Monday, 26 July 2010

Thank You, Wikipedia

That spoof video about Newport contains the lyric, "Josie Darby's from Newport/Yes, it's strange we didn't know either/ Thankyou Wikipedia", owning up about where we all get our instant erudition from these days.  In the midst of writing we can within seconds feign feats of recall that were once only available to dons and raconteurs on their second drink.

By the way, I don't mean the Nashville band, The Raconteurs, who are known in Australia as The Saboteurs due to the coincidence of a Queensland group already using the name Raconteurs. (Thank You, Wikipedia.)

By eliminating the need for a shelf of books and a hearty library habit, perhaps at some college, and a nice study and a support system that allows you to  squander time rubbing the bridge of your nose as you look up the slim vol of poetry to get that quote right, Wikipedia has changed, probably, some very fundemental things about what a writer looks and even smells like.

Read an essay from before the time of the internet and you sense a very different beast at work, gnawing at his typewriter trying to make his word count.  This would conventionally be a genuinely erudite soul,  with a wholly different information processing system, the most important features of which are that it is large, external and complex.  So it is not the sort of support structure available to most people. It is the equivalent of the difference between shelled animals and their unshelled equivalents.  These prelasparian writers had to arrange their lives, loves, finances, feeding habits and those of their partners, children, priests, barmen, pets and so on, around the simple fact of their need for an exoskeleton that provided the important personal resource of education and information storage.

To read the work of the pre-internet writer, the 'old type fouled up guy' as Larkin described himself, (thank you, Wikipedia) is to summon an image of the dens those works are conceived in, the napless carpets, the radio with selotaped aerial,  the gin and glasses, discarded pullovers, objects and photo's of ugly friends and of course, the ceiling-high shelves laden with dust and books.

Today, we are free of the need for that placenta-like resource but are, once we have cut the cord, perhaps more naked as a result.  If someone were to question me about The Raconteurs or Philip Larkin at a function, especially a function at which not being exposed as a fraud is in some way important, I would be embarrassed by my one-dimensional knowledge. So, big question, is this a good thing or not?

One's normal response when deciding whether to back or moan about progress is to err on the side of survival.  Yes I am modern and relevant and love the internet to bits.  But in this case I guess it has to be a good thing.  Several generations of writers have been able to moan about Tennyson not having to clear his own plate away, let alone cook, wash up and clean under the rim of whatever kind of toilet bowl 19th Century poets had (Wikipedia is inconclusive).

You don't have to be a writer to envy Seigfried Sassoon's life of leisure. Sassoon did nothing unless he happened to fancy it that morning.  He normally opted for riding or writing, until war gave him something to ride around in and write about.  But modern writers will feel the pain of green-eyedness a little more acutely than some as they attempt to forget their job in Pizza Express for the purposes of finding their novelist's voice.

I went to my old friend Mark Radcliffe's book launch on Saturday.  (Gabriel's Angel - buy it why don't you?)  The event was combined with his 50th birthday party, throwing into sharp relief the fact that I knew him before his voice broke.  I know what he had to go through to get to his first novel.  I remember the prefab house he lived in, the mice droppings in the frying pan in his/our first London flat, the nursing job, the other stuff (we didn't always stay in touch).  He had as much chance of gathering about him the inkstands and photographs of tousle-haired dons on a Cumbrian walking holiday that provide a writer's support system as a pig has of flying when he's already busy with other, more pressing matters.

If it is a little easier today for people to take off before they run out of runway, it has to be good news for the variety and quality of writing available.

Monday, 5 July 2010

What's the point of being nasty to bad writers?

In Terry Eagleton's  decimation of 'Heartbreak'by Craig Raines
a writer, possibly hapless, is set upon without mercy for some very self-regarding prose indeed.  Here are a few examples of the literary coshing. 

'There is, in short, plenty of stuff to keep Pseuds’ Corner busy for a fair few months: ‘Francesca’s fanny was a glorious irrepressible Afro pompon (“to go with my Botswana bottom”)’ might do for a start', 

There is much rustling of the author’s Things I Saw Today that Look A Bit Like Other Things notebook.

''There are pregnant pronouncements such as ‘the myth of our attractiveness survives its destruction’; in the margin the reader is silently invited to inscribe a large approving tick'

'Another character speaks of ‘some … dump in fucking wind-tormented Ireland. I remember going for a walk in one of those places. Got an amazing headache in seconds from the wind parting my fucking hair in a hundred different places. Every which way. I thought I had a brain tumour. Seriously.’ Nobody actually says ‘wind-tormented’, so the poeticism has to be deflated by that ‘fucking’. The notion of the wind parting one’s hair in a hundred different places is another shamefaced piece of poetry, which must be countered by the sham colloquialism of ‘every which way’. 

I admit, that last section makes one vomit mentally, but what is the attack trying to achieve?  It is published in the LRB so sales won't be hurt, only reputation.  So is it to do down the author's prospects?  Or stop him trying.   The book sounds unreadable, yet in some of the examples given you can sense the writer trying to describe something for the first time, without fear of 'the chill wind from Cambridge'.   What would Walt Whitman have written if he'd lived amongst English LIT CRIT creeps waiting to duff him up then roll off together sniggering from the common room twirling their conkers.  No wonder English writers all try to adopt the same bovver boy manner, Amis and Barnes and Faulks and Banks all set their faces into a turdy glare of negativity to announce that theirs is approved literature.
If you think the job of criticism is to show off  how good you are at criticizing things, you're playing to the same imaginary gallery as the Craig Raine.  Art Criticism is at its most beautiful describing the technical detail of the spectacular, not 'My dog could've done that.' 

 Who put you in charge anyway?