Monday, 4 May 2009

Pretentious? Moi?

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.


  1. Life needs humor or we would all go mad. Thank you for the insights into your psyche and for making me laugh, Bill. I know the feeling of having to explain one of my books. It's like describing and defending one of my children. Either love it or keep your mouth shut. :)

  2. Ooh, wow, I do sympathise. A critic has just been complaining about the inertia of one of my characters in Crossing The Line. I want to take her by the shoulders and shake her and go 'Did you miss the WHOLE POINT of this girl? Did you not spot what's going on in her internal existence or did you just NOT PAY ATTENTION?' Yes, sometimes you do desperately want to explain all your little subliminal messages, but nobody has that amount of time... do we? Or should we make time...?
    I was listening to the World Service at 3am, as one does, and there was an author on the Book Club being questioned by a very involved and informed audience. But one young lady asked a detailed q about the significance of doors in the novel, and was the symbolism a difficult thing to get across, and did the whole novel start from the imagery of doors...?
    To which the bewildered novelist said, 'Doors? What doors?'
    I don't know what relevance that has, I'm just trying to put off working.
    And personally, Bill, I can't wait to see what you do with the Hegelian dialectic. Does it involve the orang-utan at all?

  3. Gillian, I'm sorry to report that the orang-utang and I are no longer on speaking terms. I omitted to tell her that I'd broadcast her condition to the world and, apparently, her vet in Arkansas has been struck off the register and is now only qualified to treat budgies with psoriasis.

  4. Bill, Bill, give yourself away. Try and regard Pseuds' Corner as an honour rather than a disgrace. (In other words, it often includes people who really don't deserve the pseud-label - we understand this, so lose that fear!) And...I'd be happy to appear in P'sC. At least it'd mean that some bastard in print was paying my soppy burblings some attention.
    I sympathise with and share your fear of being seen as pretentious, but that fear can be crippling. Nobody who's ever read any of your stuff (including your blog) could imagine you guilty of that heinous crime. You're not just unpretentious but inordinately modest, so any detractors can feck off.

  5. Sheena, I blush. But I also remember the remark made by some politician or other about a colleague - 'He has much to be modest about'.