Monday, September 27, 2004

The necessary distraction: on literary snobbery

In an interview on BBC TV last week, the author Frank Delaney spoke of his hatred of literary snobbery. "I hate it with an abiding passion" he said squirming in a leather armchair. This was prompted by a question about the inspiration for his new "ambitious" book Ireland: a novel. Apparently, Delaney's literary agent had suggested that he become Ireland’s James A Michener. A publisher had expressed interest in the project and - Paddy's your uncle - the book was written. The interviewer wondered (and I'm paraphrasing from poor memory) if this was the move of someone with an eye on the main chance rather than an artistic vision. Delaney was dismissive of the question. "I am a professional writer!" he insisted. "I am at my desk at nine in the morning. I work until one and then from two-thirty until eight." (That’s a long lunch break!). He went on to explain that he writes books for a market and that he hates those who look down on such a profession. Just because a book is aimed at a wide public audience, he said, it doesn't follow that it is of no literary worth. It is difficult to argue with that. How often is a backstory ("Twenty years in the making", "Turned down by 743 publishers", "the last work he ever wrote", and the most contemptuous of the lot: "award-winning") intrinsic to the reception of a work? Why should any of this be relevant? The work is everything. Yet Delaney's words had troubled me.

He didn't say who these snobs were. I got the impression that everyone is meant to know who they are. But I don't know who they are (they tend not to appear on opinion-making TV shows, that's for sure). Who scorns mercenary writing? It can't be me as I earn my living, albeit nominally, by writing. From nine to five-thirty, I click keyboard and mouse (with only an hour for lunch). Admittedly, creating sentences is only a part of it and is distinguishable from every other writer in the company only in its elegance, precision and clarity (don't laugh). However, I don't regard it as literature. It is hack work.

This is not to say that writing borne of necessity can never be a literary achievement. It can. I would go far as to claim that external pressure is necessary for such a work. This pressure can take many forms. For example, Michael Hofmann reports that when the stroke that afflicted his father Gert Hofmann left him unable to read, his wife read his manuscripts aloud to him and he changed them aloud too. This has led to a marked change in his father's late novels: "The sentences and paragraphs are shorter" he writes, "the confrontations more present, the scenes seem to ghost in and out, a bigger role falls to diction, to heckles and interjections, to personality." This is part of what makes Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl a special modern novel.

Necessity's absence is invariably detrimental. When a work has no reason to be completed, it can go on forever: think of Joyce's Finnegans Wake or Harold Brodkey's The Runaway Soul. These were two works so in thrall to the garrulousness of language that completion was really only ever an uncertain abandonment. Perhaps not coincidentally, the fame of each book was probably greater before publication.

Failure and disappointment is inevitable. A literary work is by definition a containment; like Delaney's working hours, there are limits. I can sit at a writing desk all day and write a lot. Something is produced (here it is), but it is always inadequate. Concentrating on the sentences leads me astray. The initial inspiration has been coerced into the familiar territory of critical discourse. I want to write something completely different.

Only leaving the desk can return me to the work. I leave it to seek the great idea that comes to me as the kettle boils, for example, or the sudden sense of possibility as I heave sacks of rubbish onto the pavement ready for collection. I want to be distracted from distraction by distraction. Indeed, this is how I came to this conclusion about Delaney's attitude. As I returned dry plates and mugs to the cupboard, I realised that his commitment to hard and regular work is what feels me with misgivings. While trying to exceed the limits might seem to be "ambitious", it is, instead, merely a form of bad faith. Here, the denial is that of one's lack of freedom.

As I put the knives and forks and spoons in the drawer, I realised (again) that my impulse to transcend my own writing futility was the problem, not the futility itself. All I needed to do, instead, was to seek distraction in the work itself; to make the futility work for me. That’s all. A wonderful sense of possibility returned as soon as I thought that.

Now what fills me with dread is Delaney's professionalism. Distraction becomes the work. Each long day at the desk, and the work’s "ambitious" historical scope, seems to be a means of bypassing the resistance of literature, to exclude its energising force from the work. This in turn perpetuates the myth that literature is a craft to be learned and, until you have learned it and gained the respect of the moneymen and their public, you're not a serious author. Literature is just another branch of our corporate world; it exists only within working hours. Such is the true face of literary snobbery.

It is no coincidence that Delaney failed to include anything by Samuel Beckett in his list of top ten Irish novels; the one great modern Irish novelist who unlearned the craft of literature (he had to) in order to write.

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