do this not just by describing them and their actions and circumstances, but by using other subtextual tricks and juxtapositions to try a bit of subliminal persuasion on the reader. But there, you see? Already, that’s making me sound like a candidate for pseuds’ corner.
So what do you do? Let the writing speak for itself? Yes, of course, but that works best when the reader’s tucked away somewhere with just the book and his/her own imagination. And anyway, if you’re just plucking two or three short extracts from a 350 page novel you need to give each some context. So you say something like ‘Well, in the next hundred pages she realises she’s pregnant by the customs officer so her sentence is commuted to thirty years, her seventeen children are put into care in Leamington Spa and the cosmetic surgery is postponed until the surgeon is released from quarantine. Meanwhile, the three orang-utangs have been recaptured but the green one is found to have syphilis and so Laura’s husband has to retrace its steps in order to … [etc., etc.] … and we rejoin Laura in her cell just after the one-eyed warder has zipped himself up and gone home to his lesbian wife.’ OK, that’s stupid, but it’s much more acceptable to an audience than pointing out how I’ve expanded the imagery, fused abstract and concrete, reinforced a particular theme, inverted ethical conventions. Apart from anything else, whoever heard a reader saying ‘Oh goody, he’s inverted the ethical conventions; I can’t wait to see what he does with the Hegelian dialectic’?
I’m not questioning the reader’s sensitivity to things other than ‘the story’ or his/her ability to operate at several levels of comprehension and appreciation; I’m just saying that I find it difficult to do that when it’s my own books under discussion. That probably reveals something sinister about my psyche, some quivering inadequacy. It also reveals my dilemma. I know life is serious but I find it hard to take things altogether seriously.